The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, is a strange and unique place, reflective of one of America’s most beloved and extraordinary people.
Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, when Halley’s Comet soared by overhead, making two phenomenal events forever marked in history. Twain, though nearly as well traveled as the comet, spent much of his life in Hartford. His cherished Gothic Victorian house is now open for tours. If you’re a fan of ornate gothic architecture or American writing, visiting the home is worth a trip.
Twain delighted the masses with his first and most famous travel stories, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” both of which he wrote while living in Hartford. If you take a tour, you can see where he sat to write them and the windows from which he gazed. You can even get a chance to write there yourself.
Fun Fact: On a riverboat, “Mark Twain” was a Mississippi River term the leadsman shouted to announce the depth of two fathoms of water – a term Twain would have learned during his time piloting boats.
I headed for Hartford, Connecticut, to see the house while on a two-year road trip as a nomad traveling in my van, hiking, visiting historic sites, and staying in short-term rentals. I stopped at the homes of many writers, and this wasn’t one to be missed. Aside from being a prolific and beloved author, I admire Twain for his love of travel, innovation and dry observations of humanity.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
WHY MARK TWAIN IS FAMOUS
Mark Twain is often cited as the first “great American novelist,” and Hartford used to be the site of a thriving publishing industry that hosted many writers, including Twain’s neighborhood, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Obviously, I needed to visit.
Twain was born into poverty in Missouri but learned to read and write during an early newspaper apprenticeship. This gave him the foundation for his later renown as a great American novelist documenting his life and adventures as he advanced his career as a typesetter, river pilot, western gold prospector, newspaper reporter, lecturer, and beloved author.
GETTING TO TWAIN’S HARTFORD HOME
The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, was his home from 1874 to 1891. It’s the place he spent his family years and wrote his most beloved books.
When Twain and Stowe lived in Hartford, the area would have a wooded wonderland with a small but booming downtown and a thriving literary community. When he moved there, it was where the publishing industry was based. Most of the literary community has since relocated. Today, the road out front is busy, but back then, atop the hill it sits on, Twain would have been able to see a vast expanse of New England Forest and trees. Now, the space between Twain’s home and downtown is filled with homes, businesses and apartments.
The twenty-five-room Gothic Revival, “stick-style” mansion mimicking exposed framing is a National Historic Landmark. The massive house is 11‚500 square feet and has 25 rooms on three floors. Inside, there are 50,000 artifacts, including manuscripts, historic photographs, family furnishings and Tiffany glass. Unfortunately, they don’t allow interior photography, so the only way to see it is to take a tour.
ENTRANCE TO THE MUSEUM AND SHOPS
Anyone can see the house’s exterior from its high vantage atop the hill, but to go inside, you must enter through the museum and visitor’s center. As soon as you enter, you’ll know you’re in the right place because Twain himself greets you – twice. Well, a full-size Lego replica of Twain welcomes you. If you’ve had a long day and need a rest, you can sit on a bench next to a bronze statue of Twain, and he’ll obligingly put his arm around you.
To the right is a large gift shop that sells at least one thing you should buy – Twain’s books. There are also various cups, candy, clothing, magnets and other souvenirs with fun and pithy quotes from Twain.
“All good things arrive unto them that wait and don’t die in the meantime.”
Inside the theatre, an excellent 22-minute film about Twain’s life is a great primer to remind us why he is one of America’s most revered writers. It’s as concise and as good a summary of his life as you could hope.
While a small group of us waited for our official tour to start, we idled through a small museum across the hall. It contains an old printing press machine Twain invested in, some typesetting and letterpress equipment and his old desk. The museum displays various items like his glasses, pipes, tin boxes, and writing utensils. Watch my Instagram VIDEO to see more.
Fun Fact: Mark Twain smoked 30+ cigars a day. Some people say they can still catch the lingering odor in the house.
INSIDE THE MARK TWAIN HOUSE
We go upstairs, where art galleries feature objects inspired by Twain’s work. There’s also a small café if you’d like a latte in view of the famed house. You exit the café to get to the house.
A short walk past the massive carriage house, which is not on tour, and we’re at the side of the massive gothic Victorian. Access to the Mark Twain House is by guided tours only and groups queue up on the porch, one after the other, all day long.
Upon entering the foyer, my first impression was that the house was that it’s dark and busy. After a few minutes, my eyes adjust, and I can see the intricate stenciling on the mahogany wood has minute patterns. We crane our heads back to see the entirety of a grand dark wood staircase that winds upward. It is the home’s main attraction. Our guide tells us about the family as he takes us through an ornate drawing room, a massive library, a botanical room, bedrooms, bathrooms, and up three flights of stairs.
Period-appropriate furniture and accessories fill the house, but our guide said only 10 percent of the objects in the house are original to the Twain family.
Fun Fact: One original feature is the beloved oak mantelpiece in the library, originally from Ayton Castle in Scotland. Here, Twain used to sit in view of their large conservatory botanical garden and read books to his children.
MARK TWAIN’S OFFICE
Twain created his most beloved books in this house and our group headed up the wide stairs to see precisely where he laid the words to paper.
On the third floor, there are bedrooms and bathrooms. An original wood bed in Twain’s room features large wooden cherub carvings on the posts. The guide said Twain used to sleep backward in the bed, so he was facing the most ornate carvings on its frame.
Up another flight of stairs is the children’s schoolroom – they were home-schooled – more bedrooms and Twain’s office.
The office is also a billiards room, where Twain would host guests and takes breaks from writing by shooting pool. Large windows let the western light shine in, and a balcony provided the perfect place for Twain to step outside. A red velvet rope keeps us from going all the way into the room, but there, across the way, we can see the desk. It’s still set with pencils and paper; there are books and an ashtray as if he’d just stepped away.
WHERE CREATIVITY FLOWS
There would have been at least 15 people in this house at any given time when Twain wrote. The children’s schoolroom – surely a disruption – was right next door. It was a good reminder that creativity – or anything we wish to achieve – doesn’t stem from a place in the woods, isolation on the beach, or perfect conditions. Twain went to work every day on the third floor of his home from 9 am to 5 pm like clockwork. He wrote creatively with children running around, his wife nearby, and a staff of 12.
“Books are the liberated spirits of men.”
Sometimes, it’s good to see that the most accomplished among us got that way through fortitude and discipline as much as any special skills they may have had. Twain struck a chord in American consciousness by being relatable, funny and human. Seeing his house and work environment is a reminder that he was, in many ways, just like us.
During his lifetime, he’d lost a toddler son, two daughters and his wife. In between, he made America laugh and think and feel. In his final years, he sold this house, where he’d spent his happiest years, and moved into something smaller elsewhere in Connecticut. Then, in 1910, Halley’s Comet returned after seventy-four years, and Twain departed to meet it again.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE CENTER NEXT DOOR
Outside, the Twain house had no gardens; however, his neighbor was known for her famous gardens, among other things. Fans of the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” will be pleased to know Twain’s next-door neighbor was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Can you imagine living in this neighborhood?!
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is also open for tours. It includes over 200,000 items of art, furniture, memorabilia, manuscripts and visual media to illustrate Stowe’s life. The house is a National Historic Landmark.
If you’re a writer – perhaps our next great American novelist – you might want to write inside Twain’s house. The good news? You can. About once every month or so, writers can rent a seat in the library for a few hours to write in the same place where Twain wrote his most famous books. For just $50, you can join other scribblers in the quiet library with only the bubbling sound of the conservatory fountain. No electricity is provided, and pens aren’t allowed! Charged laptops are fine, and pencils are permissible.
IF YOU VISIT THE MARK TWAIN HOUSE
You should visit the house if you like inspiring architecture, gorgeous interior design, lovely grounds and stories about famous writers. The Mark Twain House general tour takes about an hour, and you can spend another hour or more viewing the museum and shops.
Find it at 351 Farmington Ave. Hartford, CT 06105.