In Search of Mark Twain
Growing up on Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, I have an affinity for Mark Twain. As a kid I always thought of him as a Mississippi River guy. No wonder given his most memorable characters and the settings for his greatest work. But Mark Twain moved from Missouri to Hartford, Connecticut and spent summers at his wife Olivia’s family farm in Elmira, New York. These are the places where he wrote most of his novels.
Both places have developed and changed since Mark Twain’s death in 1910. The Hartford neighborhood beyond the block on Farmington Avenue is grittier and more urban, while Elmira beyond Quarry Farm has grown more industrial. Mark would surely look around in wonder at both. I have a lot to say about this guy. More than one blog post possibly can contain.
I visited Elmira a couple of weeks ago to visit Mark Twain’s study and grave site. I was envious when I visited his study in Hartford, but seeing the octagonal study with it’s fireplace made me positively jealous. It once was perched on a hill at Quarry Farm overlooking Elmira and the river below. Since 1953 it’s been at Elmira College, where it’s open to the public. Mark Twain viewed it as a place away from distraction where he could focus on his writing. In Hartford he would chat with friends and neighbors, or play pool in his study there. In Elmira he could draw inspiration from the views and simply write.
On the day I visited it was raining and I found myself alone looking in the windows of the study. I made a point of checking the door knob just to see if it was open, but also imagining Mark Twain grabbing this same door knob on his way in to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’d had a similar feeling walking up the stairs in his home in Hartford, sliding my hand up the railing, which was one of the only things you were allowed to touch there. I wonder if the door knob is original, it certainly looked like it.
I’ve written before that I like to chase ghosts. Not the poltergeist kind, but the living history kind. Visiting Hartford and Elmira brought me a little bit closer to Mark Twain. And gave me a little inspiration. I’m not sure how long I’m going to live in the house I’m in now, but I think I’m going to build myself a study. Perhaps not as ornate as Mark Twain’s, but something that gets me out of the house and looking at the trees out back. Maybe I have a novel in me, or maybe I just use it as a base of operations in my current job, but either way I think of it as a way to be a little more like Mark Twain. That’s not such a bad goal.