Sunday, March 22, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, First Intermission

On a bright autumn day in '05 I went to Elmira, New York to see the Mark Twain landmarks there, specifically his burial spot and the small building in which he wrote most of his novels; once a pavilion on his sister-in-law's nearby farm and now on the grounds of Elmira College.

It is worth noting that the man renowned for his books set on the Mississippi wrote his great works about it in central New York State. Indeed, people can easily overlook the fact that Twain is probably still the most widely-traveled of all American writers. Leaving aside the lecture tour around the world and his long residence in Europe in late middle age, and even before his trip by steamship to the Holy Land, and the book about it which made him permanently famous, Twain had seen more of the globe than his closest literary rival for travel laurels, Henry James.

Leaving home as an itinerant typesetter, Twain lived in St. Louis and New York City before he was 17, ending up in New Orleans where he became first an apprentice, then fully-vested steamboat pilot, traveling the navigable length of the river, as far north as Minneapolis. Rather than fight for the Confederacy, Twain went to Nevada with his brother, a Lincoln political appointee, eventually to try his hand at mining, then another foray in the newspaper trade there and in San Francisco, where he gained assignments that took him west to Hawaii and east to Washington, DC.

Fame and marriage to the pious heiress of an upstate New York coal company fortune settled our literary lion, mainly in Hartford, Conn., where his lavish home is open to the public for part of the year. (One of my favorite spots on earth, I will pass without further comment regarding the dumb administrative decisions which have brought this national landmark to the edge of insolvency.) It was hard getting writing done in Hartford however and Twain, who could usually rely on a prodigious daily output, found the summer vacations on his in-law's farm on a hill outside Elmira to be perfect for working. Mr. and Mrs. Crane had this lovely retreat built for him about 100 yards uphill from the main house. He would open the windows to the winds, he reported to one friend, and write with his papers weighted down by what he called brickbats.

Donated by the family and moved to the Elmira campus in the early '50s, Twain's study sits on a leafy quadrangle of the small liberal arts college. Though locked during my off-season visit, it seems to have the same table, as near as I can judge comparing my pictures with a couple archival photos--including the one above, that Twain used.
(Experts may correct me in comments if need be.)

Though I doubt he worked with a small bust of himself at his elbow (though with Mark, you never know), I'd like to think that the pipe and cigar box are also his and what we see here is the sturdy umber red table on which Huck and Jim, held down by brickbats, came into the world.

Last Week: Chapters XIV & XV
Next Week: Chapter XVI

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.


Kevin Wolf said...

I grew up just north of Hartford and can vouch for the impressive Twain house there. True, did he seem to get distracted there.

I do love that they have one of those linotype (or whatever) machines there that he'd invested in and nearly lost his shirt. Talk about your distractions.

I had heard something about the financial mess the place is presently in. Should never have come to that.

Will Divide said...

The inaptly-named Page typesetting machine (Mr. Page was its hapless inventor) is in the basement of the Hartford house, the worst one of Twain's many financial pipe dreams. His lavish, contractual support of its development nearly ruined him if not for a nick-of-time rescue by Charles Rogers, an immensely wealthy friend, a co-founder of Standard Oil, who took over management of Twain's copyrights and investments.

At least the Page machine was attempting something useful. The Mark Twain house is nearly bankrupt because management took out loans to build a completely unnecessary visitors center which had no prayer of ever paying for itself.