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The following review appeared 25 April 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Those familiar with Steve Courtney's previous writings, like his insightful biography of Joseph Twichell (2008), his lavishly illustrated guided-tour of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, The Loveliest Home That Ever Was (2011), or his collection of ghost stories associated with the Mark Twain House, We Shall Have Them With Us Always (2013), will have high expectations for this volume, and they will not be disappointed. This handsome collection of exactly two hundred vintage photographs and illustrations that document Mark Twain's Hartford and his life there, is the latest volume from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, whose ubiquitous "Images of America" series will be familiar to anyone who has ever sought out the history of a city or town, or spent a few minutes in any drug store, airport bookshop, or museum gift shop. Of the more than 12,000 titles issued under these two imprints, more than half have been in the "Images of America" series whose covers typically feature a sepia tone vintage photograph with a distinctive title cartouche at the top and an authorship cartouche at the bottom. Their uniform size (9 x 6 1/2 inches) and format (128pp. with 200 illustrations) have proven to be a satisfying and successful way of presenting entertaining histories of cities, towns, neighborhoods, counties, ethnic groups, department stores, cemeteries, sports stadiums, parks, bridges, prisons, and even famous earthquakes, floods, shipwrecks, and hurricanes.
As an Austinite this reviewer would be remiss not to mention that previous books in this series have included five books on Austin neighborhoods, two books on Austin's nearby Lake Travis, and books on Austin jazz, murders, ghosts, and cooking. Having only scratched the glimmering surface of Austin, Texas, the series editors allowed themselves to be distracted and produce some books on Hartford that include a three-volume history, separate volumes on East Hartford and West Hartford, books on "Lost" Hartford and "Victorian" Hartford, and books on Hartford's trolleys, radio in Hartford, and fire-fighting--but apparently nothing on insurance. They've also produced books on familiar Mark Twain haunts like Hannibal, Elmira, and Virginia City, Nevada, and even a volume on the Big Bonanza. Steve Chou's book on Hannibal was reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum in 2002. Many of these books mention Mark Twain of course, and John Muller's Mark Twain in Washington, D.C. (reviewed in the Forum in 2013) appeared under their affiliated History Press imprint, but this seems to be the first book in their "Images of America" series to focus on Mark Twain. Most of their books are written by curators, local historians, and scholars, and this reviewer hopes that certain folks in Hannibal, Elmira, and Virginia City might take all of this as some sort of hint.
Mark Twain had hardly settled into his new home in 1874 when accounts of the house and his life in Hartford began appearing in print (The Daily Record of the Times, July 22, 1874, p. 2) and stereoview photographs of his home which could be slid into hand-held viewers that made the images appear 3-D were being sold commercially that same year. Henry Darbee's Mark Twain in Hartford (1958) was followed by a string of books and leaflets, of which Wilson Faude's Renaissance of Mark Twain's House (1977) and Steve Courtney's previously mentioned book are the best. The home has been featured in Hartford tourist guides since at least as early as 1884 and included in at least two dozen books about famous American literary shrines and homes. But with the notable exception of Kenneth Andrews's Nook Farm (1950) these publications have tended to focus on the house itself and its architecture, or on Mark Twain and his family life. Few have gone to great lengths to portray Mark Twain in the context of the Hartford of his day, giving the reader an idea of what Hartford life was like, the places and events Mark Twain experienced when living there, how it all looked and felt.
This is precisely what Courtney does. Cindy Lovell's brief foreword explains why Hartford suited Mark Twain so well, and Courtney begins his task with an introduction, "An Author and His City," that shows the reader what attracted Mark Twain to Hartford in 1871, what kept him there during the most productive years of his literary career, and what drove him away in 1891. In eight chapters he shows how Mark Twain became acquainted with Hartford and provides accurate visual evidence of what he saw, explores the city as it was at that moment, introduces and pictures the people Mark Twain came to know, examines Mark Twain's home life, visually documents the events and changes that occurred in each decade of his residence there, and concludes with a chapter on how Mark Twain and his family came to leave Hartford and their life afterward, and a final chapter on how the house itself managed to survive and become the magnificent living museum that it is today.
Along the way, the seasoned Twainian will encounter the inevitable familiar images of Mark Twain and his family and the house itself, but will more often be confronted by less familiar scenes, especially those of the city and its people that seldom figure prominently in biographies of Mark Twain. What makes this visual tour informative and pleasurable is that this is no mere picture-book, but a fascinating photo-album, with each image hand-picked for a purpose which is explained in the ample captions that are often stories in themselves. The photo of Mark Twain's library being used as a class-room with only vestiges of his wonderful walnut bookshelves remaining will make Twainians wince, but the elephant parade up Main Street will bring a smile. Readers can imagine Mark Twain's carriage lined up with others on Main Street, gaze upon a horse-drawn streetcar like those Susy mentioned during her final deliriums, feel the chill of a snowy Hartford street that could have been the very one taken by Mark Twain when he took his son Langdon along for a ride shortly before Langdon became sick (from other causes) and passed from his life, and imagine Mark Twain and Joe Twichell plodding up the steep path to Bartlett's Tower, just outside of town, where they liked to walk while deeply immersed in conversation. Twainians will chuckle at the photograph of actor Will Gillette (Mark Twain's first successful impersonator) sprawled in a chair, and will understand why his nickname in Mark Twain's household was "the ladder." Susan Warner plays the piano for us, while her husband Charles Dudley Warner holds a book. Henry Ward Beecher and Governor Joseph Hawley both look their parts, as do the workers by the huge covered bridge over the river and the crowd gathered to celebrate the Battle of Antietam. Nursemaid Rosina Hay, housekeeper Kate Leary, coachman Patrick McAleer, and business manager Frank Whitmore all stand at the ready. A photograph of a "snow-tunnel" on a Hartford street during the blizzard of 1888 makes clear that Mark Twain would have been no better off in Hartford than where he was at that moment, stranded in New York City. If you've ever wondered about the husband and wife team who served as caretakers of the house in the 1890s after Mark Twain and his family moved out, they are pictured here too.
All of these events and all of these people played major roles in Mark Twain's Hartford years and this nicely balanced blend of pictures and text brings them back to life for both Twainians and the general reader alike. Can companion volumes on Mark Twain and his other cities--Hannibal, Elmira, and Virginia City--be far behind? Perhaps another book on Austin?