HARTFORD, Conn. A group of us stood outside the Mark Twain house in late September waiting for a tour to begin.
“How many people here would like me to talk about Samuel Langhorne Clemens?” asked the tour guide.
The group giggled.
“That’s right, you know who he is, but I had a lady a few months ago who was incensed she wanted to hear about Mark Twain.”
That story may be apocryphal, but it’s typical tour guide humor that Mark Twain (1835-1910) himself might have appreciated, once or twice at least.
So for the next hour or so, we were treated to an inside look at Twain’s mansion, a lovely home where he and his wife raised their family. It was a happy time for Twain, but the truth be known he did not do a lot of writing in that home. Too busy, too many kids, too many social demands. Instead he completed many of his books at a summer home outside Elmira, N.Y.
By all accounts, Twain and his wife Olivia (“Livy”) Langdon were happily married. They married in 1870, first settling in Buffalo, N.Y., where Sam had become a partner, editor and writer for the daily newspaper the Buffalo Express. While living in Buffalo, their first child, Langdon Clemens was born.
In an effort to be closer to his publisher, Sam moved his family to Hartford, Conn., in 1871. For the first few years Twain rented a house in Nook Farm, a residential area that was home to numerous writers, publishers and other prominent figures. In 1872, his recollections and tall tales from his frontier adventures were published in his book, "Roughing It." That same year his first daughter Susy was born. Sadly, his son died at age 2 from diphtheria.
According to information provided by the docents at the Mark Twain house, his focus in 1873 turned toward social criticism. He and Hartford Courant newspaper publisher Charles Dudley Warner co-wrote “The Gilded Age,” a novel that attacked political corruption, big business and the American obsession with getting rich that seemed to dominate the era. Ironically, a year after its publication, Twain’s elaborate, $40,000, 19-room house on Farmington Avenue was completed. Much of it was paid for by his wife's fortune.
Throughout his career, Twain published more than 30 books and hundreds of short stories and essays and gave lecture tours around the world.
“By the end of his life in 1910, Twain had become known as the quintessential American author having captured in his works the spirit, character and even dialect of a diverse nation. His writing also served to voice his running commentary on American society,” according to a handout.
“Thinly veiled behind the mask of humor and satire, his writing often critiqued social morals, politics and human nature, making his literature a unique reflection of the American experience in the latter part of the nineteenth century, ” read biographical information about the man.
He was an American original, making and losing fortunes, and acting as an eyewitness to history.
During his lifetime, Twain watched a young United States evolve from a nation torn apart by internal conflicts to one of international power. He experienced the country's vast growth and change - from westward expansion to industrialization, the end of slavery, advancements in technology, big government and foreign wars. And along the way, he often had something to say about the changes happening in America.
Twain was a failed silver miner and adventurer who traveled throughout the West as a young man. In 1865, his big break came with the publication of his short story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" in papers across the country. A year later, Twain was hired by the Sacramento Union to visit and report on the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). His writings were so popular that, upon his return, he embarked upon his first lecture tour, which established him as a successful stage performer.
Hired by the Alta California magazine to continue his travel writing from the east, Twain arrived in New York City in 1867. He quickly signed up for a steamship tour of Europe and the Holy Land. His travel letters, full of vivid descriptions and tongue-in-cheek observations, met with such audience approval that they were later reworked into his first book, “The Innocents Abroad, “ in 1869. It was also on this trip that he met his future brother-in-law, Charles Langdon. Langdon reportedly showed Twain a picture of his sister, Olivia, and Twain fell in love at first sight.
His years as a husband and father were the best of his life, according to biographers. His later work turned dark and bitter.
Visiting his Edwardian mansion, seeing the pictures of his wife and daughter, lingering in the dining room where he entertained guests, it’s easy to see why his years in Hartford were his happiest.
Now it's time to reread "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer."
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at email@example.com and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.
For More Information, Visit These Links:
Samuel Langhorne Clemens
The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn.
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