Posted on November 28th, 2016
A brass mosque lamp dangles from the ceiling. Its cut glass ornaments glitter in the same soft light that glows on the sparkling metallic paint stenciled into a Moorish pattern on the dark walls. This distinctly Islamic interior is not from an ancient mosque in the Middle East, however. This is a visitor’s first impression of the home of most distinctly Western and American of writers, Mark Twain.
How do his objects show a different Twain from the one we normally imagine?
In 1878, a London newspaper perfectly described how the public identity of Mark Twain did not chime with the way he lived at home. It wrote that “those who knew him as the author of The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It are apt to imagine he is a frontier joker…If you see him in his charming home in Hartford…surrounded with objects which taste and wealth can procure, you feel that such a conception has been erroneous.” It noted “exquisite tiles and mosaics,” not items normally associated with a writer defined, in the public mind, by the Mississippi River. This sense increased from 1881, with the decoration of the public areas of the house by the Associated Artists—a group of decorators and designers organized by Louis Comfort Tiffany that included the noted artists Candace Wheeler, Lockwood de Forest, and Samuel Colman. A circuit of the ground floor went from the Moorish front hall to a pink and silver drawing room evoking India to an Asian dining room and ended in a green and gold Persian library. Because, naturally, nothing says “Mark Twain” like a Persian library…right?
Well, perhaps a Persian library says “Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”
The old saying “Who is he when he’s at home?” applies to Mark Twain more clearly than to any other author. In the public mind, Mark Twain is as much a character as Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. He’s a drawling, wry, Southern funny man, not the New England mansion-owner and business man that Samuel Clemens saw himself as being.
We need his objects to tell us this story. If we read his writing alone, the voice that comes through is the one that lectured on platforms around the country and called from the wheel of a steamboat in answer to the leadsman’s cry of “mark twain!” measuring the depth of the water. It is not one we would naturally think belongs in an elegant, 25-room New England mansion, with Eastlake furniture and Venetian planters, expensive pianos and ornate Swiss carved clocks. Twain’s voice animated his short stories not only on the public platforms of the newly-admitted Western states, but also for Hartford’s elite Monday Evening Club. This select essay-reading clique of scholars, lawyers, journalists, and clergymen heard drafts of his stories in the well-furnished parlors of suburban Hartford, where the crackle of the fireplace substituted for the applause of the crowd. Twain’s voice, which had argued with Nevada miners, now argued with the Boston editor William Dean Howells until the early morning, soothed by hot Scotch and cigars. Unlike in Nevada, however, in Connecticut Howells could stagger away from the library fire burning beneath a mantelpiece shipped back to Hartford from a Scottish castle and into a mahogany bed set with Minton tile.
It was not only Howells who stayed in that mahogany bed, but other nineteenth-century writers and public figures. Some of these were anchors of New England’s literary establishment, such as Howells and the poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich. But others were iconic Western authors, such as Bret Harte, and the elegant Southern writer Grace King, as well as the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. How many “frontier jokers” hosted guests like these?
The ground floor guest suite—called “the mahogany room” by the Clemens family—and its custom-built furniture were a central part of life in the house at 351 Farmington Avenue. The elegance of these rooms shows how settled the once-itinerant Twain had become, and is a testament to the literary success that funded such a project. Guests were frequent and dinner parties near-constant, and a new phase of American literature emerged in the flow of words and wine around the dining room, library, and mahogany guest rooms. The history of these rooms is the history of new ideas about America: new books that defined who we were, and, more importantly, who we wanted to be.
The private Samuel Clemens and the public Mark Twain were not incompatible to the man. They are only incompatible in our public mind. Seeing how he lived, and what he owned, changes our sense of his literature. Mark Twain goes from being an authentic chronicler of a pure, Western America to a canny Northeastern writer filtering his Western boyhood into profit. He was a family man trying to keep food on the impressive walnut table given to him by his father-in-law: itself possibly a reminder of the lifestyle expected by his new wife. America in the aftermath of the Civil War was wealthy, corrupt, anxious, industrializing, and nostalgic for a simpler, rural past. A writer ensconced in a stunning mansion in an industrial Northern city, crafting tales about a simple Missouri boyhood, fits the moment perfectly. And we are only able to see this by understanding Samuel Clemens through his home, and not just Mark Twain through his writing. We need The Mark Twain House to understand both.
Director of Education
The Mark Twain House & Museum
Samuel and Olivia Clemens’s mosque lamp, Venetian jardinière, Scottish mantelpiece, and Lucerne clock are all on display at The Mark Twain House & Museum. Their mahogany guest bed and mirrored bureau will be on display when our Mahogany Guest Suite opens to the public on December 4, 2016. Its restoration was made possible by a bond grant from the State of Connecticut awarded in 2014.