Day Tripping / Mark Twain House brings history alive
Published 12:00 am, Thursday, June 14, 2018
NORWALK — Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell of Southington was Mark Twain’s best friend for over 40 years. Twichell christened Twain’s children and consulted with him on his books — they liked each other so much, they even attempted to walk the hundred miles from Hartford to Boston together. (Both reasonable men, they opted for the train instead on the second day.)
The pastor was so at home in his three-piece suit, with umbrella and Holy Bible in hand, that at first neither I nor Stephanie Kim, a Hearst photographer, could tell if he was in costume.
“For a second, I thought he worked here,” Kim whispered as we examined a Lego bust of the author near the entrance of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, awaiting our tour.
Minutes later, we realized that Twichell was in fact our guide, and with a group of visitors from as far as Kansas and Oregon, we trooped through the museum toward Twain’s old home out back.
The Mark Twain House and Museum
Visitors from around the world come to Twain’s Connecticut home, which sits next to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, in the hopes that it can offer a glimpse into the mind of the famous American author. The Florida, Missouri man lived in many places throughout his life — New York, Cincinnati and San Francisco, to name a few — but Connecticut lays its claim to Twain for his life in Hartford and death in Redding. The Hartford home is where Twain raised his three daughters and wrote several of his works, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
The materials inside the house are of three categories — stuff that actually was in the house when Twain lived there, things that belonged to the family at other points in their lives and objects that are true to the period. If you want to know which is which, a general tour is available; a tour we had the chance to shadow featured highly educated patrons brimming with questions about Tiffany glass and architectural styles.
Twichell was leading what the museum calls a living history tour, which are offered by a number of Twain’s family and friends. For such guides, every object is the jumping off point for a story. For example, just enter the dining room, set with crystal and strawberry-embroidered doilies. Here, Twichell explained, is where the Twains would host elaborate dinner parties. And there, motioning at a screen set up near the kitchen, is where the butler, George Griffin, would sit, listening to Twain’s tales. Twain told the same progression of stories most dinners, and every time he neared a punchline, Griffin would break into guffaws, a live laugh track, and as the guests joined in, he’d rush out to top off everyone’s drinks.
“You’re having a great time. Of course you are! You’ve just been sold by Mark Twain,” Twichell said of those well-orchestrated, well-lubricated evenings.
In the Mahogany Room, a romantically appointed guest room, is a Civil War statue. Twichell, who had served as a chaplain during the war, shook his head and looked at the visitors.
“You know, Mark and I agree the Civil War was a blot on our nation’s soul,” he said. “But we also agree a great blot was the buying and selling of Negro souls.”
Twichell had once been invited to speak at Yale University the same day students at the college planned to plant ivy taken from the grave of Robert Lee on the campus. Twichell viewed such a memorial as disgraceful. The Confederate general was “a good man,” he said, “but the historic representative of an infamous cause.” He had hoped that cause could be laid to rest, not memorialized. “But no, this nonsense still continues to this day, and it sickens me,” he said.
At the end of the tour, Twichell dropped out of character to take contemporaneous questions that couldn’t be answered from the pastor’s point of view. To our shock, after the visitors finished their debrief and exited the home, Twichell reached up, grabbed the corner of his mustache, and pulled. It separated from his face, revealing Craig Hotchkiss, a retired high school history teacher and the former education director of the museum. The mustache, he explained, had to be Hollywood quality because guests meet him so close up; the museum had reached out to the man who provided Leonardo DiCaprio with a beard for “Django Unchained” for the job.
After 33 years in the classroom, Hotchkiss approaches history with fervent immediacy.
“I think the Gilded Age,” the post-Civil War era actually named by Twain, “is probably the most important period for students to study to understand the modern United States,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s also the period in U.S. history that, in high school, gets the shortest thrift.”
Hotchkiss sees the Gilded Age, when slavery was replaced with discriminatory laws and the United States expanded its empire overseas, as the root of many issues today. “I ask right at the beginning of the tour where people are from,” he said. Often, that serves as a jumping off point to talking about lynchings. “On average, there was a lynching a week for 60 years,” he said.
When I told him I was from Texas, he brought up the case of James Byrd Jr., who was beaten, dragged behind a truck, then dumped at a black church cemetery in 1998. One of the men charged with his murder was still appealing in 2017. “Yeah. That’s a lynching,” he said.
On the international stage, America’s annexing of the Philippines led to brutal conflict with guerrilla fighters, which dragged on for years. “You know where waterboarding came from? The Philippine Insurrection,” he said. “And this is stuff Twichell and Twain would talk about.”
Hotchkiss believes that such themes from such conversations worked their way into Twain’s writing. While many people believe “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was a rebuke against slavery, Hotchkiss pointed out that it was written after the Civil War, when slavery had already ended.
“No,” he said. “It’s about neo-slavery — Jim Crow. America, you’re doing it all again.”
After thanking Hotchkiss for his time, Kim and I stepped back into the present, outside on an overcast Connecticut summer afternoon. Out past the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe — whose family is said to have had a large impact on the Twains, material for another story — was Hartford, the Nutmeg State and the entire United States, still home to racial disparities despite the efforts of generations. That week, there was a headline about Harriet Tubman perhaps not gracing the face of a 20-dollar bill after all, as had been announced during the Obama administration, and Starbucks closed stores nationwide to talk about racial bias. Following the conversation with Hotchkiss and others at the museum, history felt thick and tangible, the way air grows pungent in the presence of rain, alive.