Mark Twain was ahead of his time — so much so that 140 years ago, he had a man cave. On the third floor of the house where he lived when he wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Twain drank, smoked and played billiards with his friends.
These days, smoking is not allowed, but it’s been otherwise restored to perfection, complete with pool table and windows bearing the crests Twain designed — crossed pool cues and pipes surrounded by drinking vessels.
Twain’s house in Hartford, Conn., looks just as it might have when he called it home from 1874-91 — albeit with a parking lot, gallery and gift shop.
Some people on a family vacation will go to a cultural institution for a little variety. Me, I decided to visit three nearby writers’ houses — Twain’s, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Noah Webster’s — in a single day.
THE MARK TWAIN HOUSE
Twain’s is the biggest draw. He’s got an enduring literary legacy, to be sure, but the house itself is pretty fabulous, once named one of the 10 best historic homes in the world by National Geographic.
Decorated by a group of designers led by the not-yet-famous Louis Comfort Tiffany, the house is a splendid, vivid display unto itself. Inspired by the styles of Morocco, India, Japan, China and Turkey, without being particularly faithful to any of them, the décor celebrates intricate design and detail. The front entry hall has breathtaking, Moroccan-ish designs — but painted, rather than inlaid — on the walls, staircase and ceiling.
And each room is different from the last. The tour passed into the salmon-toned parlor to the maroon-and-gold dining room to the rich blue library, peeked into the plant-filled, glass-walled conservatory and then on to the newly restored first floor guest room with its wallpaper of spiders and bees and honeycombs (the consensus was that spiderwebs and bees on the ceiling was a bit nightmare-inducing).
On the second floor, the master bedroom (decorated with green and yellow floral wallpaper that I’m obsessed with) holds the elaborately carved bed Twain, or rather Samuel Clemens, shared with his wife, Olivia (Livy). They found the angel-heavy headboard, one of the many antiques they picked up while living and traveling in Europe, in Venice, Italy, for $4,700 in 2017 dollars. The pillows are propped at the bottom of the bed, backward, which is how Sam and Livy slept, because, as Twain quipped, he wanted to see what he had paid for.
That anecdote got a laugh on my tour. Twain’s quick wit and his devotion to live performances on the road — which was how he made money when he lost a fortune in bad investments — make him basically a Victorian star stand-up comic. He understood and nurtured fame, creating a persona that connects with people today, perhaps even more so than his books.
It’s Twain/Clemens as a person who is emphasized as you walk through the halls where he once did, and apart from the madcap design, I think that’s what keeps people coming back to his house — imagining joining him at this very dining room table or sitting in the library as he stands by the mantle, spinning tales.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE CENTER
It’s quite different for Harriet Beecher Stowe, who didn’t exude fun. Born in 1811 in Connecticut, she was from a family of clergymen so well-known that she kept “Beecher” when she published for the name recognition. She eventually eclipsed them all, becoming a mega-bestselling author. That was why Twain, when he was still an aspiring novelist, built his house adjacent to hers — to rub literary shoulders. From his house, I walked in the rain across a plaza to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
While it is also a house museum, the Stowe Center is focused on engaging its visitors in talking about social change. On my tour, we discussed the details of the home’s recent gorgeous restoration alongside the news of the day — immigrants being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — and how that related to Stowe’s most famous work, which was sparked by her anger over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
That book, of course, is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which tells the story of a slave who is denied his freedom — as others around him try to escape, he is sold into increasingly appalling conditions. Published in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper the National Era in 1851, the story was initially going to span three to four episodes, but its popularity pushed it to more than 40 — with a cliffhanger ending, which could only be found in the two-volume book released in 1852. It was a brilliant move — “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week, topping 300,000 that year.
These sales were in support of the abolitionist cause, but over time “Uncle Tom” came to mean the inverse of its intent: a black person who is exceedingly obsequious toward whites. That change is something that the Stowe house addresses directly, in its visuals and conversations, and in so doing asks us to consider culture in context and the power of having a voice.
THE NOAH WEBSTER HOUSE
Noah Webster is best remembered for the words he put in people’s mouths: He published the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, codifying an American language that was distinct from England’s. It was, philosophically, an extension of a project he’d begun in the 1780s, publishing standardized books for American schools called blue-backed spellers. They were so popular that he could devote himself to working on his dictionary for more than two decades.
Webster was born in 1758 at the West Hartford home that now serves as his museum. The two-story colonial farmhouse has the broad floorboards of old trees and fireplaces five feet wide, deep enough to cook a meal. Much of the docent-led tour focused on the difference between those times and now: What it took to spin wool, cook food and keep warm in 18th-century Connecticut.
Webster’s father mortgaged his farm to send him to Yale, but Webster was ungrateful and after he became successful, never returned the favor. Eventually the property fell out of the Webster family hands. In 1909, it was listed for sale; my great-grandfather and great-grandmother bought it.
Alice and Arnold Hamilton had one son at the time; they soon had another, Fred, and then a daughter. They had installed a heater and added new flooring but by 1913 wanted a more modern home for their family, which they built nearby on the same plot of land. The Webster house remained unoccupied until 1937 when their daughter and her new husband decided it would be a nice — and, I imagine, free — place to start their life together.
Inspired, her brother Fred decided he wanted the Webster house two years later and moved in with his new wife, Jane. They lived there for 20 years, raising their three children and modernizing along the way — I think they installed a real kitchen, which has since been removed. In general, their improvements were gradual; underneath their changes the original fireplaces and woodwork remained.
“We have often been asked to describe living in the house where one of our country’s greatest educators and the father of our universal American language lived,” Fred later wrote. “Our answers were very practical. It was too hot in the summer and much too cold in the winter…. On the other hand, when we entertained, the house exuded a feeling of closeness and warmth.”
Outside, a plaque and stone marker declared the home to be Webster’s birthplace, and in the 1950s the curious would stop and knock on the door. “We would try to accommodate such visitors, saying in an unusually loud voice, ‘It is not a museum, but we’d be delighted to show it,’ ” Fred wrote. “This was a signal for our children to shove all their misplaced clothes and junk under their beds.”
In 1960, Fred did as his parents had, and moved his family into another house nearby. In 1962 the Hamilton family donated the house to the town of West Hartford; it was restored and opened as a museum in the mid-1960s. It is now run by the Noah Webster Foundation and the West Hartford Historical Society. They were very gracious when I visited and told them I was related to the people who’d donated the house.
I never met my great-grandfather, and as I knew her, my great-grandmother was eerie, intimidating and impossibly old. This photo of them was taken around the time they bought the Webster house. They are wearing matching shoes. A pigeon seems to have crashed head-first into her hat. They look like they are cracking each other up, and Arnold looks just like his son, Fred.
Imagine them buying the house more than 100 years ago: It was just an isolated place on the edge of town with a bit of literary colonial history. Writers’ houses like these are so often torn down, reconfigured, forgotten. That these three have survived tells us something about ourselves now: We love wit, that the stories we tell empower social change, and we are defined by sharing language. We Americans are not very good at remembering our cultural history — but sometimes it’s the place we call home.