Long before Will Rogers, Erma Bombeck and Garrison Keillor became household names thanks to their amusing musings, Mark Twain held the nation’s comedic sensibilities in the palm of his hand. No wonder even after a century after his death, he remains a beloved literary icon. One quick jaunt to the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, CT and you can see where Twain (né Samuel Clemens) spent his most successful years writing, entertaining and honing his paternal instincts.
Built in 1874, the 25-room house was Twain’s homestead until 1891. The author spoke fondly of his time living in New England saying it was both the happiest and most productive years of his life. “It is a home – and the word never had so much meaning before,” Twain wrote. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962. Today, over 70,000 visitors make a pilgrimage to tour the late writer’s Mecca and nearby museum. The Victorian Picturesque Gothic house has lovingly been refurbished thanks to several multi-million dollar renovations – and gives visitors a one-of-a-kind glimpse into his charmed world. The tour breathes life in to Twain, his family and all the behind-the-scenes antics.
“Yes, he was an author, but he made his bread and butter as a lecturer,” said the astute young lady giving the hour-long walking tour. “He was kind of like the nation’s first stand-up comedian.” Seems Twain was also big on entertaining – especially around the holidays. One of the more ornate rooms is the drawing room – located just off the front door. Around Christmas time, the drawing room would welcome a new wave of guests about every thirty minutes. Gifts and libations would often be shared (ironic because minus the gifts and libations, that’s still the case today.)
Twain’s popularity has never waned. In the museum, you’ll find a slew of books from other authors paying homage to Twain. “His witty observances and social commentary are still as on-point today as they were over a century ago,” said Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communication and Special Programs. “Mark Twain shows us how little we have changed.”
Twain wrote many of his well-known books at home. His classic Tom Sawyer was written on the first floor, but he found he was easily distracted – so he moved his work upstairs to his prized billiard room. There – on the quieter third floor -- he constructed the Prince and the Pauper. “The billiard room is the culmination of your tour – and for many people it’s likely the highpoint,” said Lamarre.
The museum itself offers visitors a chance to learn more about Twain’s legacy – and features both permanent and rotating exhibits. Walls throughout the museum are etched with some of his most famous quotations – including one of his most famous, “Travel is fatal to prejudice”. The newest exhibit – "Mark Twain's Journeys Abroad" – spotlights rare artifacts and artwork, some from the museum's own collection and others loaned by other museums and archives of Twain’s well-known voyages. From elaborate costumes to beloved portraits – it’s all on display.
Twain was known for his worldly excursions – at a time when travel was considered a luxury. But he was quick to point out no place compared to his custom-built Hartford home. Twain wrote, “How ugly‚ tasteless‚ repulsive are all the domestic interiors I have ever seen in Europe compared with the perfect taste of this ground floor.”
The house has gotten plenty of buzz and accolades throughout the years. National Geographic selected us one of the ‘Top Ten Historic Homes in the World’ – not just the East Coast,” said Lamarre. “By the way, the other two – Mount Vernon and Monticello are also on the East Coast. Take that, West Coast!”
Visitors are often agog at the living time capsule – a true testament to the curators’ painstaking recreations in each room. Turns out, Twain found interior design frustrating – so his wife Livy’s tastes and flair for decorating have been brought back to life.
“Having worked here over six years, I never get tired of introducing the house to a group of first-timers,” said Lamarre. “The house is spectacular, but combined with the stories of the family that lived in it, the experience goes to another level. Our guides have different twists on the tour they give, so each experience of the house is unique.”
Twain’s legacy lives on. The house’s tasteful decadence and opulence is preserved for generations to come. Appropriate because as the preeminent author once so deftly put it, “I was born modest‚ but it didn’t last.”
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Want to know more of the house or read some of Mark Twain's pieces? Books and music available here: