Tuesday, October 27, 2009

11: Hartford: Writers in the neighborhood

Once upon a time, Hartford, Connecticut, was a happening place. Really, I’m not kidding—it was known for something other than insurance. Think about it: Samuel Clemens a/k/a Mark Twain chose to live here. Turns out that in the mid-nineteenth century Hartford was a hub of American publishing. It was also the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. And some of the more interesting wealthy folk lived in a neighborhood called Nook Farm—including Harriet Beecher Stowe. The neighborhood houses, most designed by prominent architects of the day, touted the style of the Gilded Age. Clemens visited Hartford and Nook Farm and set his sights on living there. He knew a good thing when he saw it.

The Hartford trek was probably the fullest day trip of the bunch. There’s an awful lot to see and learn about these two literary lions. But they make for fascinating company. And speaking of company, I had three friends along for this expedition: Gail, Jeff and Nicky.

Our day started at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. We had time before our guided tour to watch a video presentation and poke around the exhibit in the visitor center. Stowe is, of course, best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she was a prolific and wide-ranging writer who produced a book a year for thirty years.

Stowe was already famous when she moved to the neighborhood. A Connecticut native, she had lived a handful of other places—moving for husband Calvin Stowe’s jobs as a minister and professor of religion—by the time she returned to Hartford upon Calvin’s retirement. Their first home in the city was a large, expensive villa; they sold that in 1870 and built the more practical house in Nook Farm.

There were a dozen of us following our tour guide Michelle through the rooms. Michelle looked to be college aged or just out, and she was well versed in information about Stowe’s life. On most of my visits (with a small number of memorable exceptions) I’ve met older tour guides—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s heartening to see some youthful pursuers of history.

She got her energetic activism from her father Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England preacher. Beecher expected and inspired his children to make a difference in the world. All seven of the Beecher boys became ministers, and Harriet and two of her sisters became authors and educators. Young Harriet was well educated at the Hartford Female Seminary, which had been established by her older sister Catherine, and later taught there herself. She moved with her family to Cincinnati in 1832 and taught at another women’s school with her sister.

After she married Harriet left teaching and turned her energies to writing—she had already published several short stories in a Cincinnati magazine. Soon her stories and essays gained acceptance in national publications. In 1845 she wrote “Immediate Emancipation” on the subject of slavery. Abolitionism was a gnarly subject in the Beecher family: Lyman was conservative in his approach while his sons were all radical. With this essay Harriet cast her lot with her brothers.

And she shook things up a lot more five years later with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she wrote in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The story appeared originally in serialized form, and after its runaway success, it was compiled and printed in book form. A few years later she published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to respond to critics of the story who claimed that she fabricated or exaggerated the conditions she described. (Beyond writing about slavery, Stowe had been a hands-on abolitionist at least once. In Cincinnati when one of their servants revealed that she was in fact a runaway slave, Stowe and her husband helped the woman flee farther north on the Underground Railroad.)

Popular response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was astounding. It became an international bestseller—translated into twenty-two languages in the next eight years—and was outsold only by the Bible. Not bad for a first novel. Nineteenth century fans were just as eager as those today to get their hands on tie-in merchandise. Pitchers, china sets, candelabra, wallpaper—Uncle Tom, Eliza, Topsy and Little Eva were everywhere. And dramatic presentations of the story, commonly known at “Tom shows” flourished.

Shortly before the Stowes moved to Nook Farm, Harriet collaborated with her sister Catherine on another book that became very influential—but in a very different way. The American Woman’s Home was a practical guide to home economics, and some of the ideas they presented can be seen in action in the house—especially the setup of the kitchen. Beecher and Stowe advocated for a centrally located workspace (lots of kitchens these days have a central island thanks to these gals), counter tops with storage underneath and shelves located in different areas of the kitchen to store the items that were used in each area. Efficient.

Talk of kitchens made me think of food, and thinking of food made me hungry. Fortunately, the visit to the kitchen was near the end of the tour, and off we went to lunch at The Pond House in nearby Elizabeth Park. The day was just warm enough for us to eat outside with a view of said pond and the variety of birdlife hanging out there. Because it was just warm enough for outdoor dining, we started off with mulled cider. We were evenly split on entrées: two salmon burgers and two roasted pear salads. (Let me just say the roasted pear was stuff with melty Gorgonzola. Take a moment.) But we had to go three ways (with one abstention) on desserts because they were so creative: apple flatbread, plum shortcake and deconstructed cheesecake. Delicious all around.

We headed back to the Nook Farm neighborhood to the Mark Twain House and Museum. I hadn’t visited the house for years, way before the new museum center was built. Okay, so it may have been expensive, but it’s also impressive. It took me most of the afternoon to read my way through the exhibits before and after our house tour. (I discovered more than a few things I didn’t know about the man, and let’s just say I’ll be digging away at a few things to satisfy my curiosity.) As a matter of full disclosure: I am a devoted Twain fan.

I must not be the only one as there were fifteen people in our tour group. (The group included one who tended to wander—and make random comments—which presented a challenge to our tour guide.) Steve, said tour guide, was also a Twain fan (an illustration of that later) and very knowledgeable. With all the available material a tour of the Clemenses’ house could last for hours—the Gilded Age architectural design is detailed and fascinating and worth plenty of study on its own. Unlike Stowe, who had already found fame and fortune when she came to Nook Farm, Clemens was in the early stages of his career when he decided he’d like to live in this exclusive neighborhood. Fortunately, his father-in-law was already wealthy and put up the money to build the house—approximately $45,000 ($1.5 million in today’s equivalent).

Mr. and Mrs. Clemens (Livy) settled into the new mansion with their young family. Their first child, a son named Langdon had died of diphtheria at nineteen months, but they had two little girls when they moved in and welcomed a third several years later. For all its impressive décor, the house was a family home. The girls—Susy, Clara and Jean—entertained guests with amateur theatrics in the front parlor (Susy was the playwright) and played “jungle” in the conservatory with the butler acting as a lion or tiger and star turns by papa as an elephant. They also liked to play with the angels on their parents’ bedstead. The removable carvings were often dressed up and cuddled like dolls with the house rule that they be returned to their proper place by bedtime.

Many of Mark Twain’s famous “children” also grew up in this house. He wrote his major works during the seventeen years he lived here, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, appropriately, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he originally conceived as a simple sequel to Tom Sawyer turned into something quite different after he traveled down the Mississippi River in 1882 while researching Life on the Mississippi. The failures of Reconstruction and the living conditions of southern African-Americans that he witnessed inspired him to raise the bar for Huck’s adventures, and made the novel a much more complex story than a simple coming-of-age tale. The complexity and the controversy the book has long generated are what make it irresistible and enduring. I’m sure that’s what attracted Jon Clinch when he took on the insane task of writing Finn (2007), a novel that tells the story of Huck’s father. (No whitewashing of fences here; it’s a dark tale.)

At the top of the house is the billiard room/writing room where the creative juices—and other liquids, I’m sure—flowed. The billiard table at the center of the room, rather than the smaller desk in the corner, was where Clemens spread out his manuscripts to edit them. My imagination senses creative energy and cigar smoke still hanging in the air. I think Steve, our tour guide, feels the same; as he describes the room and talks about the masterpieces Clemens wrote here his voice goes soft, and he admits, “It makes me almost choke up when I come into this room.”

That pretty much says it.

1 comment:

  1. The Mark Twain house is a fascinating place. My brother and I stopped there many years ago and I have odd bits of memory about the house including the way they were trying to replicated the original wall paper! I also have a memory that on the way to Hartford we drove though one of the worst rainstorms I'd ever experienced so that we had to stop the car and wait for the storm to let up.