American literature, Ernest Hemingway once said, began with Huckleberry Finn. Most English-educated schoolboys of urban India will recognise the author — Mark Twain. Real name: Samuel Langhorne Clemens. A dry sense of humour and a willingness to call a spade a spade possibly found Twain as many admirers as detractors. In his defence it can be said that he was as unsparing to himself as he was to others. Sample what he wrote shortly before his death, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together'."
A fairly accurate profile of Twain can be obtained by paying a visit to his house of 17 long years at Hartford, Connecticut. The picture may be a little faded; it's nearly 100 years since he died and November will see his 173rd birth anniversary. The time he spent here, with his wife Olivia Langdon and children, was perhaps among his happiest and most productive years.
Twain was well known for "strong language" usually diluted to acceptable levels by his wife, a product of sophisticated circles. Out of love for Olivia (affectionately known as Livy) he kept the 'strongest' out of his writings.
But he was not a man to be denied a safety valve for he reserved the billiards room on the top floor for himself and his friends — a place from which his family was barred; where a man could express himself freely.
The remarkable thing about Twain was the complete élan with which he combined in his single person the sharp opposites of great refinement along with thorough roughness. Red-bricked and gabled, the house stands atop a hillock called Asylum Hill. But it is like no other house in the neighbourhood (including that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin). The 19-room, $40,000 house has a veranda or (Ombra as he named it) that offers a splendid view of a peaceful meadow that sloped to the Park River, but is secluded from the public eye. The kitchen faces the main road. Twain's response was that it offered the servants the opportunity to see the main thoroughfare without running out.
Twain wrote both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn while living in this house. (The river, by the way, is no longer visible having been driven underground as a flood control measure. "There is only a car park now," observes our guide with dry disapproval). He wrote, "To us, our house . . . 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 are shown in through the main door from where the butler would welcome guests. (Harriet Beecher had a free run of the house and Twain would often come down to find her at the piano).
As the eyes adjust to the darkness we make out the most striking feature — the intricate white geometrical design on the walls and on the ceiling. The interiors speak of North Africa, the Far East and India. He was the most travelled and best known American of his time.
The drawing room has more light, as it has a large window. In one corner is the piano while paintings and a mirror adorn the walls. Curtains much like those at theatres hang down the arched doorway that leads to the dining room a set-up often used for dramatic performances by family members. In the dining room the table is brightly laid out. On the cutlery is engraved the name of Twain's wife.
The library where Twain read poetry or stories has a bay window jutting out into the garden. A snake, the guide tells us, once slithered right into the library while the Clemens family lived there and had to be killed. The shelves are, of course, loaded with books. We trudge up the stairs to the second floor which contained the family's bedrooms. The master bedroom contains his favourite four-poster bed, the one that he died in 1910 though in a different house.
The only room restored in the next floor (the third floor) is the billiard room where Twain could be his free unfettered self. This was WHERE he did most of his writing, spreading out the sheets on the billiard table for editing.
That was also the end of our tour of the house and left me with a yearning to learn more about the man who was a towering personality of his times.
–The Literary Review