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Mark Twain’s America, Then and Now. By Laura DeMarco. Pavilion Books, 2019. Pp. 144. Hardcover $22.50. ISBN-13: 978-1-911641-07-0.
Can anyone honestly say they have stood for a moment at a historic site and not imagined the past coming alive? This blending of time and place, past with the present, may be a uniquely human strength, or perhaps a childish weakness. But it is human, and few of us could stand below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and not hear the echo of Martin Luther King’s immortal aspiration, or walk in the pastoral greenery of Gettysburg and not think the quietude ironic, or stand in any Nazi death camp and not be stricken with anger and grief.
Shakespeare said the past is prologue; Faulkner said the past is not only not dead–that it’s not even past; and, Mark Twain wrote in one of his letters that the one thing we must remember about the past is that we can’t restore it. But none of this wisdom ever discouraged a Twainian, and when a Twainian finds himself in a place where Twain once breathed the air, time and place begin to blur and the present recedes as the tidal past rolls in.
Twainians are not alone: This has long been true for all readers who find themselves at literary shrines, as evidenced by the dozens of books about such shrines that have found eager buyers for more than a century, beginning with several during Twain’s lifetime, including Charles F. Briggs’s Homes of American Authors (1853), J. L. and Joseph Gilder’s Authors at Home (1888), and Theodore Wolfe’s Literary Shrines: Some Haunts of Famous American Authors (1895), Literary Homes and Haunts (1899), and Literary Rambles at Home and Abroad (1901). Twain’s homes were included in the Gilder and Wolfe volumes, and the Langdon family library included a copy of the Briggs book that may have caught Twain’s eye.
The literature about literary shrines grew during the twentieth century, and a glance through the bibliographies and indices of more recent books like Ehrlich and Carruth’s The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States (1982), John Eastman’s Who Lived Where (1983), Geri and Eben Bass’s U. S. Guide to Literary Landmarks (1984), Irvin Haas’s Historic Homes of American Authors (1991), and Francesca Premoli-Droulers’s Writers’ Houses (1995), gives a hint of the extensive literature on the subject.
Twain is included in virtually every such guide, with the focus nearly always on his grand Hartford home or his humble boyhood home in Hannibal. The other places where he lived are sometimes mentioned, but the places where significant events in his life took place are usually ignored or overlooked. Hilary Irish Lowe’s candid assessment of Twain’s major homes, Mark Twain’s Homes and Literary Tourism (2012), was a welcome and much-needed addition to this literature, focusing on Florida and Hannibal, Missouri, Hartford, and Quarry Farm. Steve Courtney’s “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was”: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford (2011) is a model for such guides focusing on a single location.
The newest addition to this shelf is Laura DeMarco with Mark Twain’s America, Then and Now, a delightful travelogue of Twain’s American meanderings. Sixty-eight places are pictorially documented, then and now, with nearly 200 old and new images, drawings, and photographs, many in color. As the title of this book makes clear, this tour of Twain’s haunts and homes is American, and no attempt is made to capture every single spot of ground where Twain spent his time. There are a few minor omissions–the home of the Gilders were Twain stayed after his wife’s death, the home of Laurence Hutton where he spent time with some fellow authors, or the homes of friends like Henry Rogers or William Dean Howells where his visits were usually brief. Some Twainians might wish that the Hooker home where Twain and Livy stayed in Hartford while their mansion was being built (and where their son Langdon died) could have been included; it still stands, subdivided into apartments, just a short stroll down the street from the Hartford Memorial. Also not included, but still standing, is Orion’s home in Carson City, Nevada (it’s now a law office). Orion’s last home in Keokuk, where Jane Clemens lived out her last years, also still stands. Other places that were not included have changed completely, like the grassy street corner in Keokuk where the Ivins House survived until the 1950s when it was razed to make room for nearby public housing; Twain gave his first public speech to a group of printers there. Also omitted is the block where the magnificent Lick House hotel stood in San Francisco before it was levelled in the 1906 earthquake, where Twain sometimes stayed, and once hosted a dinner. But the Occidental Hotel, where he also stayed, is included. It too was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake, but not before its bar was credited with being the place where the martini was created…
…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.
Also check out Laura DeMarco’s post on Twain’s flirtations with Cleveland.