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The following review appeared 11 August 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The literature on American historic and literary homes as shrines dates to 1853 when C. F. Briggs edited a collection of essays describing visits to the homes of famous writers in Homes of American Authors. Along with color lithographic illustrations and descriptions of the homes of Hawthorne, Irving, Longfellow, and others, he also included a visit to Emerson's home where Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond is mentioned (almost as an aside) for the first time in a book. A companion volume, Homes of American Statesmen, appeared the following year and by the time Mark Twain began construction of his Hartford home, homes of famous American authors and historical figures were drawing tourists. Twain's Hartford home drew comments in the press before it was even finished, and Twain and his wife Livy visited the homes of William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott when they were in Great Britain buying furnishings for their new house.
Most of the literature on historic houses or "museum homes" open to tourists is uncritical and a shelf of such volumes looks like a mixture of tourist guides and coffee-table books. A refreshing departure from this genre is Anne Trubek's A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses (2011) and Trubek's idiosyncratic work clearly influenced Hilary Lowe as she surveyed four homes of Mark Twain in Florida, Hannibal, Hartford and Elmira. Lowe provides a history of each of Twain's homes and describes in candid detail how each home came to be as it is now and explains how personalities and politics often guided (or misguided) the outcomes. She discusses how the interpretations provided at each site have evolved, and captures the pivotal moments when they changed. Lowe explores the multiple meanings these homes have for different audiences--children, casual tourists, families, readers of Mark Twain, historians, and literary scholars.
The questions that guide Lowe's quest for an answer is why people go to the homes of famous authors like Mark Twain and what they expect to find. Victorian art critic John Ruskin detested the notion of literary shrines and asked why people could not just allow them to fall peacefully into ruins, and Twain himself, when told that the plaque he had unveiled in 1902 at the site of Eugene Field's birthplace was on the wrong house, replied that it didn't really matter. But if authors don't care, tourists do. People are fascinated by origins says Lowe, and seek them out; hence the popularity of birthplace shrines. Readers want to see where an author drew his inspiration. Families want to tell each other stories that relate their own domestic experiences with those of famous authors, a process called "identity work" by scholars who have seriously studied tourism (p. 12). Lowe cites studies showing that Americans trust information at historic sites more than they do information from family members, high school history teachers, documentaries, or non-fiction books (p. 9). She also points out that literary sites differ from other historic sites because they can interpret literature instead of history, serve as a source of inspiration, and sidestep historical accuracy by connecting to literature instead. One surprising concept that she explains is every act of restoration is an act of destruction: the old must be refurbished or even replaced and the new must then masquerade as the old.
Florida, Missouri is the subject of "The Many Birthplaces of Mark Twain" in which Lowe bluntly confronts the long-standing controversy over the authenticity of Mark Twain's birthplace cabin. The debate began in 1890 when Jane and Orion Clemens provided a brief description of the structure to a newspaper. In 1893 it had supposedly been sold and was to be shipped to the Columbian Exposition, but it could not be moved and in 1897 a newspaper announced it would be carved into souvenirs. There is no evidence that happened, but when travel writer Clifton Johnson visited a few years later he was told it had been torn to pieces by souvenir hunters, and it is claimed that pieces of the cabin were sold at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. But in 1915 Merritt A. "Dad" Violette bought what he thought was the cabin, authenticated by his mother, Eliza V. Scott, who was living in Florida as a teenager at the time of Twain's birth in 1835. In 1924 he donated it to the state of Missouri and in 1930 it was moved to a State Park, where a protective structure was to be built around it, but those plans were delayed when Florida residents protested because the building of the protective structure would involve the presence of black construction workers in their town. Finally, in 1960 the cabin was enshrined in a modern structure several miles away and a decorator was hired to place "period" objects inside the cabin. The interpretation of this site has remained unchanged since that time. A report written for the State of Missouri hedges its bets on the cabin's authenticity, noting that nearly all of the materials (nails, boards, shingles, door, siding, windows, etc.) date much later than 1835. Ralph Gregory, 98 at the time of his interview with Lowe, affirms the cabin is authentic, but all of his research traces back to "Dad" Violette's mother. "Dad" Violette trusted his mom; can we?
"Hannibal as Home Town" is the next stop on Lowe's itinerary, where fact and fiction blend together in curious ways and a tension between historical accuracy and literary interpretation hangs in the atmosphere. Twain's parents moved to Hannibal in 1839 and the home built a few years later by his father John Marshall Clemens still stands where it has always stood just a few blocks from the steamboat landing and a later railroad hub. Twain himself posed in front of this structure in 1902 creating an iconic image familiar to all Twainians, and a few years later the town was visited by Clifton Johnson who also visited the "Huck Finn" (Tom Blankenship) house and other local sites. It is likely that the black woman living in the "Huck Finn" house who was interviewed by Johnson was former slave Nellie "Cocaine" Smith. Nellie lived there from 1880 until at least 1903, when the structure was damaged by fire. In 1911 it was torn down, but that same year a local businessman and Twain enthusiast, George A. Mahan, bought the boyhood home, repaired it, and gave it to the city. In 1926 Mahan commissioned a statue of Tom and Huck at the foot of Holiday's Hill. Mahan's Tom Sawyer interpretation (excluding Huck Finn and Jim) pervaded for decades. A town booster, he sat on numerous boards, owned a cement company that provided many jobs, and owned a good deal of downtown property. The Laura Hawkins home became the Becky Thatcher House, the site of the Tom Blankenship House became the site of the Huck Finn House, Holiday's Hill became Cardiff Hill, and a local cave became the cave where Tom and Becky got lost and where Injun Joe died. The fence next to the boyhood home became the fence Tom Sawyer avoided having to paint. A sign in front of this fence said so, and stood unchanged from 1934 until 1987 when the word "Niggar" [sic] was ground out from in front of Jim's name. Other than the sign, Jim is all but absent from the narratives of the town, although slavery was a very real part of Hannibal's actual history. In 1938 the museum next to the boyhood home opened, in 1941 two lots were acquired and the buildings on them torn down, and in 1956 the John Clemens law office was moved to its current location across the street from the boyhood home and "Grant's Drugstore" was given to the city. In 1990-91 the boyhood home underwent a major restoration. After Shelley Fisher Fishkin posed some pointed questions about the absence of Jim in her 1985 book, Lighting Out for the Territory the shopworn Tom Sawyer fictions began to release their grip, and Terrell Dempsey's book Searching For Jim pushed the issue even further in 2003. A survey by University of Missouri history professor Jay Rounds that same year led to more changes in the exhibits that allow history and Twain's fictional characters to coexist.
Lowe's choice of "The Right Stuff" as her title for the chapter on Twain's Hartford home leaves no doubt that she endorses what has been achieved there. It almost did not turn out that way. Twain's home from 1874 to 1891, it was sold to a local insurance executive in 1903, who lived there until 1917. In 1920 a plan to raze the home and build apartments inspired the new editor of the Hartford Courant, Emile Gauvreau, to launch a campaign to save the home and he quickly learned that Hartford's wealthier residents still resented Mark Twain for his politics and did not support his cause. But in 1929 Katharine Seymour Day, guardian of the Harriet Beecher Stowe home (and grandniece of Stowe, and childhood playmate of the Clemens daughters) stepped in. The home had been subdivided into apartments and later served as a branch of the public library and Day saw the home as a place to be used rather than restored or venerated as a shrine. When Mary Shipman and Edith Salsbury joined board of the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission the idea of restoring the home to its former glory began to take form. Day died in 1964, and the pace of restoration, begun in 1955, accelerated with the help of Yale English professor Norman Holmes Pearson and was completed in 1974 under the direction of curator Wilson Faude. The restoration of the house itself expanded to include the collecting of materials in related areas like Tiffany glass and decorations, and Victorian interior design. Under director John Boyer a $14.6 million visitor center was built. Lowe mentions but does not dwell on the severe financial crisis that struck the Mark Twain Memorial in recent years and describes the current configuration of exhibits and programs that appeal to a wide variety of visitors as an example of museum "best practices" (p. 134).
The chapter on Quarry Farm as a literary site or "tourist
destination" is much briefer than Lowe's previous chapters because its
history as a site is much shorter and because it is not open to the public
and functions very differently than the other sites. Quarry Farm was the home
of Livy's sister and husband, Susan and Theodore Crane, and was left to them
by Livy's father Jervis Langdon in 1870. Twain summered there nearly every
year for the next two decades. The study where Twain wrote his greatest works
was built in 1874 and moved to the campus of Elmira College in 1952 when vandalism
became a serious issue, but the house and grounds remained in family hands
until 1983 when they were donated to Elmira College by Irene and Jervis Langdon
Jr., with strict covenants that it not be open to the public but instead used
in conjunction with the college's Center for Mark Twain Studies. Twain scholars
who have stayed at Quarry Farm have produced more than fifty books, and the
major international Twain Conference is held there every four years. It is
maintained and used, but not restored, and serves as a source of wonder and
inspiration for Twain scholars who attend the conference and those who stay
there while conducting research. Lowe went there harboring serious doubts
about its restricted use and came away impressed by the setting, the seclusion,
and the spell the place casts on Twain scholars who have recorded their thoughts
in the guestbook there over the years.
In the course of writing her book Lowe interviewed nearly everyone connected with every site, past and present, sifted through sheaves of forgotten board minutes, old newspapers, and even stood in line with other tourists during public tours to observe how different people react to the different settings and interpretations. Her notes at the end of the book are a goldmine of telling details. Her personal observations are insightful, and often amusing. Staffers and supporters of some of the sites may wince to see some parts of this honest and unvarnished account in print, and some Twainians who know (or think they know) the "inside stories" and personalities involved, or who participated themselves in some of the events described, may wish more (or less) could have been told, but everyone else who wants to discover Mark Twain will take Lowe's concluding words to heart (p. 174): "As much as it seems it is possible to know Clemens at these sites, they are each just a careful, mediated piece of him. Each site arranges its objects, artifacts, and mementos as best it can to evoke the real person who lived in these homes. Ultimately, though, it's up to the visitor to locate Sam Clemens's literary imagination."