The Writing Spaces: A Tale of Twain’s Two Spaces

This week Robert Smedley reveals the incredible life, and amazing Writing Spaces, of ‘the father of American Literature’.

By any standard, Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had a heck of a life. He was friends with Nikolai Tesla, appeared on film with Thomas Edison, was born and died under Halley’s Comet, travelled the length and breadth of the US, invented a few things, wrote at least four American classics, and, if you believe your TV, met the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

twain

So did such a remarkable man have a fairly remarkable writing space? Actually no. He had two.

Writing Space #1

Mark Twain’s true writing space was his house in Hartford, Connecticut. He moved there partly because he wanted to be closer to his publisher, and partly because he loved the beauty of that part of the country. His home was a 19-roomed Victorian Gothic pile of some novelty, mostly because it featured all the cutting edge mod-cons for the 1870s: mainlined gaslight, hot and cold running water, flushing toilets (in all seven(!) bathrooms), a shower, ducted central heating, a telephone, plus electric burglar alarms and servant bells. I can’t stress how cutting-edge most of that stuff was for a house at that time. Just over a decade after shed-dweller David Henry Thoreau had been espousing the purity of a simple life in Walden, Twain was living in the opulence of modernity.

Mark Twain House

Such an enormous and futuristic abode not only reflected the comparative luxury that Twain had to write in, but also his ceaseless interest in scientific advancement and its bounties. A close friend of Nikolai Tesla, Twain spent much time in his lab and even came up with three patented inventions, including a new form of suspenders and a self-adhesive scrapbook. Naturally Twain’s love of scientific discovery bled into his writing work. He was the first author to write an entire novel on an ultra-modern device called the typewriter (ten points for the first person to guess correctly which novel), even though he wasn’t all that keen on the device. He wrote a short story called Sold to Satan, which was all about the perils of the periodic table, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which features ‘time-traveller’ Hank introducing modern technology to Arthurian England. Twain may be famous for his riverboat stories, but he was much more aware of his time than many give credit for, and his home reflects this as well as his writing.

TwainHouseBilliardRoomED

His writing space was his private domain, the top floor of the 3-storey house, and was the gentleman’s equivalent of a treehouse with a ‘no girls allowed’ sign stuck on it. It was a manly retreat reserved for writing, playing billiards and entertaining male guests with whisky and cigars. No one else, bar the cleaning staff, were permitted entry. Not the first writing space we’ve come across that was a Fortress of Solitude then, although this one is more like a gentlemen’s club crossed with a writer’s den. Here in the atmosphere of peace and cigar-smoke Twain would write late into the night and have a good swear. He liked a cuss word did old Twain.

There ought to be a room in this house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.

It was atop his marvellous mansion, and in between the odd profanity, that he produced his most famous works: including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And when he was not writing he was often in the company of authors who lived close by, such as Harriet Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame. As I mentioned regarding Rudyard Kipling, it’s always good for authors to get together. Conversation and exchange of ideas are fuel for the creative fire.

It’s also worth mentioning that Twain’s house had a magnificent library which shared the luxury of the other rooms decorated by Tiffany & Co. (yep, that Tiffany & Co.). I think every writer should have a good stock of books and a comfy place to write them. It doesn’t have to be lavishly festooned with pricey items as Twain’s was, it just needs to be a place of comfort; a place where it’s easier for ideas to thrive.

Writing Space #2

As if this glorious house wasn’t enough of a writing space, Mark Twain had a spot further down the country at his sister Elmira’s home in New York. He would summer with her but required a quiet spot to work, so, as you do, he built a large octagonal gazebo on her land, describing the Victorian structure as “the loveliest study you ever saw”. He wasn’t wrong. It was furnished with a sofa, several chairs, a table, and a fireplace, and because it was perched on a small hill had a commanding 360 degree view of the countryside below. “Imagine the luxury of it,” Twain remarked as he described what it was like writing there in a thunderous rainstorm. Its distance from the house gave him the peace and quiet he craved and means he’s part of that pantheon of authors who worked in huts, like Louis de Bernières, Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw. You’ve got to admit, there’s something about a hut that speaks to a writer’s temperament.

twainhut

Twain’s New York gazebo (or ‘NeYoBo’ as I like to call it) is like a little piece of his Connecticut home transported to another place. Like the Victorian gothic house it sticks out among the natural surroundings. It’s intriguing in its design and, compared to even some modern writing huts, rather grand in its furnishing. Twain himself admits to its luxury. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We write best where we feel most comfortable, and he was lucky enough to forge his own grand spaces. His Connecticut home not only allowed him to raise a family in “grace and in the peace of its benediction”, but also to accomplish some pretty great works. And whatever time you live in and whatever else you do, that’s all anyone could want from any space.

Hope you have enjoyed this week’s Writing Spaces, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Art of Manliness, Torrington.org, TheLobby.com and Berkeley Library.

Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.

 

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