"The Loveliest Home That Ever Was": The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford. By Steve Courtney. Introduction by Hal Holbrook. Dover Publications, 2011. 144pp. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-486-48634-5.

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The following review appeared 10 January 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell


When Mark Twain wrote to his wife Livy in March 1895, four years after they moved from Hartford, he gave her full credit for making their Hartford house a home, and ended his praise with the words that give this book its title. Twain was effusive in his fondness for his Hartford home and expressed his feelings eloquently when he wrote his friend Joseph Twichell two years later that "our house was not unsentient matter--it had a heart, & soul, & eyes to see us with; & approvals, & solicitudes, & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, & lived in its grace & in the peace of its benediction." Between 1895 when Twain wrote Livy, and 1897 when he wrote Twichell, his daughter Susy had died in the home, and the question of whether Twain and his family would ever return home to Hartford was in doubt. Financial problems soon settled the matter and the home was put on the market in 1902 and sold in May 1903, for less than half what it had cost to build. In his brief prose-poem introduction, Hal Holbrook recalls how he has witnessed the resurrection of this home to its former "dignity come back in polished butternut and gold" and how "its former tenant and his family seem to whisper there in the rooms and on the porches--a way of life gone long ago and dearer now for the loss of it." This book wholly succeeds in conveying all of these feelings to the reader--the abiding affection Twain had for his abode during his most fruitful years, the exuberance of the Victorian decor and the grand jazzy beauty of its architecture, the drama of daily life in the years when the Clemenses lived there, an oh-so-close brush with destruction and demolition decades later, the meticulous (and ongoing) restoration, and the enchanting whispers of lives gone by.

Twain and his family moved to Hartford in October 1871, and leased the nearby Isabella Hooker home while their new house was under construction. In September 1874, when construction was not quite finished, they moved in, and they moved out in June 1891. The years between were filled with endless dinner parties, billiard games, the raising of three daughters through their formative years, the meteoric rise of Twain's literary success and the ascendance of his social standing in the elite Nook Farm neighborhood, gawking pedestrians, a steady flow of visitors like William Dean Howells, Bret Harte, Charles Dudley Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others, and a major remodeling in 1881 by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Candace Wheeler of Associated Artists fame. During those seventeen years Twain angrily threw shirts out upstairs windows when he found buttons missing, Clara waited patiently for a calf to grow up into a horse, George the butler stood behind his screen laughing before the punch-lines at Twain's oft-told dinner-table stories, and Livy tried without success to demonstrate to her husband how he sounded when he cursed. Summer months were nearly always spent in Elmira at Quarry Farm with Livy's relatives, where the children could enjoy country life and the outdoors while Twain could closet himself in his hilltop study and compose his greatest works. The other months of the year were spent in Hartford receiving visitors, hosting parties, conducting business matters, playing billiards, and revising proofs.

Steve Courtney frames his tour of the home around a newspaper article written by Mary Mason "Mother" Fairbanks, the woman only seven years Twain's senior, who Twain had befriended during the Quaker City voyage and adopted as his second "mother" and confidante on matters of the social graces. In 1874, just before the Clemens family was to move into their new home, Fairbanks visited Hartford while the Clemenses were in Elmira and was given a room-by-room tour of the house by Twain's architect, Edward Tuckerman Potter. She painted vivid word-pictures of the home and these are effectively used by Courtney to introduce each chapter. Courtney provides helpful backgrounds on Potter and his school of architecture, the city of Hartford, and the community of Nook Farm, and the text is generously illustrated with contemporary photographs of interiors and exteriors, some familiar and others not, as well as breathtaking vibrant color images of the home in its present-day restored glory. The contemporary images have been carefully researched and placed in accurate context. The modern images are carefully framed and taken with shallow depth-of-fields when appropriate to bring into sharp focus the details of a given room while at the same time conveying the luxurious surroundings beckoning in the hallways and rooms beyond a doorway. The result is that the reader, through a thorough blending of picture and text, experiences the past and present flung up before him with almost Proustian intensity. Functioning both as a history of the home and a guide for visitors, the text is unburdened with footnotes, but the ample bibliography makes Courtney's sources obvious, and the index is excellent.

Both the Twain scholar and the general reader will learn things they did not know. For example, in 1957 Clara Clemens was asked to recall how the house was furnished and where things were, and she scribbled copious notes on a set of floorplans detailing where various pieces of furniture had stood. Some of her notes are reproduced. The long-accepted story of the home being built to resemble a steamboat is debunked. The oft-asked question of how much it cost Twain to build his home is answered--the more likely figure of about $66,650 is substantially less than the figures of $100,000 to $167,000 that have been quoted in years past. Details on the restoration of the house are explained and updated since the last book on this subject was published by Wilson Faude in 1978. Although the inclusion of Potter's floorplans (they were printed on a small sheet in 1902 as a sales brochure) might have made it easier to follow the tour from room to room, the superb photographs by John Groo clearly convey the flow from room to room as the tour moves chapter by chapter from the entry way on the first floor, through the house to the billiard room on the third floor, down to the servants' quarters and kitchen (newly restored), and then out onto the porches and the exterior.

The general effect of this skillful presentation is to inspire a curiosity in the reader to explore further the Nook Farm community and the Colts, Warners, Stowes, Twichells, Hookers, and other Hartford families who were in frequent social contact with the Clemenses. Those hired by the Clemenses to build and decorate their home have been the subject of books themselves, and the excellent bibliography points the way for readers who want to further examine the fascinating lives and accomplishments of Edward Potter, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Candace Wheeler (the "mother" of American interior design). But most of all, this volume inspires a desire to visit the home and see it for yourself. If you have never toured the home and never get the chance to see it, this book is the next-best thing, and if you have seen it before, this book will provoke a longing to return and listen for those whispers in the rooms and on the porches.