Inspired by Adventure: Satirist Mark Twain’s International Travel, the Family Home & a “Cat in a Ruff”

The weather, the day itself, hollered “Welcome to New England!!” If you closed your eyes, and let your mind settle, the nearby city sounds and the bustle of a college campus were drowned out by the crunchy rustling of fallen leaves. The mischievous wind swirled the fall foliage around, trapping big bunches of leaves in spinning circles, and tossing them into the air, where they danced a complicated waltz. The sun beamed through masses of bright yellow leaves that still clung to the trees. I was surprised there were so many leaves still hanging on, as it was well into November, and looked as if the grove of trees was raining leaves, in a constant shower.

All of this is the backdrop to the stunning home of Samuel L. Clemens (pen name Mark Twain), surrounded in brick and designed in Gothic Revival architecture, where he spent many happy years with his family, in Hartford, CT. He was prolific writer and dynamic speaker, a storyteller, journalist, and satirist. Some of his most productive years were spent in Hartford, with his family. The house has been restored, and an adjoining museum welcomes visitors.

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Clemens was dedicated to his children, and a temporary exhibit in the museum called “In their Father’s Image” chronicles the lives of his three daughters, including their time together in New England. (His young son died at 18 months, but was always in their hearts.) A painting is on display on a fireplace mantle in the exhibit, as part of a set depicting the Clemens’ family living room. It is an oil painting of unknown origins; it’s a painting of a cat, wearing a rather elaborate Elizabethan ruff, starched and frilly and tight around its neck. The sign next to the painting explains that it was a family favorite. Clemens delighted his girls with nightly stories that began with the cat, following the whimsy of his imaginative storytelling from there. These stories were spontaneous, and unrecorded; what a collection that would be!

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There is only one known film of the author. The film was made in 1909, the year before his death. In it he shares tea with two of his daughters, outside on a windy day. It’s a silent film, so any conversation is lost for the viewer, but his fondness for his daughters is evident. Small moments like this inspired Twain’s stories, as did the politics of the time, and his adventures traveling around the world. He traveled to explore, find adventure and write early in his career, then he traveled again to perform an extensive lecture series later in life. Twain gained and lost his fortune, due to unwise entrepreneurial investments, then worked hard to find his financial footing once again. He left his home and headed out to give commentary on what he found. This is a man who followed his Wanderlust!

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What has been shared with the world, extensively, is Mark Twain’s autobiographical work. He is known for autobiographical fiction and fictional autobiography; his journalism and travel memoirs are full of personal anecdotes, alongside social and political commentary. Twain worked on his more formal autobiography on and off, throughout the last 30 years of his life. He also gave instruction that it was not to be published until 100 years after his death, so he could write freely and tell the whole truth, or as close to the truth as possible. He supposed that the folks he’d be writing about would be gone by then.

After his death in 1910, Twain’s wishes were repeatedly ignored, in a variety of ways, from what was published to how and when it was released to the public. The edition I’ve been listening to, in the form of an audiobook, claims to be the complete text – his drafts, notes, false starts and previously published excerpts. Volume 1 of “The Autobiography of Mark Twain”, on audio, requires 20 discs, and is 25 hours long. In print, the volume is over 700 pages. The same is true of Volume 2. . . and Volume 3! (I’m not entirely sure why my literary father only has two of the volumes in his Chicago home. Why stop there…?)

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The work is published in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published, which is not chronological; he jumps back and forth in time with events from different periods of his life are shared side-by-side. He might be telling a story from his childhood, and some other related incident comes to mind, so he tells that story too. He made frequent use of dictation to capture his life’s story, which lends itself to a conversational tone, and allows his recollection to wander about.

From the introduction to the Autobiography: “Dictating the text made it easier to follow a style of composition he had been drifting toward for at least 20 years. As he put it in June 1906, he had finally seen that the right way to do an autobiography was to start it at no particular time of your life, wander at your free will all over your life, talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment, drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind, meantime.”

There may be a little of that going on in “Accidental Wanderlust: the Art, Adventures & Attitude of a Work Traveler”.

There are 3 options for touring Twain’s historic property: a $19 guided tour of the Hartford home in its entirety, including admission to the museum, $16 to explore just one floor of the house + museum (I was immediately intrigued by what might be inside the rest of the house, to demand the higher price), or just $6 for a self-guided tour of the museum. I only had a short time before my flight out of Hartford, and had already spent half an hour wandering around outside, watching the leaves fall, and admiring the exterior of the house. I settled for a virtual tour of the house, and let myself get lost in the artifacts, displays, and audio recordings of Twain’s words.

 

I’ve had great luck with museums in recent months, where I’ve wanted to lay eyes on every object, and read every placard, to discover the history and significance behind it. Another visitor might breeze through the smaller, more niche museums in short time, but I was captivated by the stories of the people behind them. I’ve experienced this in several specialty museums that might be overlooked by other travelers (or even the city’s residents), including the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, the Central Ohio Fire Museum in Columbus, OH, the Christmas Story House in Cleveland, OH & the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque. I’ve lost hours and hours at each of these, and would gladly return, if given the chance.

What struck me at the Mark Twain museum was the impact of seeing the everyday objects, writing tools and travel accessories of such a powerful literary figure – the trunks that carried his personal items all over the world, and the writing desk at which he spent countless hours. I suspect it would be equally powerful to stand in his library, imagining him reflecting, dictating, writing, editing, revising and preparing his works for publication. As a newspaper man he was accustomed to working quickly to get his story down, then slowly and painstakingly setting type. His dry humor captures his audience.

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Clemens was not a perfectionist, however. For example, he was suspicious of those who expect perfection in grammar. He easily, and unashamedly, admits his intuitive sense of grammar, of simply knowing what “sounds” right.

I find in him a kindred spirit, as I was required to keep taking the mandatory, prerequisite freshman grammar exam again and again until I passed it – was it 3 times, or 4? In all other respects I was an ‘A’ student in Freshman English, then copy editor, journalism major and literary magazine contributor in high school, college, then graduate school; I did learn the proper use of a semicolon. Where I fall short is in stating the many rules of the English language, and I couldn’t tell a Gerund Phrase from a Dangling Participle, even if my Jeopardy winnings depended on it. I believe Clemens would empathize.

“… for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules – knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings – and I still know one of them: the one which says – which says – but never mind, it will come back to me presently.” ~ Mark Twain

In spite of this admission, his writing is much revered, and readers flock to this house and museum, to the point that guided tours often sell out, especially those led by costumed guides. Authors look to Twain for guidance in their own writing. An aspiring writer can actually experience 3 hours of creative inspiration, writing in Twain’s personal home library. It’s just $50 per participant to soak up the energy of his workspace, surrounded by his things and looking out his window. Museum curators do ask that participants write only in pencil, to protect the items on display, including many books. The website advertises: “Laptops welcome, but make sure you charge up before you come, as we have no power outlets to offer. Pencils only; no pens permitted!” A guest instructor guides the group of attendees.

A full tour of the house and museum, including watching the film Mark Twain, by Ken Burns, in the museum theater, is likely to take several hours. Refreshments at the café encourage visitors to linger. A large bookstore and gift shop ensures that no one leaves without a souvenir of their outing. (There are all manner of replications of the “Cat in a Ruff”.) The architecture of the house and the museum are to be admired, and quotes from the famous author dominate the walls of the path that leads from the museum to the house. There are writing retreats and educational programs for all ages.

A visitor could sit outside under the autumn sun, breathe in the smell of dirt and leaves, the essence of fall, and have plenty of material to write about.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Mark Twain House: http://www.marktwainhouse.org/

Hartford, CT: http://www.hartford.gov/

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: https://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Mark-Twain-Complete-Authoritative/dp/0520267192

Writing at the Mark Twain House: Classes and Workshops: http://marktwainhouse.org/writing/classes_workshops.php

Write in Mark Twain’s library: http://marktwainhouse.org/writing/classes_workshops.php

Mark Twain Project: The Bancroft Library: University of California, Berkley: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/libraries/bancroft-library/mark-twain-papers

Mark Twain movie: http://www.pbs.org/marktwain/

 

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