Best-Selling Autobiography Renews Interest In Author And In Hartford's Rich History
By CAROLE GOLDBERG
December 24, 2010
Hartford's most famous author has been gone for a century, but the recently released "Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume I," one of this year's most sought-after books, makes it feel as though he were still strolling along Farmington Avenue.
His home was in Nook Farm, in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, where many of Hartford's cultural elite lived, among them "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Twain's friend the Rev. Joseph H. Twichell, and Courant co-owner Charles Dudley Warner.
Twain writes familiarly about Stowe, his elderly next-door neighbor, who was suffering from dementia: "Her mind had decayed and she was a pathetic creature."
He goes on: "Among the colonists of our neighborhood, the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own will and as she was always softly-slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes."
The book offers glimpses of Twain's life in Hartford from 1871 to 1891, when the city was widely considered America's wealthiest, yet most of its residents were desperately poor. Twain and his family spent thousands a week on entertaining, but a typical housemaid for an affluent family earned just $150 a year.
The autobiography, largely based on Twain's dictations to a secretary, will grow to three volumes. He left strict instructions that some material not be published until 100 years after his death, which occurred in 1910.
"That's a confirmation of Mark Twain's marketing shrewdness — 'You can't see the rest of it 'til I'm dead'" — and a tribute to his 'submerged clientele,' the great general public," says Robert Hirst, general editor and curator of the Mark Twain Project and Papers at the University of California at Berkeley, the team that edited and produced the autobiography. The success of the book, Hirst says, is "the fulfillment of his ideas about the autobiography and of himself."
"You'd have to be insane to expect to be on The New York Times best-sellers list for even one week" with this kind of book, he says. Yet it is now in its eighth week on the list.
The 736-page first volume, published by the University of California Press, weaves back and forth as Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, recalls his rural childhood in Missouri and his experiences as a Mississippi River pilot, printer's assistant, gold miner, journalist, successful author, popular public speaker — and failed businessman. It also recounts his family's life from 1874 to 1891 in their 19-room Farmington Avenue mansion on the then-western edge of the city.
Twain first visited Hartford in 1868, and in 1871, he and his wife, Olivia, rented quarters in Nook Farm from John and Isabella Beecher Hooker before buying land for their own home, designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. There, Twain published "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." The restored home is now part of the Mark Twain House & Museum at 351 Farmington Ave.
A Yankee aristocracy ruled the city at the time, and Twain admired that social circle. He writes about joining the high-minded Monday Evening Club, a men's group that held discussions in their homes on political and philosophical issues — along with cigar- smoking — and the casual Friday Evening Club, which focused on billiards, drinking and even more cigar-smoking.
Twain cheerfully relates buying inexpensive stogies for his guests, which led to a crisis one evening. He told his African American butler, George Griffin, to pass out the cheap cigars, though Griffin warned, "Can't nobody smoke them but you. They kill at 30 yards."
After a good whiff, the distinguished guests headed for the door, smelly cigars in hand, but not for long. Soon afterward, as Twain writes, Griffin reported: "Mr. Clemens, you can start at the front door, and you can go plumb to the upper gate and tread on one of them cigars every time."
It was in his billiards room, which served as Twain's "man cave," that he first heard about the Paige compositor, a revolutionary typesetting machine in which he later invested — unwisely. Its failure led in part to Twain's bankruptcy and the need to move his family to Europe in 1891. After the sudden death from meningitis of their daughter Suzy while she was visiting Hartford in 1896, the Twains never again lived in Hartford.
The compositor, invented by James W. Paige, whom Twain came to see as "an extraordinary compound of business thrift and commercial insanity," was to be operated from a keyboard as though at a piano.
"You can understand its appeal to a former printer's devil," says Kerry Driscoll, an English professor and Twain scholar at St. Joseph College in West Hartford. "It had 18,000 moving parts. What were the chances of it ever working well?
"It was an idea whose time had come, but Paige was not the man to bring it to fruition," Driscoll says.
Also in that billiards room, Twain and his friends learned that Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine, whom they disliked, had won the 1884 Republican presidential nomination to oppose Grover Cleveland.
"The butts of the billiard cues all came down with a bump" when they heard the unwelcome news, Twain writes.
It was conveyed by Griffin via a speaking tube connected to the kitchen, where he got telephone updates from local politicians who in turn got their information about the Chicago convention by telegraph. (See accompanying excerpt.)
The library, whose adjoining conservatory offered a natural stage, was home to amateur theatricals. Twain writes that 84 friends and neighbors attended an adaptation there of his novel "The Prince and the Pauper," for which his wife created the script, designed the costumes and trained the cast.
Life At Nook Farm
Such events were typical of life in Nook Farm, says Katherine Kane, executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford.
"There was the gamut of parties and drinking, just like now," Kane says. "People played croquet and lawn tennis, swam in the Park River, rode bicycles, gardened."
The absence of air conditioning shaped social life, she says. "Doors and windows were always open" in warm weather, which encouraged visits by neighbors that cemented friendships.
Though not as wealthy as the bankers and businessmen at the top of Hartford's hierarchy, Nook Farm residents had a very expensive lifestyle.
"The Clemenses were in full entertaining mode almost every day, spending about $100 a week on food, which would be about $4,000 a week today," says Steve Courtney, author of "Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend" and publicist and publications editor for the Twain House.
At Christmastime, the house was lavishly decorated in Victorian style, with greens on doorways and mantels and a tree hung with paper ornaments, cornucopias and crocheted snowflakes made by Twain's daughters, Suzy, Jean and Clara, who also loved to play carols on the piano and encourage guests to sing along. The family also made gift baskets to give to Hartford's needy.
Yet Twain often felt like an outsider, Courtney says. "He really had a massive inferiority complex, coming from the West and having left school at age 11."
Says Driscoll, "Initially he felt a little boorish compared to Warner and Hooker" and others in Hartford's gentry, but he was transformed into a sophisticated gentleman when the Twains traveled in Europe in the late 1870s. There they bought furniture and artworks, and when they returned, the Twains hired Louis Comfort Tiffany's design firm to beautify the Hartford house.
In Switzerland, Twain bought a device that inflamed his social anxieties, as Driscoll explains in her essay, "Twain's Music Box," in the 2008 anthology "Cosmopolitan Twain."
He agonized for months over choosing the proper music for the music box, a kind of 19th-century iPod, hoping to prove himself genteel and cultured.
In Hartford, Driscoll says, Twain "straddled two worlds and was not sure he really fit in."
Twain chose not to include some of his best comments on Hartford in his autobiography. They came in his 1868 dispatches to the Alta California newspaper in San Francisco and can be found at http://www.twainquotes.com.
He wrote: "I think this is the best built and the handsomest town I have ever seen. They call New England the land of steady habits, and I see the evidence about me that it was not named amiss. ...
"Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief. It is a city of 40,000 inhabitants, and seems to be composed almost entirely of dwelling houses ... massive private hotels, scattered along the broad, straight streets. ... Each house sits in the midst of about an acre of green grass. ... Everywhere the eye turns it is blessed with a vision of refreshing green. You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here."
During the post-Civil War period of economic growth and competitive ostentation that Twain and Warner dubbed "The Gilded Age" in the book they co-wrote about that era, Hartford was flush with manufacturing, banking, insurance and publishing firms and known as America's wealthiest city. That idea sprang from an 1871 article by Charles Hopkins Clark in Scribner's Monthly, in which he assigned monetary value to the city's industries and divided that figure by its population. Clark's accounting may have been arbitrary, but Hartford certainly was booming.
"It was an astonishingly wealthy city. J.P. Morgan was born here, went to Hartford Public High School and later became the one-man equivalent of the Federal Reserve," says Courtney.
"It was the Silicon Valley of the 19th century," says Andrew Walsh, visiting assistant professor of religion at Trinity College and an expert on Hartford's past.
Boston, says Walsh, was making shoes, while Hartford was making firearms and steam boilers and was known for sophisticated manufacturing.
Yet, he points out, "About two-thirds of city dwellers lived in dire poverty. There was no safety net.
"The economy was in a period of great instability, with booms and busts and a need to cut costs all the time," Walsh says. We've re-entered that situation today, he says, adding that Twain's history of being rich and then broke was not unusual for that time.
Finding The Poor
In his Alta California correspondence, Twain also alludes to Hartford's other side:
"To live in this style one must have his bank account, of course. Then, where are the poor of Hartford? I confess I do not know. They are 'corralled,' doubtless — corralled in some unsanctified corner of this paradise whither my feet have not yet wandered, I suppose."
He got to see the poor up close some years later, when Twichell took him to an almshouse in the fields off Albany Avenue.
It was "a reality check," says Courtney. "He said he had never seen anything as bad in the slums of Syria."
There were "wretched hovels for the poor on the East Side," near the Connecticut River, says Peter Baldwin, an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of "Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930."
This area of "small factories and warehouses and tenements was smoky, smelly, noisy and frequently flooded," and it was home to the city's immigrant population, Baldwin says.
Hartford was then divided into "two mega-groups," says Walsh: immigrants and non-immigrant Yankees. From 1850 to 1890, about 70 percent of the newcomers were Irish, with fewer Germans, Italians and Jews, whose numbers would increase beginning in the 1890s.
The city had had a homogenous Yankee culture for about 200 years, says Walsh, but after the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, things changed rapidly.
"The Yankees ran the factories, and the Irish worked there," which suited the preferences of both, Walsh says. Many of the Irish also worked for wealthy families, as did Twain's coachman, Patrick McAleer, of whom Twain writes, "He was the most perfect man in his office that I have ever known."
The black community was small, just 1 percent to 2 percent of city residents. Walsh calls them "Yankees with deep roots in New England."
"It was not a paradise of social equality," he says, but African Americans lived scattered through the city and were not viewed as a threat by the Yankee population.
"But relations between them and the immigrants were terrible, because they were competitors, he says. "Some were better off than the immigrants," and men such as Griffin, Twain's butler, were the first choice for domestic service.
The middle class then was made up of skilled workers, and many rented near the factories in Frog Hollow, says Baldwin.
"Most working-class men couldn't support a family on their wages alone, so a family strategy was necessary, says Walsh. "Kids were pushed into the marketplace very early."
Poor and middle-class women worked after marriage, boarding tenants and performing services such as child care, laundry and sewing. "Everyone had to produce a little income," Walsh says.
Doing laundry was "miserable manual labor," says Baldwin. "Elaborate fashions were a nuisance to wash, and people did not bathe that often then."
Some women were teachers and nurses or held less-skilled factory jobs. Others were insurance company clerks, but "secretary" was still a job title for men.
Main Street was burgeoning as a place to shop for food and clothing, where servants placed orders for later delivery. Many walked to the downtown area, as the dirt roads were hard to navigate, even in carriages. Bicycles were not well-accepted for city use, Baldwin says, because speeders, known as scorchers, "went too fast and were too quiet" for pedestrians used to the warning clip-clop of approaching carriages.
Upper-class women, such as Olivia Clemens, had their own tasks, managing servants and household budgets and making frequent social calls — "stitching together the community," Baldwin says. Rich or poor, "the work of running a home was incredibly demanding."
Twain really liked the lifestyle of leisure here, Driscoll says. "He aspired to its aesthetic and sophisticated style" and missed living here after his financial misadventures forced the family to move to Europe.
In her essay, Driscoll quotes a regret-filled letter Twain wrote in 1895, after briefly returning to Hartford alone: "When I arrived in town I did not want to go near the house. … I said to myself, 'If I may be spared it, I will never live in Hartford again.'"
"But as soon as I entered the front door I was seized with a furious desire to have us all in this house again & right away & never to go outside the grounds anymore forever ... ."
Carole Goldberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at