Self-Made Connecticut Yankee

Mark Twain. author AP

He was an author, humorist, social critic and family man. Mark Twain was also an inveterate smoker.

By his own count, Twain smoked about 22 cigars a day.

It is just one of many things you may not know about Mark Twain, according to John Boyer, executive director of the Mark Twain House, the family's Victorian mansion in Hartford, Conn. This month, a modern Museum and Education Center opened next door, built partly underground so as not to rival the old house.

Inside, the wisdom of Mark Twain is literally carved in stone.

"I think there are few writers in our nation's history whose voice was somehow modern, no matter which decade you hear it in for the first time," Boyer says.

Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, grew up in Hannibal, Miss. He dropped out of school, worked as a typesetter, newspaperman, and riverboat pilot on his way to becoming one of America's great storytellers.

His creation, Tom Sawyer, was a schemer and a show-off. Mark Twain was that, too, and his move to Hartford was intended to show that he had arrived, in every sense.

"[Twain] could have gone anywhere, he was just beginning to quest with his young fame and he had married into a great fortune," Boyer explains. "But, he chose Hartford because it was then becoming the wealthiest city per capita in the nation with a remarkably driving cultural life."

It was in Hartford that Twain wrote some of his most celebrated works, such as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." His years in his Hartford house with his wife, Olivia and three daughters, were among his happiest.

Today, visitors can see the living quarters of Twain's old house. On display is his great bed, where he slept backwards to admire the carved angels on the headboard; the library, where he told stories to his children – never the same story twice; and the drawing room for formal entertaining. Restoring the house is a work in progress.

Twain's writings made him rich, but a bad investment nearly did him in. The "Paige Compositor" - a typesetting machine that he'd hoped would revolutionize printing was instead an instrument of his financial ruin.

"[Paige Compositor] was an experiment and with 18,000 parts, unfortunately, it would break down chronically and usually just before potential investors came in the room," Boyer says.

Twain, born in 1835, lived a long life, and by the time he died at age 74, his writings and speeches had made him wealthy again. On his birthday, Nov. 30, Americans pay tribute to him.

"He knew all parts of the country, he knew all kinds of people and he was a great listener," Boyer says. "But, he had a great sense of the future. And [he] was looking out over the edge of the horizon, trying to get a better sense of what our country was becoming and what it would become."

"Always do right," Mark Twain once wrote. "This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
  • Rome Neal

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