Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.
Powered by Campus Explorer
All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
XCVI. The New Home
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The Clemenses returned to Hartford to find their new house "ready,"
though still full of workmen, decorators, plumbers, and such other
minions of labor as make life miserable to those with ambitions for new
or improved habitations. The carpenters were still on the lower floor,
but the family moved in and camped about in rooms up-stairs that were
more or less free from the invader. They had stopped in New York ten
days to buy carpets and furnishings, and these began to arrive, with no
particular place to put them; but the owners were excited and happy with
it all, for it was the pleasant season of the year, and all the new
features of the house were fascinating, while the daily progress of the
decorators furnished a fresh surprise when they roamed through the rooms
at evening. Mrs. Clemens wrote home:
We are perfectly delighted with everything here and do so want you
all to see it.
Her husband, as he was likely to do, picked up the letter and finished
Livy appoints me to finish this; but how can a headless man perform
an intelligent function? I have been bully-ragged all day by the
builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who
is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the
carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard-table (and
has left the balls in New York), by the wildcat who is sodding the
ground and finishing the driveway (after the sun went down), by a
book agent, whose body is in the back yard and the coroner notified.
Just think of this thing going on the whole day long, and I a man
who loathes details with all his heart! But I haven't lost my
temper, and I've made Livy lie down most of the time; could anybody
make her lie down all the time?
Warner wrote from Egypt expressing sympathy for their unfurnished state
of affairs, but added, "I would rather fit out three houses and fill them
with furniture than to fit out one 'dahabiyeh'." Warner was at that
moment undertaking his charmingly remembered trip up the Nile.
The new home was not entirely done for a long time. One never knows when
a big house like that--or a little house, for that matters done. But
they were settled at last, with all their beautiful things in place; and
perhaps there have been richer homes, possibly more artistic ones, but
there has never been a more charming home, within or without, than that
So many frequenters have tried to express the charm of that household.
None of them has quite succeeded, for it lay not so much in its
arrangement of rooms or their decorations or their outlook, though these
were all beautiful enough, but rather in the personality, the atmosphere;
and these are elusive things to convey in words. We can only see and
feel and recognize; we cannot translate them. Even Howells, with his
subtle touch, can present only an aspect here and there; an essence, as
it were, from a happy garden, rather than the fullness of its bloom.
As Mark Twain was unlike any other man that ever lived, so his house was
unlike any other house ever built. People asked him why he built the
kitchen toward the street, and he said:
"So the servants can see the circus go by without running out into the
But this was probably an after-thought. The kitchen end of the house
extended toward Farmington Avenue, but it was by no means unbeautiful.
It was a pleasing detail of the general scheme. The main entrance faced
at right angles with the street and opened to a spacious hall. In turn,
the hall opened to a parlor, where there was a grand piano, and to the
dining-room and library, and the library opened to a little conservatory,
semicircular in form, of a design invented by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The plants were set in the ground, and the flowering vines climbed
up the sides and overhung the roof above the silent spray of the
fountain companied by Callas and other waterloving lilies. There,
while we breakfasted, Patrick came in from the barn and sprinkled
the pretty bower, which poured out its responsive perfume in the
delicate accents of its varied blossoms.
In the library was an old carved mantel which Clemens and his wife had
bought in Scotland, salvage from a dismantled castle, and across the top
of the fireplace a plate of brass with the motto, "The ornament of a
house is the friends that frequent it," surely never more appropriately
There was the mahogany room, a large bedroom on the ground floor, and
upstairs were other spacious bedrooms and many baths, while everywhere
were Oriental rugs and draperies, and statuary and paintings. There was
a fireplace under a window, after the English pattern, so that in winter-
time one could at the same moment watch the blaze and the falling snow.
The library windows looked out over the valley with the little stream in
it, and through and across the tree-tops. At the top of the house was
what became Clemens's favorite retreat, the billiard-room, and here and
there were unexpected little balconies, which one could step out upon for
Below was a wide, covered veranda, the "ombra," as they called it,
secluded from the public eye--a favorite family gathering-place on
But a house might easily have all these things without being more than
usually attractive, and a house with a great deal less might have been as
full of charm; only it seemed just the proper setting for that particular
household, and undoubtedly it acquired the personality of its occupants.
Howells assures us that there never was another home like it, and we may
accept his statement. It was unique. It was the home of one of the most
unusual and unaccountable personalities in the world, yet was perfectly
and serenely ordered. Mark Twain was not responsible for this blissful
condition. He was its beacon-light; it was around Mrs. Clemens that its
affairs steadily revolved.
If in the four years and more of marriage Clemens had made advancement in
culture and capabilities, Olivia Clemens also had become something more
than the half-timid, inexperienced girl he had first known. In a way her
education had been no less notable than his. She had worked and studied,
and her half-year of travel and entertainment abroad had given her
opportunity for acquiring knowledge and confidence. Her vision of life
had vastly enlarged; her intellect had flowered; her grasp of
practicalities had become firm and sure.
In spite of her delicate physical structure, her continued uncertainty of
health, she capably undertook the management of their large new house,
and supervised its economies. Any one of her undertakings was sufficient
for one woman, but she compassed them all. No children had more careful
direction than hers. No husband had more devoted attendance and
companionship. No household was ever directed with a sweeter and gentler
grace, or with greater perfection of detail. When the great ones of the
world came to visit America's most picturesque literary figure she gave
welcome to them all, and filled her place at his side with such sweet and
capable dignity that those who came to pay their duties to him often
returned to pay even greater devotion to his companion. Says Howells:
She was, in a way, the loveliest person I have ever seen--the
gentlest, the kindest, without a touch of weakness; she united
wonderful tact with wonderful truth; and Clemens not only accepted
her rule implicitly, but he rejoiced, he gloried in it.
And once, in an interview with the writer of these chapters, Howells
declared: "She was not only a beautiful soul, but a woman of singular
intellectual power. I never knew any one quite like her." Then he
added: "Words cannot express Mrs. Clemens--her fineness, her delicate,
her wonderful tact with a man who was in some respects, and wished to be,
the most outrageous creature that ever breathed."
Howells meant a good many things by that, no doubt: Clemens's violent
methods, for one thing, his sudden, savage impulses, which sometimes
worked injustice and hardship for others, though he was first to discover
the wrong and to repair it only too fully. Then, too, Howells may have
meant his boyish teasing tendency to disturb Mrs. Clemens's exquisite
sense of decorum.
Once I remember seeing him come into his drawing-room at Hartford in a
pair of white cowskin slippers with the hair out, and do a crippled
colored uncle, to the joy of all beholders. I must not say all, for I
remember also the dismay of Mrs. Clemens, and her low, despairing cry of
He was continually doing such things as the "crippled colored uncle,";
partly for the very joy of the performance, but partly, too, to disturb
her serenity, to incur her reproof, to shiver her a little--"shock" would
be too strong a word. And he liked to fancy her in a spirit and attitude
of belligerence, to present that fancy to those who knew the measure of
her gentle nature. Writing to Mrs. Howells of a picture of herself in a
group, he said:
You look exactly as Mrs. Clemens does after she has said: "Indeed, I
do not wonder that you can frame no reply; for you know only too
well that your conduct admits of no excuse, palliation, or argument-
Clemens would pretend to a visitor that she had been violently indignant
over some offense of his; perhaps he would say:
"Well I contradicted her just now, and the crockery will begin to fly
She could never quite get used to this pleasantry, and a faint glow would
steal over her face. He liked to produce that glow. Yet always his
manner toward her was tenderness itself. He regarded her as some dainty
bit of porcelain, and it was said that he was always following her about
with a chair. Their union has been regarded as ideal. That is
Twichell's opinion and Howells's. The latter sums up:
Marriages are what the parties to them alone really know them to be,
but from the outside I should say that this marriage was one of the