The following review appeared 6 April 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Given all of the biographical material devoted to Mark Twain, and given all of the recent video productions examining his life and career, one might wonder what a 55-minute video could possibly do to warrant our attention. A number of directorial decisions might also give some Twain experts pause. The voice-over that conveys the words of Twain himself is at times a weak impersonation of Hal Holbrook's well-known portrayal of Twain. Glimpses of Twain, played by an actor bearing a strong resemblance to Sam Clemens, periodically flicker on the screen. In one, we see him through a velvet-curtained window, not yet white-haired or arrayed in white linen, but nonetheless smoking his ubiquitous cigar. In others, we see him and Olivia Langdon Clemens mounting the staircase upon entering their just-completed Hartford mansion; walking with Joseph Twichell through a pastoral landscape, presumably discussing the experiences that would become the genesis of Life on the Mississippi; or playing with his children, laying out the History Game on the lawn at his Nook Farm home. In these shots and others like them, the camera angle is oblique, the depth of field shallow, and the lighting soft. The effect is to make Mark Twain present, but not central to the shot. For a scholarly audience these choices might be troublesome, as might be some of the chronology of the material or other documentary images meant to convey national crises. But the indirect dramatization of the man turns out to be an appropriate choice of presentation for Roynn Lisa Simmons, the producer and script writer: the primary focus in this story is not Mark Twain but Nook Farm, the rather remarkable Hartford neighborhood that Sam Clemens and family called home during the heyday of his career.
Although Twain is the most well known resident of Nook Farm, a wide and notable cast of figures made this an influential and historically significant community. Despite the title, the video gives considerable time to issues and figures other than Mark Twain and weaves together three related but different narrative strands: the high profile conflicts between the Beecher family, who were central to the Nook Farm neighborhood and the culture of the period generally; the rise and fall of Mark Twain as writer and businessman; and the subsequent efforts to preserve the history that Nook Farm represents.
The video outlines the history of this community from its inception in 1853, when John Hooker and Francis Gillette bought and subdivided the 140-acre farm into residential parcels, through the career turns of its most celebrated neighbors, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, and concludes with the twentieth-century status of the Nook Farm legacy. Stowe and Twain share that stage with writer and newspaper publisher Charles Dudley Warner, Civil War general and Connecticut governor Joseph Hawley, women's rights activist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and minister Twichell, as well as other notable nineteenth-century figures who visited this exceptional community. The history is presented both in light of the leading figures' lives with insights from John Boyer, the Executive Director of the Mark Twain House, and Katherine Kane, the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and in reference to the context of the evolving nineteenth-century culture with commentary by Joan Hedrick, Professor of History at Trinity College and Richard Wightman Fox, professor of History at University of Southern California. Their insights help to frame the presentation of the biographies and social history with respect to business, political, religious, and gender issues of the cultural era.
Expert commentary can often turn the task of relating this history into the dry stuff of scholarly generalization. But to the credit of the filmmaker and the experts, the story is told with nuance and vitality. In part, the liveliness of the tale stems from the headlining-grabbing scandals that punctuate it. These scandals affected the reputations of the Beechers and centered on the debate about women's rights that divided the influential Beecher clan. The first scandal stemmed from Stowe's article in an 1869 issue of the Atlantic Monthly which accused Lord Byron of conducting an incestuous affair with his sister. Stowe wrote from a moral platform on this topic and out of a sense of justice to Byron's wife. But her fame as the writer of America's great abolitionist novel was not enough to innoculate her from a backlash. Her own popularity suffered, and her family moved from the Oak Home mansion at Nook farm to a smaller and more affordable house. The second scandal involved allegations of sexual impropriety within Stowe's own family. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the era's most visible religious figures, was accused of adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, first, journalistically by Victoria Woodhull who had hoped to gain support for her cause of "free love" in the emancipation of women by pointing out the hypocrisy of opponents like the morally influential Beecher; and then, second, in a civil complaint filed by Theodore Tilton against Beecher for alienation of Elizabeth's affections. The "trial of the decade" that ensued did not settle the question of Beecher's actions. And the rift between the older sister Harriet, who sided with Henry, and the younger sister Isabella, who did not, was felt throughout this elite community. Isabella's suspicions about her brother were supported by her bond with Woodhull and her own sense of women's ascendancy. At the height of her enthrallment with the prospect of women's emancipation, Isabella was persuaded by a spiritual medium that she would emerge on New Year's Eve as the leader of a matriarchal government that would spread from the United States around the globe.
Twain's role in all of this controversy was intentionally peripheral. He attended the Beecher-Tilton trial as a cultural observer, and, though he and his family had rented the Hooker home for three years while his mansion was being built, he forbade his wife from visiting Isabella during the Beecher family's conflict. Choosing the wrong side could have devastating social consequences, but maintaining a careful connection to this culturally active community still offered valuable advantages. Like Twain's own navigation around scandal, the video's narrative drops this emphasis when it centers on his growing career and cultural influence during this period. Boyer recalls the story of how The Gilded Age emerged from a challenge by Mrs. Clemens and Mrs. Warner. And he credits it with crystalizing the tensions--political, social, economic--of the era. Not surprisingly, a large part of the video's narrative is absorbed with the Mark Twain house itself. Boyer points out that the house, though viewed by contemporary visitors as a nostalgic Victorian monument, was in its day a modern marvel and reflected modern tastes and the currents of thought of the local environment. The extravagant design helped to position the Clemens family conspicuously in the vanguard of this society.
The adventurous style reflected in the house's design and decor is repeated in Clemens's business dealings. His technological fascination with the Paige typesetter has often been cited as the ill-fated investment that bankrupted him. The video rehearses this material as well as Clemens's involvement in the business of publishing. Even before the Ken Burns film publicized the fact, it was generally known that Clemens had secured six-figure royalty payments for Grant's widow, a success that was countered by the failure of the Paige fiasco. But the video also points out that the Grant contract was a "sweetheart deal" that Clemens's negotiated in order to rescue Grant's family from bankruptcy. The narration also notes that Clemens's publishing company paid a $100,000 advance to Henry Ward Beecher for his memoirs, a manuscript that Beecher's failing health prevented him from ever delivering. The Paige investment, according to Boyer, is calculated at about $130,000 over nearly four years, no small sum, to be sure. But the payment to Beecher had to have been a huge blow to Clemens's economic security. The acknowledgement of this fact in the Twain legend here should blunt the emphasis that has been placed on the Paige debacle as the key to the reversal of his fortune. Granted, Clemens had unrealistically high hopes for the success of the typesetter, and its failure left its mark on A Connecticut Yankee, but the degree to which his bankruptcy has been attributed to that investment alone should be recalibrated. Clemens's lavish lifestyle and his profligate business sense--as witnessed by the Beecher contract--suggest that the typesetter was simply one element in the often told story of his bankruptcy.
Financial failure forced the Clemenses to close the Hartford house 1891 and to live abroad. But even after having vacated the mansion, it became the site of another more personally wrenching tragedy, the death of his daughter Susy in 1896 of meningitis, upon returning to Hartford from Elmira en route to join her parents in Europe. The video very touchingly deals with this somber episode and how it changed the house that was once the vital center of their family and social life. After that bitter loss, Clemens returned to the Nook Farm house only once, and by himself, and the video includes a voice-over of his reflections of the house and what it means to have the shadow of death cast upon it. The family never lived there again and sold it in 1903.
The last portion of the video's narrative chronicles how Catherine Day, granddaughter of Isabella Beecher Hooker and childhood friend of the Clemens girls, raised money to purchase the Twain house on behalf of a Hartford preservation society. Over the years, it was transformed into apartments, a school, and a home for the Hartford library. Now, owing largely to the efforts of Day, the Twain house and Oak Home, Harriet Beecher Stowe's house, are restored Victorian museums of the lives of their inhabitants and the remarkable era and unique community that influenced so deeply the culture and identity of the United States. The closing minutes of the video emphasize the value and importance of preservation efforts such as these. Unstated, but just as important, is the need to maintain these particular monuments. The funding for maintaining national treasures like the Mark Twain house, and archives such as the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, is always precarious. A video production such as Mark Twain's Neighborhood Nook Farm helps to re-emphasize the need for Connecticut citizens--the primary audience of Connecticut Public Broadcasting--and all of us to recognize the deep meaning that historic sites hold. For this purpose, the video's production values are on target. The parlor piano that plays through much of it, the variety of images--photographic, journalistic, dramatic re-enactment--and the informative narration and expert commentary instill in us an appreciation of the period and a sense and an understanding of why it all matters.
Connecticut Public Broadcasting has used this video as reward for pledges to
their seasonal fundraising. Supporting public broadcasting of this caliber is
its own reward. And yet finally, the need to support historic preservation and
public broadcasting suggest the compatible missions of both, and the challenges
that these initiatives face as potential competitors for the same funds. In
our current gilded age, one fears for the continuation of historically significant
resources like the Mark Twain House and the Mark Twain Project and Public Broadcasting
and National Public Radio among a much wider and diverse spectrum of important
but underfunded social institutions.