Mark Twain In Hartford: The Happy Years

Edited by Henry Darbee

This is the story of twenty happy and productive years in the life of Mark Twain, told by the author himself and by those who knew him. Portions of it were published earlier as a guide to the Mark Twain Memorial, the house now being restored in Hartford, Connecticut, which Twain planned, loved so much, and lost under such tragic circumstances.

Mark Twain Moves to Hartford

When he first came to Hartford in 1868, Mark Twain wrote:

Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief. It is a city of 40,000 inhabitants, and seems to be composed almost entirely of dwelling houses—not shingle-shaped affairs, stood on end and packed together like a “deck” of cards, but massive private hotels, scattered along the broad, straight streets, from fifty all the way up to two hundred yards apart. Each house sits in the midst of about an acre of green grass, or flower beds or ornamental shrubbery, guarded on all sides by the trimmed hedges of arbor-vitae, and by files of huge forest trees that cast a shadow like a thunder-cloud. Some of these stately dwellings are almost buried from sight in parks and forests of these noble trees. Everywhere the eye turns it is blessed with a vision of refreshing green. You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.

He had come to discuss publication of Innocents Abroad with Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company. To his fiancée, Olivia Langdon, he wrote:

I have had a tip-top time, here, for a few days … Puritans are mighty straight-laced and they won’t let me smoke in the parlor, but the Almighty don’t make any better people.

Not long after, he confided to his close friend, Mrs. Fairbanks:

… my future wife wants me to be surrounded by a good moral & religious atmosphere (for I shall unite with the church as soon as I am located), & so she likes the idea of living in Hartford. We could make more money elsewhere, but neither of us are much fired with a mania for money-getting. That is a matter of second-rate, even third-rate importance with us.

In 1871, the year following his marriage, Twain gave up an unprofitable newspaper editorship and moved to Hartford. As his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, explains:

Hartford was precisely what Buffalo in that day was not—a home for the literary man. It held a distinguished group of writers, most of whom the Clemenses already knew. Furthermore, with Bliss as publisher of the Mark Twain books, it held their chief business interests … He finally leased the fine Hooker house on Forest Street, in that pleasant seclusion known as Nook Farm—the literary part of Hartford, which included the residence of Charles Dudley Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe … Clemens and his wife bought a lot for the new home that winter, a fine, sightly piece of land on Farmington Avenue—tableland, sloping down to a pretty stream that wound through the willows and among the trees …

Paine describes the novel plans for Twain’s house:

The plans for the new house were drawn forthwith by that gentle architect Edward Potter, whose art to-day may be considered open to criticism, but not because of any lack of originality. Hartford houses of that period were mainly of the goods-box form of architecture, perfectly square, typifying the commercial pursuits of many of their owners. Potter agreed to get away from this idea, and a radical and even frenzied departure was the result …

To the public, the three-storied house with its profusion of verandas and high-peaked gables, was Mark Twain’s “practical joke.” A contemporary view of it is given in the Hartford Daily Times, March 23, 1874:

Most of the residents of Hartford know that Mr. Samuel L. Clemens, otherwise known as “Mark Twain,” is building a residence on Farmington Avenue, a short distance east of the stone bridge on that thoroughfare. Many of the readers of The Times , doubtless, have had at least an external view of the structure, which already has acquired something beyond a local fame; and such persons, we think, will agree with us in the opinion that it is one of the oddest buildings in the State ever designed for a dwelling, if not in the whole country. …

William Dean Howells, the well-known novelist and editor, recalls a visit to Nook Farm.

In the good fellowship of that cordial neighborhood we had two such days as the ageing sun no longer shines on in his round. There was constant running in and out of friendly houses where the lively hosts and guests called one another by their Christian names or nicknames, and no such vain ceremony as knocking or ringing at doors. Clemens was then building the stately mansion in which he satisfied his love of magnificence as if it had been another sealskin coat, and he was at the crest of the prosperity which enabled him to humor every whim or extravagance.

As the house neared completion, Twain penned the following complaint to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Langdon: