There are so many places and sights to celebrate. You can travel far, far, far, or you can drive a few hours. The next few posts will celebrate a trip I took with my nephew Geoff to Hartford, CT to visit and walk in the footsteps of two truly American writers.
Please look at the image above – Mark Twain’s house where he, his wife, and ultimately his three daughters lived for about 15 years during the “happiest” days of Mark Twain’s life (roughly 1875- 1890) I learned a lot from the tour of the house, which was reinforced by reading Ron Power’s excellent and deep biography of Twain. On the tour, Geoff and I learned that MT’s wife came from money, that she bankrolled the designing/building of the house, that they both loved to entertain in the lavish downstairs (though the upstairs was much more spartan and to the Clemens’s liking. This was the house where Twain worked on his greatest books: Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (though much of the writing was done in a gazebo in his sister-in-law’s house in Elmira, NY where Twain and family loved to visit in the summer). Sam Clemens loved technology. The house was one of the county’s first to have a telephone (who would the person with the first telephone call?). It also had an intercom between rooms/kitchen. It had a burglar alarm (?)
It was tremendous to visit the house, to gaze upon rooms, to gaze out of windows, to gaze, gaze, gaze upon vistas the Twain himself had gazed upon nearly 150 years previously. It is glorious that the house still stands. The neighborhood used to be known as Nook Farms, and it was a very well-to-do intellectually curious community (Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Clemens’s next-door-neighbor). We visited the library, Sam and Livy’s bedroom (with the infamous Venetian bed in place – Sam and Livy liked to sleep with their heads at the foot of the bed so they could gaze at the beautifully carved headboard), and Sam’s study where he did his writing. Huge billiard table occupying much of the floorspace (and on the third floor no less… how did they get it up there? How hot must it have been in the third floor in the summer – but they spent a lot of the summer in Elmira).
Finished Power’s book last night, and it had to end how it ended… Mark Twain had to die. It’s a huge problem with biographies of dead people; the book’s end when the subject under study dies. It happened with Truman Capote (bio read during the winter) and it happened with Gram Parsons (the biography I finished about five weeks ago and Did Not Want It To End – loved the book and was deeply troubled about Gram and his willingness throughout his life to throw it all away). Midway through each of these books the subject, whether he realizes it or not, is going to making the greatest art – contributing the most he is ever going to contribute in his life. The biographer is the puppeteer – he’s the one guiding the reader, telling him it’s just going to keep getting better or it’s just going to keep getting worse (yes, kinda like those VH1 Behind the Music documentaries from years back. (Voiceover) “and if things weren’t bad enough, they were soon to become drastically worse (cut to commercial).”
There are many brilliant passages in Power’s book that I hope to revisit/relate to in future posts. Clemens was deep inside himself, even though he spent so much time in social situations (and investing in truly madcap ideas. The amount of time, money, and energy he put into other people’s losing ventures was extraordinary). But he was often revisiting the charms and the troubles of his youth. In the midst of writing Life on the Mississippi and Huck Finn he returned to the river and to Hannibal and both his words – and Powers – are noteworthy concerning the returning visit many years later.
Back to the house: As mentioned earlier in its day the area was for the rich – those rich in the pocket and rich in ideas. Now the neighborhood looks more like Hackensack (which is not to say there aren’t people “rich” in the same way. Just lots of garden apartment complexes, chuches, restaurants, laundromats. Twain’s house is literally the house on the hill. The grandeur of it in an otherwise hardscrabble neighborhood is pretty stunning in the juxtaposition.