Hannah Rose

Hannah Rose, Writing Intern

February 2018

In 1871, having traveled the United States from coast to coast, explored the Sandwich Islands, Africa, much of Europe, and the Mediterranean, Mark Twain still found Hartford, Connecticut a handsome city. Drawn to the population of intellectuals in the area, he eventually settled into the western edge of Hartford on Farmington Avenue. The Nook Farm neighborhood was home to influential characters such as Senator Francis Gillette, Elisha Bliss, Isabella Hooker, Noah Webster, Charles Dudley Warner, and, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). After purchasing a share in The Hartford Courant newspaper, Sam Clemens said, “All I should get for it would be the pleasure of living in Hartford among a most delightful society, and one in which [Livy] and I both would be supremely satisfied.”

I moved to Hartford at 19 years old; young, broke, and obviously on the verge of greatness. I lived on the edge of the historic West End in a two-bedroom, top-floor apartment with three roommates and a couple of frequently disgruntled cats. My front yard was a square of grass and a path of cracked cement. Two unevenly paved streets ran in front of my dilapidated multi-family home, separated by a median kept up by a local garden club. My back yard was a square of asphalt, bordered by a tall, ugly fence separating me from dogs that barked all night long by yellowed streetlights more nefarious than illuminating. I didn’t have a car at the time and used public transportation to get around.

The walk from my apartment to the bus stop cleared my head and woke me up, especially in crisp autumn and on snowy winter mornings. Every day I took time during my commute to write. Some pages held a tally of my financial incomes and outcomes, to-do lists, receipts, and assignments. Most of the pages held lines of poetry, character sketches, storylines, and descriptions of city spaces.

Leaning my head against the bus window, riding up and down Farmington Avenue, I wondered about the lives walking past and the dramas grown in the aged, brick buildings. Countless stories are tucked between these avenues, whistle through the trees of Elizabeth Park, and likely thrummed in consonance with the din of Colt’s factories. I passed time on the bus route filling pages with my imagination, my observations, and the many unique characters I met between point A and point B. It was an important time for my writing and myself.

Hartford was a cauldron of manufacturing, invention, publishing, and activism in the late nineteenth century. It makes sense Mark Twain settled here to create something that would last. The inhabitants surrounding his Hartford home were all in the market to make an impact, and neither I, nor Twain, suffered a shortage of characters or inspiring company while living here.

At the time of Twain’s move to Hartford there were two dozen book publishers in the area. His first visit to Hartford propelled negotiations with Elisha Bliss, head of the American Publishing Company, who distributed Innocents Abroad. The American Publishing company also printed The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, a novel that proved successful for co-authors Twain and his friend Charles D. Warner and gave the era its enduring nickname.

Charles Dudley Warner, one of the earliest settlers of the West End, moved to the Nook Farm neighborhood in 1860. He relocated from Chicago, leaving his law practice to dive into the publishing business. He was the associate editor of The Evening Press until it merged with The Hartford Courant, and he then took the role of editor.

Warner and Twain, after enduring their wives’ taunting, decided to co-author the novel that would end up naming an era. The Gilded Age satirizes capitalism in the post-Civil War era. Both writers had personal experience with corruption in America; Mark Twain, while a Washington correspondent, covered President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, and Warner, as a former engineer, knew of railroad companies’ using Congressional appropriations to bribe politicians. Written in Hartford, The Gilded Age was Twain’s, and Warner’s, first novel.

Isabella Beecher Hooker, a passionate suffragist and sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe, also lived at Nook Farm. In fact, the Hooker and Gillette families were among the first homesteads that formed the Nook Farm Literary Colony. Shamelessly public about her support of women’s rights to vote and to own property, Isabella founded the Connecticut Women’s Association and Society for the Study of Political Science. Working closely with leading figures in the early women’s rights movement such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Hooker played a key role in the eventual passing of legislature that brought women closer to equality.

But Harriet Beecher Stowe remains the most famous of Twain’s neighbors. Another purebred Nutmegger like Webster, her controversial abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin energized the anti-slavery movement in America. After the novel’s publication, President Abraham Lincoln famously said, upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

It is remarkable how Mark Twain’s home has been so well restored, preserved, and revered as a historic landmark not only for Connecticut, but for the nation. I know the feeling of awe when looking at the grand and accommodating desk brought into the house for such a renowned author like Mark Twain, but in truth, he didn’t work much at this huge, majestic desk. Easily distracted, he couldn’t face the billiards table. Instead, he worked at this much smaller desk, shoved in the corner and outfitted with a lamp and an ashtray. It was at this much smaller desk in the Hartford home that Twain wrote some of his most influential and well-known works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Where you write does make a difference.

I wonder, and have wondered plenty of times before, if someone a hundred years from now sitting on an eroded stone bench outside of a dilapidated, or perhaps renovated, Constitution Plaza will think about me, as a youth, writing here. Sharing the cold slab of rock with other bus-riders, pigeon poop, and spilled coffee, I wonder whether anyone but me will recall my bare hands shaking in the winter, trying to keep a grip on my pen? With the wind cutting down between the buildings, as I waited for the I-84 East bus, sometimes the ink in my pen slowed and I had to roll the pen between my palms like a Boy Scout trying to make a fire to get the flow going again—but my muses never ceased.

Will someone read my account of being given a small pink rosebud from a homeless man on the sidewalk, neither of us speaking a word? Or the Spanish-speaking, gray-haired woman who approached me, uncrossed my arms on a sunny day, and spoke with animated flying hands? The only words I understood were “para Dios” as she reached up to the sky, folded her hands in prayer, and kept walking.

I do most of my editing and revising from my distressed, red, crooked kitchen table. Will a schoolkid one day be scolded for reaching out to touch my desk? Will anyone look up at the Carriage House from the parking lot of The Mark Twain House & Museum, point, and exclaim, That’s where the intern writes! I doubt it.

Whether anyone connects with my memories or not, it’s clear our environment, and these small moments within it, do shape us.

In Twain’s library, a velvet-covered chair faces out a window at the back of the house looking down over Farmington Avenue. Twain’s butler George Griffin, portrayed by Living History actor Tom Raines, tells a story of catching the writer seated and facing the city, quietly contemplating the falling snow and array of glistening, crystalized branches, which absorbed the attention of the entire family. Susy Clemens said she often saw tears come to her father’s eyes, “for great beauty overwhelmed and moved him.” I, too, have been affected by scenes of Hartford; fluorescent graffiti decorating underpasses, thick fog hiding the tops of the Gold Building and Traveler’s Tower, and a crew of youths popping wheelies on their bicycles down Main Street the first day the temperature tops 50 degrees.

When life puts characters in your way, you write about them. Put them in your stories. George Griffin, who worked for the Clemens family for almost 20 years, is believed to be the inspiration for Twain’s character Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Inspiration comes in myriad forms: a girl on a bus, or an employee like Griffin. Writers are packrats for details of architecture, wardrobe, landscape, color, pattern, and different voices. All these things are subject to change from coast to coast of any country, from block to block in any city. So, as Mark Twain and I have moved around the world and taken in as much ink as our notebooks’ pages could carry, we both agree Hartford holds a special strain of creative grist.