A TALE TO TELL

Amer­i­can homes with a grand lit­er­ary past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - DORIAN MODE

“Right, right, right,” I tell my­self un­til it be­comes a mantra. I’m driv­ing white-knuck­led on the wrong side of the road, chary of deer and skunk, while try­ing to lo­cate the homes of great writ­ers via Google Maps. But what bet­ter way for a book­worm to spend a day in New Eng­land on the north­east coast of the US? I be­gin in Con­necti­cut. In­deed, so many 19th-cen­tury writ­ers called Con­necti­cut home that a writer’s mu­seum was con­tem­plated in the so-called Nut­meg State.

MARK TWAIN HOUSE, HART­FORD, CON­NECTI­CUT: Since read­ing Tom Sawyer and Huck­le­berry Finn as a pim­ply teen I’ve been a dis­ci­ple of sem­i­nal hu­mourist Sa­muel Cle­mens, bet­ter known as Mark Twain. Cle­mens was not raised in Con­necti­cut but Han­ni­bal, Mis­souri, which pro­vided the back­drop for his most fa­mous books. He toiled as a printer be­fore turn­ing to jour­nal­ism and later be­came a river­boat pi­lot on the Mis­sis­sippi — “mark twain” is a mea­sured river depth of two fath­oms and safe wa­ter for a Mis­sis­sippi steam­boat. Head­ing west he later tried his hand at min­ing be­fore re­turn­ing to jour­nal­ism. His first suc­cess as a hu­mourist came with the pub­li­ca­tion of The Cel­e­brated Jump­ing Frog of Calav­eras County (1865), based on a yarn he’d heard at a min­ers’ camp. It brought Twain in­ter­na­tional ac­claim and was even trans­lated into clas­sic Greek. So my first pil­grim­age is to Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut.

Sam and Olivia “Livy” Cle­mens moved here in 1871. Har­bour­ing strong opin­ions about her new home, Livy sketched ideas and sought coun­sel from friends about its de­sign. Com­pleted in the Amer­i­can high gothic style, it was the Cle­mens fam­ily home from 1874 to 1891. Sam spent the hap­pi­est and most pro­duc­tive years of his life here. He wrote, “To us, our house was not un­sen­tient mat­ter — it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and ap­provals and so­lic­i­tudes and deep sym­pa­thies; it was of us, and we were in its con­fi­dence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its bene­dic­tion.”

Oddly, we are guided around by a vol­un­teer re­sem­bling an age­ing line-backer. He sweats and pants as he ush­ers us from room to room. One cou­ple have brought their chil­dren who are ab­sorbed by a quiz. The kids trail our group with clip­boards, wide-eyed and look­ing for clues around the house to earn prizes from the gift shop. It’s a hot day and I do won­der if our leader will make the stairs as he pe­ri­od­i­cally wheezes. Af­ter reach­ing the land­ing, he points a fee­ble fin­ger to a room and groans, “This is the bas­tard’s bed­room.”

Sam and Livy had their mag­nif­i­cent wal­nut bed hand­carved in Venice and Sam was so en­am­oured of it he slept fac­ing the head­board, an ec­cen­tric­ity that fur­ther en­dears me to the au­thor. The grand din­ing room is dark and Vic­to­rian. It’s here Sam and Livy hosted lav­ish din­ers for diplo­mats and bo­hemi­ans (ul­ti­mately send­ing the cou­ple broke). It was at these din­ners Sam per­fected his wry Twain stage per­sona. Se­questered at the top of the house is the bil­liard room. It’s here the au­thor spent most of his time pen­ning his clas­sics Tom Sawyer (1876), The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn (1884), The Prince and The Pau­per (1881) and the aptly named Con­necti­cut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). I can al­most see him at his desk, whisky in hand and puff­ing on a cigar, smil­ing wryly. As our guide steers us to another room, I re­main, ab­sorb­ing the mo­ment and of­fer­ing a si­lent thank you to Sam for the joy his books have brought me.

We are shep­herded next to the li­brary, the so­cial cen­tre of the Cle­mens fam­ily. Sam and Livy pur­chased its large oak man­tel­piece from Ay­ton Cas­tle in Scot­land. Sam added a brass smoke shield with the in­scrip­tion, “The or­na­ment of a house is the friends who fre­quent it”, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emer­son. Here Sam would read from his work or tell yarns. Sto­ry­telling was the fam- ily’s most cher­ished en­ter­tain­ment. I’m drawn to the sound of trick­ling wa­ter from the foun­tain in the con­ser­va­tory. Peek­ing through the win­dow I can see my next house. No Google Map re­quired.

HAR­RIET BEECHER STOWE HOUSE, HART­FORD, CON­NECTI­CUT: Stowe’s writ­ings un­doubt­edly made her the most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can wo­man of the 19th cen­tury. Best known for her anti-slav­ery novel Un­cle Tom’s Cabin (1852), she wrote nu­mer­ous im­por­tant tomes. Stowe was born in 1811 to a prom­i­nent fam­ily in Lich­field, Con­necti­cut. When she lost her son at 18 months it made Stowe em­pathise with en­slaved women who’d had their ba­bies ripped from them at the auc­tion block. What be­gan as a short piece on slav­ery for a news­pa­per de­vel­oped into a 45-chap­ter novel that be­came Un­cle Tom’s Cabin. So pow­er­ful was the book, it dragged a pre­vi­ously fringe abo­li­tion­ist move­ment into the main­stream.

Our guide for the day is an African Amer­i­can wo­man, who lends our tour an added poignancy. En­cir­cled by Vic­to­rian-style gar­dens and kow­tow­ing trees, Stowe’s house un­der­scores the pop­u­lar­ity of the gothic-re­vival style in the 19th cen­tury. The house seems diminu­tive com­pared to Twain’s but the fa­cade was de­signed to make the house ap­pear smaller than it ac­tu­ally is, re­sult­ing in a wel­com­ing ef­fect. “No work of art can com­pare with a per­fect home,” wrote Stowe.

In con­trast to the Cle­mens home, the Stowe house has been ar­ranged as if the fam­ily had just stepped out­side. The kitchen is left as if some­one was in­ter­rupted mak­ing a cake, with food on the ta­ble and cloth nap­kins draped across plates. In­ter­est­ingly the kitchen is mod­elled by Stowe’s do­mes­tic guide The Amer­i­can Wo­man’s Home (1869). She wrote, “There was no style of liv­ing to be com­pared with the sim­ple, dig­ni­fied or­der of a true New Eng­land home ...”

The ground floor has a front par­lour for re­ceiv­ing guests. Here the Stowes gath­ered to read, take tea and en­joy fam­ily time. The din­ing room is for­mal and Vic­to­rian. I par­tic­u­larly like the flo­ral paint­ings Stowe did in her later years that re­veal her con­nec­tion to the tran­quil­lity of gar­den­ing. Our guide in­di­cates Stowe’s desk in a cor­ner. It’s a thrill to see the ac­tual set­ting where Un­cle Tom’s Cabin was con­ceived along with other im­por­tant works cham­pi­oning women’s rights.

The sec­ond floor com­prises bed­rooms and a lone bath­room. Pho­to­graphs of clas­si­cal ruins and Stowe’s pretty sketches adorn the cham­bers, cou­pled with hand­painted fur­ni­ture and her paint­ings. A ter­rar­ium in Stowe’s bed­room un­der­scores the au­thor’s pas­sion for bring­ing na­ture into the home. And the at­tic holds the old ser­vants’ quar­ters, which are not open to the pub­lic. I then drive north­west for 90 min­utes to Mas­sachusetts and my next lit­er­ary pil­grim­age site.

I can al­most see him at his desk, whisky in hand and puff­ing on a cigar, smil­ing wryly

EDITH WHAR­TON HOUSE, THE MOUNT, LENOX, MASSA

CHUSETTS: Un­like Stowe, Whar­ton was rich ... as in Gina Rine­hart rich. But like Stowe she was born into a so­ci­ety that dis­cour­aged women from achiev­ing any­thing be­yond a suitable mar­riage. A wo­man of the so-called Gilded Age, Whar­ton broke through to be­come one of Amer­ica’s great­est writ­ers. She was also the first wo­man to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fic­tion, an hon­orary doc­tor­ate of let­ters from Yale Univer­sity, and a full mem­ber­ship in the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters. In 1885 she mar­ried Ed­ward Robbins (Teddy) Whar­ton. Though not ide­ally matched, the cou­ple filled their early years with travel, houses and dogs. De­spite Teddy dis­play­ing early symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness, Whar­ton’s time at The Mount was mostly a happy one. Whar­ton de­signed the house ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­ples in her best­selling book

The Dec­o­ra­tion of Houses (1897). The house and gar­dens were an in­te­gral part of her life and she was proud of her achieve­ments. “The core of my life was un­der my roof, among my books and my in­ti­mate friends ... I am amazed at the suc­cess of my ef­forts. De­cid­edly, I’m a bet­ter land­scape gar­dener than nov­el­ist, and this place, ev­ery line of which is my own work, far sur­passes The House of Mirth,” she wrote.

The Mount, de­spite its 35 rooms, four floors and for­mal gar­dens, was mod­est for a Gilded Age home. But in- tegral to her de­sign the­ory was that a house shouldn’t be a show­place but a real home. Our guide for the day is an ele­gant wo­man dressed in twin­set and pearls. She ex­plains that the en­trance was de­signed to make the house ap­pear larger (in con­trast to Stowe’s home). We fol­low the drift­ing scent of her Chanel No 5 and head to the wood-pan­elled li­brary where Whar­ton’s good friend Henry James was a fre­quent guest.

The Mount’s in­te­ri­ors show mostly Ital­ian and French in­flu­ences. In The Dec­o­ra­tion of Houses she ar­gues that in­te­rior de­sign can­not ex­ist in­de­pen­dent of struc­ture: “If pro­por­tion is the good breeding of ar­chi­tec­ture, sym­me­try, or the an­swer­ing of one part to another, may be de­fined as the san­ity of dec­o­ra­tion ... Be­fore be­gin­ning to dec­o­rate a room it is es­sen­tial to con­sider for what pur­pose the room is to be used.”

We are soon led to the writer’s bed­room. This is im­por­tant as it’s here Whar­ton wrote The House of Mirth, usu­ally work­ing in the morn­ing while ly­ing in bed. We en­joy af­ter­noon tea on the ex­pan­sive ter­race, an Ital­ian­in­spired en­hance­ment re­quested by Whar­ton. It’s all very civilised as the af­ter­noon light casts shad­ows across the for­mal gar­dens. But as her mar­riage dis­in­te­grated un­der the weight of Teddy’s men­tal in­sta­bil­ity, The Mount was sold in 1911 and the cou­ple di­vorced in 1913. Teddy lived with his sis­ter in Lenox. And Edith moved per­ma­nently to France. She would pen more than 40 books in as many years, in­clud­ing The Age of In­no­cence (1920), Ethan Frome (1911) and au­thor­i­ta­tive works on in­te­rior de­sign, ar­chi­tec­ture and gar­dens. MARK TWAIN LI­BRARY, RED­DING, CON­NECTI­CUT:

That evening I hap­pen upon a lec­ture at Con­necti­cut’s Mark Twain Li­brary. Richard Zacks’s book Chas­ing the

Last Laugh (2016) fol­lows Twain’s Lazarus-like rise from the dead in the 1890s. As we know, Twain loved to en­ter­tain chums with lav­ish par­ties that ul­ti­mately sent him broke but he en­deared him­self to the pub­lic and saved his legacy by pay­ing back cred­i­tors ev­ery penny. He even came to Aus­tralia and wrote about his world­wide “com­edy” tour in Fol­low­ing the Equa­tor (1897). In Aus­tralia he was billed as “the fun­ni­est man in the world”. And Aus­tralians adored his dry hu­mour and rip­ping yarns. The evening’s bash is or­gan­ised by a cadre of chip­per lo­cal dames all with match­ing Step­ford Wives hair­cuts. I feel un­der­dressed in my Yel­low Sub­ma­rine T-shirt. At lec­ture’s end, wine and cheese are served. I de­vour more than is ac­cept­able for an an­tipodean in­ter­loper.

Amer­i­can high gothic style of Mark Twain House, left; Twain’s study and con­ser­va­tory, above; his li­brary, with its Scot­tish man­tel­piece, be­low left

From above left, Har­riet Beecher Stowe House; bed­room in Edith Whar­ton’s house; grand pas­sage­way in the Whar­ton abode

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