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Mark Twain’s connection in Norfolk

A new book of Mark Twain’s letters provides some details of the famous author and humorist’s visits to Norfolk in the early 1900s. “The Letters of Mark Twain and Joseph Hopkins Twichell” publishes all the known correspondence between Twain and his close friend and pastor, with much background about their lives, families and careers.

The early letters cover the years Twain lived in Hartford in the 1870s and 1880s, the period in which his most famous books were published. It was during his later years when he lived in New York City that he frequently came up to Norfolk on the train to see one of his daughters, who was recuperating there after the death of her mother.

Twain’s friend Twichell was a Union Army chaplain during the Civil War, then became pastor of Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church. He and his wife, Harmony, raised 11 children and were near neighbors of Twain and his wife Livy, who had four. Twichell presided at their wedding and at Twain’s funeral, and just about everything in between.

The correspondence between the religion-scoffing author and the Congregational minister spanned 42 years and covered everything from family life to business ventures, travel experiences, war, politics and religion. Twichell had more formal education than Twain and was an accomplished talker in his own right. He made a lively companion and correspondent for one of the world’s great writers and speakers.

Some of the letters are just brief messages on penny postal cards – the emails of their day, you might say – while others run to many pages. Many of Twichell’s letters sound remarkably like Twain’s own voice.

Great walkers as well as talkers, the pair often “kicked leaves” to Talcott’s Tower outside Hartford, and in 1878 they tramped together in the Alps and the Black Forest. Twichell is the comic foil “Harris” in “A Tramp Abroad.”

When Twain suffered financial setbacks in the 1890s, the Hartford home was closed and the family lived abroad until 1900. Their eldest daughter, Susy, died in Hartford while they were away, and they never lived there again.

After Twain’s wife died in 1904, his daughter Clara was under the care of Dr. Edward Quintard in New York City. Quintard had a home in Norfolk, and Clara spent the summers of 1905 and 1906 in the village, even then a haven for artists and wealthy city visitors.

According to the book, Clara stayed at a “cottage” in Norfolk. Others sources mention a sanitarium. When her father visited he stayed at the Quintard house, which still stands on Route 44 next to the Botelle School. Twichell also visited, and on one occasion spoke for Twain at a luncheon in Norfolk when Twain had gout.

Another visitor was Isabella Beecher Hooker, also an old Hartford friend, who had a summer cottage in Norfolk. Isabella was a leading suffragist and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. A spiritualist as well, Isabella described for Twain her more unusual communications with the afterworld. Twain, a confirmed skeptic, confided to Twichell that he had a hard time keeping a straight face.

Other books discuss Clara’s debut as a singer in 1906 in the Norfolk gymnasium, now the town hall, behind the library. Clara was unsure whether she wanted her father to introduce her, fearing he would upstage her. He nearly did, though she needn’t have worried. In the end, the audience called for him and he made a speech which he later called the best of his career, while her recital won rave reviews. By mid-September, Clara was back in New York, finding the weather in Norfolk too cold.

During his time in Norfolk, Twain likely visited the Eldridge Library (opened 1889), just down the road from the Quintard house, and other still-standing structures in town. An item in The Lakeville Journal in the 1980s told of a citizen who as a child saw the white-haired Twain emerge from a store in town dressed in one of his famous white suits. Buying cigars, perhaps (Twain, of course, not the child).

As a world-famous celebrity constantly in the newspapers and magazines, Twain was often “kodaked” informally in later years. Unfortunately, no images of him in Norfolk are known, although many of his letters written from there have been published.

The Quintard house, a Victorian-era, English-style structure with expansive lawn, is currently on the market. Whoever buys it may not see the ghost of Mark Twain wandering around or find any of his letters tucked behind a chimney, but could claim, like the owners of many a residence that hosted George Washington, that “Mark Twain slept here.”

 

Mark Godburn is an antiquarian bookseller and writer in North Canaan. His book, “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets,” is available from the Oak Knoll Press.