Saturday, July 02, 2022

Mark Twain in Rooms of Their Own

Mark Twain's octagonal writing shed is among the several such structures featured in my latest book Rooms of Their Own. Here's the section, with illustrations from the book by James Oses:

Like most writers, Mark Twain preferred to work in the peace of his own sanctuary, but in his case he also mixed business with pleasure by writing in the same room as the billiard table on which he spent many happy hours playing by himself and with friends. “It was plain that I had worked myself out, pumped myself dry,” he wrote to his Edinburgh-based friend Dr John Brown in September 1874, “So I knocked off, and went to playing billiards for a change.”

This billiard/writing room was on the top floor of his three-storey redbrick house in Hartford, Connectict. Although light and roomy with plenty of windows, Twain wrote at a desk facing a wall to minimise distractions (the urban view now would have been a far lovelier rural one in his day). Next to his desk, usually fairly cluttered with papers, was a shelving unit with various compartments where he kept his drafts. He used the billiard table to spread out his manuscripts before editing them.

Twain also wrote in an octagonal shed built in 1874 at Quarry Farm, in Elmira, upstate New York, at the home of his sister-in-law Susan Crane. Here he would begin work after a hearty breakfast and stay inside, usually missing lunch, writing and smoking cigars until 5pm. Family and friends did not disturb him, blowing a horn to get his attention if he was needed up at the main house. While his home in Hartford was something of a magnet for the literary world, his shed in Elmira where he worked every summer for two decades was a peaceful spot with far less going on.

“Susie Crane has built me the loveliest study you ever saw,” he wrote to Reverend Joseph Twichell and his wife Harmony back in Hartford. “It is octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window and it sits perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cosy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lighting flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.”

The study was 100 yards away from the house and about 12ft wide with cat flaps to allow his favourite pets to come in and out while he was writing. It had a brick fireplace and a desk but was not richly decorated inside. It has been likened to the kind of pilot house on riverboats in which Twain worked as a young man and wrote about in his memoir Life on the Mississippi. “On hot days” he wrote to Dr Brown, “I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats and write in the midst of the hurricanes, clothed in the same thin linen we make shirts of…It is remote from all noises.”

Novelist John Steinbeck was one who agreed on the loveliness of Twain’s sanctuary, using it as inspiration for his own hexagonal writing shed which he named ‘Joyous Garde.


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