Chapter 22. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain at Hartford

 

In the introduction to this section we discussed the death of romanticism and the emergence of realism as two artistic responses to the growing ugliness of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Two of the newly emerging realist writers were none other than Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Samuel Clemens (whose pseudonym was Mark Twain), author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Seen from today's perspective, there are a great many elements of romanticism in the writings of the two authors. Nonetheless, they were realists in the sense that they specialized in "local color" -- presenting realistic descriptions of the people and culture of particular regions or localities.

Harriet and Sam were next-door neighbors in Hartford, Connecticut. They both belonged to an artistic community known as Nook Farm. The name derived from the nook in the river by the baseball diamond. One reason why so many literate people were attracted to Hartford was that the city became a major center of publishing soon after the American Revolution. By 1820 there were twenty publishing houses here.

The Twain home is a favorite of mine and I have visited many times. It is an absolute beauty of a house. It showed my wife, who has seen one too many colonial brick houses, that building with brick can be esthetically pleasing. The tour will probably be the most humorous one you will ever take because the guides use many Twain quotes to comment on various features of life in the house. The man was funny!

Nook Farm
77 Forest Street (off Farmington Avenue), Hartford, CT (Open daily 10-4:30, June-Aug; Tues-Sun 9:30-4, Sun 1-4, Sept-May)

You will find a map of the Nook Farm area in the visitors' center. This will acquaint you with the famous people who lived in this community as well as showing you where they lived.

The literary colony was tied together not only by a common outlook, but by the fact that many of the residents were related biologically to one another. The locale was a haven for the famous Beecher family, offspring of Lyman Beecher, an outstanding preacher of his day who fought both for reform in Congregationalism and against Unitarianism: Harriet Beecher Stowe; Isabella Beecher Hooker, a leader in the movement for women's suffrage; Catherine Beecher, a pioneer in women's education; and Mary Beecher Perkins, wife of a prominent clergyman of Elmira, New York. Henry Ward Beecher, who often visited, was the leading liberal minister of his day. The early years of the community, between 1853 and 1872, were near idyllic with families holding virtual open house.

Harriet Beecher Stowe House
77 Forest Street, Hartford, CT

Harriet was born in Litchfield, Connecticut. She lost her mother at age four, but her father soon remarried. At age 13 she became a teacher in sister Catherine's school for girls in Hartford. In 1826 the family moved to Boston to minister there. She went with her father, but soon returned to Hartford to teach.

In 1853 when her father journeyed to Cincinnati to be the President of Lane Seminary, the future author also moved west. During her 18 years in the Ohio city, gateway to the South, she learned of slavery first hand. Here, she also met her future husband, Calvin Stowe, a professor of Biblical literature at Lane. They married in 1836.

In 1850 the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine where Calvin taught at Bowdoin. Professor Stowe soon switched to Andover Theological Seminary. While in Maine, Harried worked on Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. By the end of the year, almost two million copies had been sold world wide.

She and her husband first came to Nook Farm in 1864 after Calvin had retired from Andover. They lived in a house they called "Oakholm" until 1870. (The house was torn down in 1905.)

The diminutive writer moved into the present Harriet Beecher Stowe House in 1873 and lived here until her death in 1896. She brought her twin girls here. They never married, and remained living with their parents. Notice that the house has four porches. The author of over 30 books, during this period she wrote Poquanuc People (1878), a study of New England character, and her last book Our Famous Women (1883). Her husband died in 1886 and she ten years later.

Her home is not "typically" Victorian, because she did not care for the interior designs popular during her lifetime. She liked light interiors and rejected the use of heavy drapes. Instead, she had vines growing along the windows. In the kitchen there is a copy of the book she and her sister Catherine wrote, The American Women's Home, which was a popular source for household advice.

John and Isabella Beecher Hooker Home (private)
End of Forest Street

Samuel Clemens first visited Hartford in 1868. The following year he had his first big success with the publication of The Innocents Abroad. After marrying Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York in 1870, and spending a very unhappy year in Buffalo, he moved to the Nook Farm community. He chose Hartford because his publisher and his wife's close family friends were here. In addition, the city was a leader in the publishing world and was also very congenial to literary men and women.

Although Clemens could not have known it at the time, when he moved here he moved into the middle of a family squabble that was also the scandal of the century. He rented space in the house of John Hooker and his wife, Isabella Beecher. Her work for women's suffrage placed her at odds with her sisters, Catherine and Harriet. The latter two had publicly denounced women's suffrage. Indeed, the whole women's movement split into two wings, with the more conservative wing backed by Henry Ward, Catherine and Harriet. Isabella stayed with the more liberal wing. She defended the controversial Victoria Woodhull, who combined an advocacy of women's suffrage with free-love.

In 1872 Ms. Woodhull went public with the oft-repeated story of Henry Ward's adulterous affair with the wife of one of his colleagues. Isabella believed her brother to be guilty and urged him to make a public confession. As a result of her stand, she became a virtual isolate in the community.

Clemens was caught in the middle as he was living in the Hooker house from 1871 to 1874. He looked upon the scandal as further proof of the moral rottenness of the nation. It was grist for his growing critique of American society. He wanted to express his outrage and found an outlet in his novel, The Gilded Age. His coauthor was Charles Dudley Warner, a neighbor and an editor of the "Hartford Courant" and an author of travel books.

The Warner house was on Hawthorn Street diagonally across from the Hooker house. This house was the childhood home, 1908-17, of actress Katherine Hepburn. Across Forest Street from the Hooker house, is the boyhood home of William Gillette, a nephew of the Beechers and an actor who personified Sherlock Holmes on stage. (You can visit the Gillette Castle in Hadlyme.)

Mark Twain House
77 Forest Street, Hartford, CT

While renting the Hooker house, work proceeded on a home for the Clemens family. Architect Edward Tuckerman Potter built the house. It is a mixture of styles, coming closest to the Stick style.

The budding author commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated Artists (intimately involved with the American Renaissance movement) to decorate the home. Notice the stenciling on the interior walls. The drawing room is not the typical Tiffany design, being marked by elegant simplicity. Also be sure to notice the glass tiles and a stained-glass window that dominate the dining room. Here, George the butler would sit behind the screen to attend the guests. He could not stop himself from laughing at the host's jokes, and Mrs. Clemens had her husband fire him many times (always to be rehired by the guilt-ridden author). Clemens often suffered from insomnia and would sleep on his bathroom floor. Animal lovers will be pleased to know that at one time the author had fourteen cats living in the house.

The years from 1874 to 1891 in this home were very productive ones: Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876); A Tramp Abroad (1880); The Prince and the Pauper (1881); Life on the Mississippi (1883); Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885); and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). He did most of the actual writing in Elmira, his wife's home town, where the family spent their summers. In the Nook Farm house he would polish the manuscripts, usually in the billiards room.

The Missourian lost a lot of money on two schemes: an attempted invention of a typesetter and his own publishing house. In 1891 the family sailed for Europe as an economy move. They never lived in the Hartford house again. Their daughter, Susy, a student at Bryn Mawr, died in the house in August 1896, while the family was abroad. Her father sorrowfully marveled at how a man can learn such news and still live. His wife chose never to see the house again, while he only visited it. So in love with the house, he must have been doubly saddened, for in addition to losing his daughter, he could never return to his home again. His love of the building is revealed in a letter to his dear friend Joseph Twichell. It contains one of the most beautiful sentiments ever expressed about a house (1896):

"Ah, well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon nothing that was strange to

them, but only upon things which they had known and loved always and had made her young years glad . . . This was happy fortune--I am thankful that it was vouchsafed to her. 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."

He sold the house in 1903. He lived in New York City from 1900 to 1907 and in Redding, Connecticut from 1908 to the time of his death in 1910.

Other Sites to Visit

You can tour colonial homes in Windsor and Wethersfield or visit the homes of Noah Webster and Oliver Ellsworth. At Warehouse Point see the Connecticut Trolley Museum.

 

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