December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
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:
I have been bullyragged all day by the builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard-table (and has left the balls in New York), by the wildcat who is sodding the ground and finishing the driveway (after the sun went down), by a book agent, whose body is in the back yard and the coroner notified. Just think of this thing going on the whole day long, and I am a man who loathes details with all my heart!
The Nook Farm Group
Moncure D. Conway, clergyman and author, wrote:
Every day we saw Charles Dudley Warner [the writer who collaborated with Twain on The Gilded Age ] and his wife, near neighbors, and in the evening Rev. Dr. Twichell came in. In no country have I met a more delightful man in conversation than Twichell, and his ministerial adventures if printed would add a rich volume to the library of American humor. Mrs. Clemens was not only beautiful but a gracious hostess; her clear candid eyes saw everything, her tact was perfect, and if she entered, the great strong Mark in his stormiest mood would alight as if a gentle bird in her hand.
George P. Lathrop told of an evening with Twain’s neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe:
One most agreeable memory will long remain with me, of an evening spent in Mrs. Stowe’s company at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clemens. Among other things there was after-dinner talk of the days preceding the war, and of the “underground railroad” … Mrs. Stowe gave her reminiscences of exciting incidents in her life on the Ohio border at that time, and told of the frightful letters she received from the South after publishing her great novel [ Uncle Tom’s Cabin ] … To give an idea of the extremes to which these missives proceeded, Mrs. Stowe mentioned that one of them, duly forwarded to her by United States mail, enclosed a negro’s ear!
Katy Leary, Mrs. Clemens’ maid, recalled Mrs. Stowe’s more eccentric moments:
She used to come to the Clemens a great deal in the old Hartford days. She kind of lost her mind a little bit when she got older, but she was very nice. She used to go out every day for a walk and every one she’d meet, she’d stop and talk with them very pleasant and ask them if they’d read her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin , and some of them would have a blank face on, and didn’t know what she was talking about. “Really,” she’d say, “you should read it. What’s your name and address? I’ll write to my publishers and have them send you a copy right away.” Then, of course, everybody would say they hadn’t read it, because they all wanted one of them books free ! She used to write her autograph in all her books, and her autograph was: “Love the Lord and do good.” That’s pretty, ain’t it? “Love the Lord and do good.”
In their huge new establishment, the Clemenses had a staff of seven servants, some of whom were described by Clara, Twain’s second daughter:
Our butler, George, was colored and full of personality. He had come one day to wash windows and remained for eighteen years. Everyone in the family liked him, although the only time he looked after anyone’s needs at the table was when a large company of guests were invited to dine. On such occasions he could rise to great heights of professional service and throb with feverish excitement, as if he were acting a big role on the stage. When only members of the family were seated at table, however, he preferred listening to the conversation to passing them food. He explained that the intellectual inspiration he received in the dining-room saved him from the bad effects of life in the inferior atmosphere of the kitchen. Often did we hear a prompt laugh filling the room from a dark figure at ease against the wall, before the rest of us at table had expressed our amusement at one of Father’s remarks. George was a great addition to the family and afforded Father almost as much amusement as Father did George.
Another pronounced character in the household was the coachman [Patrick McAleer]. He persuaded me that if I curried the calf every morning and put a saddle and bridle on him he would turn into a horse. The idea seemed marvelous to me and I was always ready to believe in miracles, even at the age of six. …
A third servant in the house with plenty of imagination was Mother’s maid, Katy Leary. She and the butler used to fight in such picturesque language that Father often threatened to put them in print. Yet, in spite of the descriptive names they called each other when quarreling, they were at other times the best of friends.
Katy Leary gave a below-stairs view of the daily routine:
Well, the day would begin like this : We had breakfast about half-past seven, and at that time the family—meaning Mr. and Mrs. Clemens—never came down for their breakfast till about eleven o’clock. They didn’t get up so early, but I used to go in when Mrs. Clemens would ring for me and brushed her hair and helped her dress and then they would come down to breakfast say about eleven o’clock, and then Mr. Clemens (he never eat any lunch, you know), he’d go to his billiard room to write. He left strict orders not to have anybody disturb him—oh, for nothing! Some days he worked harder than others; but every day not to disturb him as he was a very busy writer. Well, he would appear again about half-past five (they had dinner at six o’clock in those days). He’d come down and get ready for dinner and Mrs. Clemens would get ready too. Mrs. Clemens always put on a lovely dress for dinner, even when we was alone, and they always had music during dinner. They had a music box in the hall, and George would set that going at dinner every day. Played nine pieces, that music box did; and he always set it going every night. They brought it from Geneva, and it was wonderful. It was foreign. It used to play all by itself—it wasn’t like a Victrola, you know. It just went with a crank.
A Houseful of Talent
Mrs. Clemens’ nephew, Jervis Langdon, described a long-established practice in the Clemens household:
One of the pleasantest neighborhood customs that grew up in the Hartford home was the gathering, of an evening, around the library fire while Mr. Clemens read aloud. He liked stirring poetry, which he read admirably, sometimes rousing his little audience to excitement and cheers. Shakespeare remained, by whichever name, the love of his heart, but he made his own unique programs, and once mischievously slipped between two of the deathless sonnets a particularly charming reading of a little set of verses accidentally come into his hands, that had been painstakingly written for a school periodical by one of the children.
The listeners invariably demanded at the end three favorites, “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” “Up at a Villa, Down in the City,” and for climax, “The Battle of Naseby,” which he delivered with supreme eloquence and emotion.
But Twain was not the only performer in the household. In his autobiography, he told of his children’s early dramatic endeavors:
Susy [Twain’s oldest daughter] and her nearest neighbor, Margaret Warner, often devised tragedies and played them in the school room, with little Jean’s help—with closed doors—no admission to anybody. The chief characters were always a couple of queens, with a quarrel in stock—historical when possible, but a quarrel anyway, even if it had to be a work of the imagination. Jean always had one function—only one. She sat at a little table about a foot high and drafted death warrants for these queens to sign. In the course of time they completely wore out Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots—also all of Mrs. Clemens’s gowns that they could get hold of—for nothing charmed these monarchs like having four or five feet of gown dragging on the floor behind. Mrs. Clemens and I spied upon them more than once, which was treacherous conduct—but I don’t think we very seriously minded that. It was grand to see the queens stride back and forth and reproach each other in three-or-four-syllable words dripping with blood; and it was pretty to see how tranquil Jean was through it all. Familiarity with daily death and carnage had hardened her to crime and suffering in all their forms, and they were no longer able to hasten her pulse by a beat. Sometimes when there was a long interval between death warrants she even leaned her head on her table and went to sleep. …
Clara Clemens remembered how her father sometimes took part in charades in the parlor:
We were trying to enact the story of Hero and Leander. Mark Twain played the part of the impassioned lover obliged to swim across the Hellespont to snatch a kiss from his sweetheart on the other side of the foaming water. For this scene Father wore a bathing-suit, a straw hat tied under his chin with a big bow, and a hot-water bottle slung around his chest.
Katy Leary tells of the first dramatization of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper:
Of all the Clemens children, Susy was perhaps the most talented, as Clara recognized:
My elder sister, Susy … was altogether the genius among the children. She had marked talent for writing and composed a charming little play when she was not more than fourteen or fifteen. We performed it one Thanksgiving night for a large company of invited friends, and all agreed that it was full of originality.
Susy at thirteen worked on a biography of her famous father, which began:
We are a very happy family. We consist of Papa, Mamma, Jean, Clara and me. It is papa I am writing about, and I shall have no trouble in not knowing what to say about him, as he is a very striking character.
Papa’s appearance has been described many times, but very incorrectly. He has beautiful gray hair, not any too thick or any too long, but just right; a Roman nose, which greatly improves the beauty of his features; kind blue eyes, and a small mustache. He has a very good figure—in short, he is an extraordinarily fine looking man. All his features are perfect, except that he hasn’t extraordinary teeth. His complexion is very fair, and he doesn’t ware a beard. He is a very good man and a very funny one. He has got a temper, but we all of us have in this family. He is the loveliest man I ever saw or ever hope to see—and oh, so absent-minded. He does tell perfectly delightful stories. Clara and I used to sit on each arm of his chair and listen while he told us stories about the pictures on the wall. …
At another time she wrote:
He is as much of a philosopher as anything, I think. I think he could have done a great deal in this direction if he had studied while young, for he seems to enjoy reasoning out things, no matter what; in a great many such directions he has greater ability than in the gifts which have made him famous.
Mark Twain at Work
Twain found his house admirable for family life and entertaining, but a difficult one in which to write—even letters. He wrote to Mrs. Fairbanks:
As soon as you departed, Livy arranged a writing table near the conservatory, so that I could have the writing conveniences I had been wailing about so much. She put a box, called a writing desk, on this table—a box which opens in the middle & discloses two closed lids; inside of these lids are paper, pen, stamps, ink, & stamped envelopes. To get either of those lids open pushes patience to the verge of profanity, & then you find that the article you want is under the other lid. She put a delicate glass vase on top of that box & arranged pots of flowers round about it. Lastly she leaned a large picture up against the front of the table. Then she stood off & beamed upon her work & observed, with the Almighty, that it was “good.” So she went aloft to her nap with a satisfied heart & a soul at peace. When she returned, two hours later, I had accomplished a letter, & the evidences of it were all around. The large picture has gone to the shop to be re-framed, the writing desk has returned to the devil from whom it must have come, but the flower pots & the glass vase are beyond the help of man. … Since that day I have gone back to precarious letter-writing, with a pencil, upon encumbered surfaces & under harassment & persecution, as before. But convenience me no more women’s conveniences, for I will none of them.
He found professional writing equally difficult. Lathrop reported:
One would naturally in such a place expect to find some perfection of a study, a literary work-room, and that has indeed been provided, but the unconventional genius of the author could not reconcile itself to a surrounding the charms of which distracted his attention. The study remains, its deep window giving a seductive outlook above the library, but Mr. Clemens goes elsewhere. Pointing to a large divan extending along the two sides of a right-angled corner, “That was a good idea,” he said, “which I got from something I saw in a Syrian monastery; but I found it was much more comfortable to lie there and smoke than to stay at my desk. And then these windows—I was constantly getting up to look at the view; and when one of our beautiful heavy snow-falls came in winter, I couldn’t do anything at all except gaze at it.” So he has moved still higher upstairs into the billiard room, and there writes at a table placed in such wise that he can see nothing but the wall in front of him and a couple of shelves of books.
A reporter from the New York World described the billiard room:
This room is a treat. A big billiard table with black and gold legs stands in the middle of it. … Mark Twain’s desk stands in the southern corner piled with business papers. Shelves of books line the walls of this angle. “Parleyings with Certain People” rubs covers with the United States Newspaper Directory, and a commentary on the Old Testament is neighborly and shows no ill-feeling towards Ruskin, who stands near at hand in a red binding. The ground glass of the nearest window is decorated with a beerstein, gules, two long-stemmed pipes rampant and other devices of festivity. Pipes and boxes and jars of tobacco are tucked in here and there wherever there is room. The pipes are of corn-cob and burned to a jet black by much usage. …
The room presented housekeeping problems for Katy Leary:
Now, I must tell you all about them precious manuscripts. Mr. Clemens always did all his writing up in the Billiard Room. He had a table there, you know, and Mrs. Clemens used to go up and dust that table every morning and arrange his manuscript and writing, if he didn’t arrange it himself, which he sometimes used to do. He took good care of it—he thought he did, anyway! Oh, he was very particular! Nobody was allowed to touch them manuscripts besides Mrs. Clemens.
The reason is explained by Twain’s method of work:
My billiard table is stacked up with books relating to the Sandwich Islands: the walls are upholstered with scraps of paper penciled with notes drawn from them. I have saturated myself with knowledge of that unimaginably beautiful land and that most strange and fascinating people. And I have begun a story.
Paine observed that the TOOTH was also used for its original purpose:
Every Friday evening, or oftener, a small party of billiard-lovers gathered, and played until a late hour, told stories, and smoked till the room was blue, comforting themselves with hot Scotch and general good-fellowship. Mark Twain always had a genuine passion for billiards. He was never tired of the game. He could play all night. He would stay till the last man gave out from sheer weariness; then he would go on knocking the balls about alone. He liked to invent new games and new rules for old games, often inventing a rule on the spur of the moment to fit some particular shot or position on the table. It amused him highly to do this, to make the rule advantage his own play, and to pretend a deep indignation when his opponents disqualified his rulings and rode him down.
Mark Twain Entertains
Albert Bigelow Paine described the Clemenses’ rigorous social life:
Company came: distinguished guests and the old neighborhood circles. Dinner-parties were more frequent than ever, and they were likely to be brilliant affairs. The best minds, the brightest wits gathered around Mark Twain’s table. Booth, Barrett, Irving, Sheridan, Sherman, Howells, Aldrich: they all assembled, and many more. There was always someone on the way to Boston or New York who addressed himself for the day or the night, or for a brief call, to the Mark Twain fireside.
Katy Leary told of their lavish manner of entertaining:
I always helped George wait on table if there was over twelve at the dinner. Mr. Clemens wouldn’t be expected, at a regular dinner party, in them days, to get up and walk around and talk—the way he used to later on; but he did walk about sometimes at dinner when the family was all alone—walked and talked. He loved that. When Mr. Clemens used to get up and walk and talk at the dinner table, he used to always be waving his napkin to kind of illustrate what he was saying, I guess. He seemed to be able to talk better when he was walking than when he was settin’ down. …
Well, at those dinners, as I was telling you, we had soup first, of course, and then the beef or ducks, you know, and then we’d have wine with our cigars, and we’d have sherry, claret, and champagne, maybe—Now what else? Oh, yes! We’d always have creme de menthe and most always charlotte russe, too. Then we’d sometimes have Nesselrode pudding and very often ice cream for the most elegant dinners. No, never plain ordinary ice cream—we always had our ice cream put up in some wonderful shapes—like flowers or cherubs, little angels—all different kinds and different shapes and flavors, and colors—oh! everything lovely! And then after the company had eat up all the little ice-cream angels, the ladies would all depart into the living room and the gentlemen would sit (lounge, I think they called it) around the table and have a little more champagne (maybe) while we passed the coffee to the ladies in the drawing room, where they’d drink it and then set down and gossip awhile.
When dinner parties were given, Susy and I used to sit on the stairs and listen to the broken bits of conversation coming from the dining room. We got into this habit because we used to hear so many peals of laughter in the distance that we would run to discover the cause of all the mirth. Almost always it turned out that Father was telling a funny story. Now, it happened that a few times Father had told the same story on various occasions when guests were dining at the house and we calculated that each time the meal was about half over. So we used to announce to each other, “Father is telling the beggar story; they must have reached the meat course.” When he discovered that his children were taking their turn at having jokes about him, he laughed as much as if we had been very witty.
Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, wife of the critic and poet, described one memorable winter evening:
It was voted at dinner that the company would not disband until the genial morn appeared, and that there should be at midnight a wassail brewed. The rosy apples roasted at the open fire, the wine and sugar added, and the ale—but at this point Mrs. Clemens said, “Youth, we have no ale.” There was a rapid exit by Mr. Clemens, who reappeared in a moment in his historic sealskin coat and cap, but still wearing his lowcut evening shoes. He said he wanted a walk, and was going to the village for the ale, and should shortly return with the ingredient. Deaf, absolutely deaf, to Mrs. Clemens’s earnest voice, that he should at least wear overshoes that snowy night, he disappeared. In an incredibly short time he reappeared, excited and hilarious, with his rapid walk in the frosty air—very wet shoes, and no cap. …
Mr. Clemens was sent for George, with Mrs. Clemens’s instructions that George should carefully retrace Mr. Clemens’s footsteps in the quest for the mislaid cap, and also to see that Mr. Clemens put on dry shoes. When the culprit returned, the wet low shoes had been exchanged for a pair of white cowskin slippers, with the hair outside, and clothed in them, with most sober and smileless face, he twisted his angular body into all the strange contortions known to the dancing darkies of the South. In this wise the last day of the joyous, jubilant visit came to the close. Untroubled by the flight of time I can still hear a soft and gentle tone, “Youth, O Youth!” for so she always called him.
Clara describes their Christmas celebrations:
When Christmas Eve arrived at last, we children hung up our stockings in the schoolroom next to our nursery, and did it with great ceremony. Mother always recited the thrilling little poem, “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,” etc. Father sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus and, after running about a dimly lighted room (we always turned the gas down low), trying to warm himself after the cold drive through the snow, he sat down and told some of his experiences on the way.
In a letter written to Susy on Christmas morning, Twain played Santa Claus:
Palace of St. Nicholas in the Moon Christmas Morning
My Dear Susie Clemens:
I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands—for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples’ alphabet, you use the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters—I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself—and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children. …
There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be “trunk full of doll’s clothes.” Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen door bell rings George must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining-room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak—otherwise he will die some day. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed and put your ear to the speaking-tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, “Welcome, Santa Claus!” Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. … Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things …
Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Mark Twain, Businessman
In 1885, Twain was fifty. Paine summarized his position:
So Samuel Clemens had reached the half-century mark; reached it in what seemed the fullness of success from every viewpoint. If he was not yet the foremost American man of letters, he was at least the most widely known—he sat upon the highest mountain-top. Furthermore, it seemed to him that fortune was showering her gifts into his lap. His unfortunate investments were now only as the necessary experiments that had led him to larger successes. As a publisher, he was already the most conspicuous in the world, and he contemplated still larger ventures: a typesetting machine patent, in which he had invested, and now largely controlled, he regarded as the chief invention of the age, absolutely certain to yield incalculable wealth. His connection with the Grant family [Twain’s firm had published the General’s memoirs] had associated him with an enterprise looking to the building of a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf. Charles A. Dana, of the Sun, had put him in the way of obtaining for publication the life of the Pope, Leo XIII, officially authorized by the Pope himself, and this he regarded as a certain fortune.
Twain had most of his money invested in the Paige type-setting machine and the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company. Katy Leary tells of his hopes for the machine:
Well, now I’ll tell you about the type-setting machine. That’s a long story. Mr. Clemens’ heart was just set on that, he believed in it so. He was expecting such wonderful things from it. Why, he thought he could buy all New York. He was asking how much it would take to buy all the railroads in New York, and all the newspapers, too—buy everything in New York on account of that type-setting machine. He thought he’d make millions and own the world, because he had such faith in it. That was Mr. Clemens’ way.
Howells explains the eventual end of these hopes:
He was … absorbed in the perfection of a type-setting machine, which he was paying the inventor a salary to bring to a perfection so expensive that it was practically impracticable. We were both printers by trade, and I could take the same interest in this wonderful piece of mechanism that he could; and it was so truly wonderful that it did everything but walk and talk. Its ingenious creator was so bent upon realizing the highest ideal in it that he produced a machine of quite unimpeachable efficiency. But it was so costly, when finished, that it could not be made for less than twenty thousand dollars, if the parts were made by hand. This sum was prohibitive of its introduction, unless the requisite capital could be found for making the parts by machinery, and Clemens spent many months in vainly trying to get this money together. In the meantime simpler machines had been invented and the market filled, and his investment of three hundred thousand dollars in the beautiful miracle remained permanent but not profitable. I once went with him to witness its performance, and it did seem to me the last word in its way, but it had been spoken too exquisitely, too fastidiously. …
Twain confided to his notebook his exasperation with the machine and its inventors:
December 20, 1890. About three weeks ago the machine was pronounced “finished” by Paige, for certainly the half-dozenth time in the past twelve months. Then it transpired—I mean it was discovered—that North had failed to inspect the period, and it sometimes refused to perform properly. But to correct that error would take just one day, and only one day—the “merest trifle in the world.” I said this sort of mere trifle had interfered often before and had always cost ten times as much time and money as their loose calculations promised. Paige and Davis knew (they always know, never guess) that this correction would cost but one single day. Well, the best part of two weeks went by. I dropped in (last Monday noon) and they were still tinkering. Still tinkering, but just one hour, now, would see the machine at work, blemishless, and never stop again for a generation; the hoary old song that has been sung to weariness in my ears by these frauds and liars!
Twain’s publishing house was also in distress, for the much-vaunted life of the Pope had proved a commercial failure. Clara wrote:
A few years before he had sunk most of his earnings in the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company, for a time a successful concern. Owing to bad business years, bad investments and mismanagement, however, the publishing house was rapidly losing ground. Its fall would cause my father financial losses, grave losses, indeed. Therefore, it was decided we should go to Europe, where we could live more reasonably until something should be done to improve our straitened situation.
An Idyl’s Tragic Ending
In 1891, the family left for Europe. Paine described their last day in Hartford:
… the maintenance was far too costly for his present and prospective income. The house with its associations of seventeen incomparable years must be closed. A great period had ended. … The day came for departure and the carriage was at the door. Mrs. Clemens did not come immediately. She was looking into the rooms, bidding a kind of silent good-by to the home she had made and to all its memories.
Three years later, Twain’s publishing house went bankrupt. On April 20, 1894, the Hartford Courant reported:
MARK TWAIN’S FAILURE Talk of the Street—Some Rumors set Right.
The announcement in yesterday’s “Courant” of the assignment of Mark Twain’s publishing house of Charles L. Webster & Co., caused a great deal of talk about town, yesterday. The expressions of sympathy and regret are universal, for Mr. Clemens, as a citizen of Hartford, has made a host of friends here, and his hospitality has been proverbial.
So many idle and unfounded stories were in circulation that it seems proper to say, by authority, that the beautiful family residence of the Clemenses on Farmington avenue, in this city, is and always has been the property of Mrs. Clemens. The land was bought and the house built out of the private fortune which was her own inheritance.
After a brief visit to the Hartford house in 1895, Twain wrote to his wife:
When I arrived in town I did not want to go near the house, & I didn’t want to go anywhere or see anybody. I said to myself, “If I may be spared it I will never live in Hartford again.”
But as soon as I entered this front door I was seized with a furious desire to have us all in this house again & right away, & never go outside the grounds any more forever—certainly never again to Europe.
How ugly, tasteless, repulsive, are all the domestic interiors I have ever seen in Europe compared with the perfect taste of this ground floor, with its delicious dream of harmonious color, & its all-pervading spirit of peace & serenity & deep contentment. You did it all, & it speaks of you & praises you eloquently & unceasingly. It is the loveliest home that ever was. I had no faintest idea of what it was like. I supposed I had, for I have seen it in its wraps and disguises several times in the past three years; but it was a mistake; I had wholely forgotten its olden aspect. And so, when I stepped in at the front door & was suddenly confronted by all its richness & beauty minus wraps and concealments, it almost took my breath away. Katy had every rug & picture & ornament & chair exactly where they had always belonged, the place was bewitchingly bright & splendid & homelike & natural, & it seemed as if I had burst awake out of a hellish dream, & had never been away, & that you would come drifting down out of those dainty upper regions with the little children tagging after you.
Later that year Twain set off with his wife and Clara on a lecture tour around the world, leaving Jean and Susy in America. Katy Leary relates:
Well, they started off, and, oh, it was hard to let them go! We all felt terrible at parting again. They went to Vancouver and to California and lectured; then sailed from California to Australia, where they started their grand tour. He lectured all around in these different places and it was a great success—a triumph, you might call it; and then they came back to London and was going to take a house and settle down there, and I was to meet them in London with the girls later on.
By this time Susy got kind of lonesome staying up on the farm so she decided to go to New York for a little change. She visited Dr. Rice and she stayed with the Howells, too, for a little visit; then she come back to Hartford. … The Hartford house was closed and she couldn’t go there; so she went to Mrs. Charles Dudley Warner’s, and I took a little apartment on Spring Street. I lived in it and Susy’d come over every day to do her practicing. …
Well, there was always a crowd outside in the street listening to Susy sing, for she had a wonderful voice and really we had a concert every afternoon. …
By then we were getting letters that the family was nearing Europe, and the next thing we got a cable to come at once, to sail for London the following Saturday, Susy, Jean, and I. … I went up to the Warners’ and I found Susy wasn’t feeling very well. She looked very bad and says: “Oh, Katy, did you come for me?”
I said, “Yes.” Then she says: “Oh, have I got to leave now?”
She was really in an awful state and I said : “Yes, Susy.”
“Oh!” she says, “I don’t think I can start now. Couldn’t we wait till evening, when it’s cooler?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s all right. It’s pretty hot now and we can go in the evening when it’s cooler.” This was in the morning, and then I went to our own house to get a few things we needed, and when I got back in the afternoon, Susy was in a pitiful state, so sick and full of fever.
So I hurried right off and I got Dr. Porter right away, and he said she was coming down with spinal meningitis. That evening she got very bad. I saw then she couldn’t travel. …
But poor Susy got worse and worse. Mr. Langdon come to Hartford in the morning and we took her over to the old home. She was very sick and she wouldn’t take a bit of medicine from anybody but me. She wouldn’t let the nurses touch her or come near her, so I sat by her night and day—night and day, I sat! Oh, it was a terrible time! My heart aches even now when I think of it, after all these years. Poor little Susy! She died before we ever could sail.
Shattered by the news, Mark Twain wrote from London:
Ah, well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. … If she had died in another house—well, I think I could not have borne that. To us, our house was not unsentient matter—it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome—and we could not enter it unmoved.
Almost two years alter Susy’s death, Twain wrote the following entry in his notebook:
June 11, ’98. Clara’s birthday three days ago. Not a reference to it has been made by any member of the family in my hearing; no presents, no congratulations, no celebrations. Up to a year and ten months ago all our birthdays from the beginning of the family life were annually celebrated with loving preparations followed by a joyous and jovial outpouring of thanksgivings. The birthdays were milestones on the march of happiness. Then Susy died. All anniversaries of whatever sort perished with her. As we pass them now they are only gravestones. We cannot keep from seeing them as we go by but we can keep silent about them and look the other way and put them out of memory as they sink out of sight behind us.
The spirits of the dead hallow a house for me—Susy died in the house we built in Hartford. Mrs. Clemens would never enter it again. But it made the house dearer to me. I visited it once since ; when it was tenantless and forlorn, but to me it was a holy place and beautiful.
On April 19, 1902, the following notice appeared in the Hartford Courant: