Friday, April 29, 2011

Mark Twain vs. James Fenimore Cooper

Last year, when our friend Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone came to visit, he mentioned that Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” was “the greatest literary takedown in history.” We had often read excerpts and heard mention of this essay, and we have decided that it’s time for this smackdown to revive itself into the twentieth century.

Each Wednesday in May, the public is invited to a good-old-fashioned literary faceoff. We’ll be taking Twain’s snark and putting it up against a modern-day defender of the victim. Unlike your usual prizefight, you can see the punches thrown for free. Just show up on Wednesdays at 5:00 for pre-game snacks and a ringside seat. The Trouble Begins at 5:30.

Does this man look tough enough to withstand the eloquent wrath of our Sam?

Round 1: Mark Twain vs. James Fenimore Cooper.

As a teaser, we’ve pulled a few choice moments from Twain’s novella-length rant against Cooper’s literary style and storytelling skills. There are so many hysterical passages to pick from, it was hard to decide, so we’re just going with the ones that tickled us the most. Let’s start with Sam’s opinion on Cooper’s plot devices:

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

Or, my personal favorite, the idiocy of his Native American villains:

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious.

The object of Twain's fury

And, lest you suspect that Twain is too nit-picky on tiny details, this is the stirring conclusion to the whole shebang:

It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

We can’t wait to see what James Fenimore Cooper scholar Dr. Wayne Franklin of the University of Connecticut has up his sleeve. He’ll have to have a good plan in order to get a few blows in.

Let the games begin!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Literary PilgriAs one of the premier destinations of American literature enthusiasts, the Mark Twain House & Museum is not only dedicated to promoting the legacy of Samuel Clemens, but the many other celebrated authors (and their homes) found in New York and New England. From the serenity of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the quaint garden estate of Emily Dickinson, we offer readers, history buffs and writers a once-in-a-lifetime journey through America’s literary landmarks…all conveniently located between NYC and Boston.

Just a short 45 minute drive from NYC, travelers can begin their literary journey at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, NY and over the course of six days (or less, for those who are ambitious), visit the birthplace of Mark Twain’s most famous characters, get inspired by Edith Wharton’s landscape design, and visit the gravesites of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Alcott at Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow.

Below, you will find the full itinerary of a New York/New England literary pilgrimage-- offering a unique, inspiring and educational summer vacation. If you should need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us or visit us online at

Literary Pilgrimage Itinerary
Day 1: New York & Environs

Whether you start or end your pilgrimage in New York, there are several literary stops within a short drive of Manhattan.
  • Washington Irving's Sunnyside  Nestled on the banks of the sparkling Hudson River, visitors will find the immaculately restored home of the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  Located in Tarrytown, NY, you can tour Sunnyside and spend time visiting the sites made famous by Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, including the Old Dutch Church and Sleepy Hollow burying ground.
  • Walt Whitman Birthplace & Interpretive Center  Walt Whitman, “America’s Shakespeare” was born in West Hills, NY in 1819. The newly restored farmhouse is a New York State Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Interpretive Center exhibits: 130 Whitman portraits, original letters, manuscripts, artifacts, Whitman’s voice on tape, and schoolmaster’s desk. On the site you can find, guided tours, an audio-visual show, the museum shop and bookstore, and a picnic area.
  • Edgar Allan Poe Cottage is the only house museum in New York City dedicated to a writer.  A small house located in the bustling Bronx, this historic property is undergoing renovations, so be sure to check their website before visiting.  At the nearby Valentine-Varian House, you can check out a special exhibition entitled Edgar Allan Poe - The New York Years which adds depth to your understanding of Poe's turbulent final years.

Day 2: Hartford, CT

  • Mark Twain House & Museum   As you may know, this is home where Mark Twain lived during the time he created his most famous characters, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. From the infamous billiard room where Twain worked on his writing (and cigar smoking), to unique exhibits in our Museum Center, to educational programs and community events, Twain’s Hartford, CT home is a unique destination for readers and history buffs of all ages.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe House  The famous next door neighbor of Mark Twain and the author of the best-selling, anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that her actions could make a difference and her words changed the world. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center connects Stowe's issues to the contemporary face of race relations, class and gender issues, economic justice and education equality. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House, a charming Victorian Gothic Revival home (1871), and includes Victorian-style gardens, the Katharine Seymour Day House, a grand mansion adjacent to the Stowe House and the Stowe Visitor Center, with changing exhibitions and the museum store.
  • Wallace Stevens Walk  About one-quarter mile away from Stowe and Twain's homes in Nook Farm, you can take a short literary pilgrimage by following the famous walk poet Wallace Stevens took from his job at The Hartford to his home on Westerly Terrace.  Guiding you along the way are 13 granite markers that sequentially offer Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
  • Noah Webster House  A short drive into West Hartford, the Noah Webster House offers visitors the opportunity to discover the man behind the creation of the first American dictionary and the "Blue Backed Speller."  Tour his childhood home and learn about life in 18th Century Connecticut. 

Day 3: Lenox and Pittsfield, MA

  • The Mount Estate & Gardens,  The Mount is both a historic site and a center for culture inspired by the passions and achievements of Edith Wharton. Best known for such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Wharton employed both humor and profound empathy to describe the lives of New York's upper class and the vanishing of their world in the early years of the 20th century. The gorgeous property includes three acres of formal gardens designed by Wharton, who was also an authority on European landscape design. The Mount is a stunning reflection of Wharton’s love of the literary arts, interior design and decoration, garden and landscape design, and the art of living.
  • Herman Melville’s Arrowhead,  Arrowhead is a National Historic Landmark located in western Massachusetts.  Melville purchased this historic farmhouse in 1850. It remained the home of Herman’s large and chaotic family for more than 13 years.  Herman found refuge in the second-floor library where he wrote his most famous novel, Moby Dick.  In the end, he wrote four novels and many short stories in the historic farmhouse.
Day 4: Cummington, MA and Amherst, MA
  • William Cullen Bryant Homestead   As you traverse Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, there are two poetic stops well worth making.  The first, in the hamlet of Cummington, MA, is the summer homestead of poet William Cullen Bryant.  The editor of The Saturday Evening Post for 50 years, Bryant was a passionate environmentalist who celebrated the landscape of America through his words.
  • Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens  The Homestead, where poet Emily Dickinson was born and lived most of her life, and The Evergreens, home of the poet’s brother and his family, share three beautiful acres of the original Dickinson property in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts. The Museum offers guided tours of the houses as well as a self-guided audio tour of the outdoor grounds.  
Day 5: Concord, MA
  • The Wayside: Home to Hawthorne and the Alcott Family  A Historic Landmark, The Wayside was the only home owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and Twice-Told Tales. Before Hawthorne bought it, the house belonged to the Alcott family, who named it "Hillside." Here, Louisa May Alcott and her sisters lived much of the childhood described in Little Women.
  • Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House Just minutes from Wayside (circa 1690) is most noted for being home to the talented Alcott family, and is where Louisa May Alcott wrote and set her beloved classic novel, Little Women, in 1868. 
  • "Authors Ridge at Sleepy Hollow"  Perched on the top-most glacial hill in the cemetery, Authors Ridge gathers together, among others, the graves of Henry Thoreau (1862), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1864), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1882), Louisa May Alcott (1888) and her father, Bronson Alcott (1888). 
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson House  Open to the public, the Emerson House is still furnished with the families’ memorabilia and keepsakes. Emerson lived here most of his adult life, wrote his famous essays "The American Scholar" and "Self Reliance," and died here in 1882.
  • Walden Pond  Situated on 400 acres, Walden Pond is a State Reservation and National Historic Site. Henry David Thoreau lived here from July 1845 to September 1847. His experience at Walden provided the material for the book Walden, which is credited with helping to inspire awareness and respect for the natural environment. Today, visitors can enjoy hiking, swimming and educational and guided tours.

Day 6: Boston, MA
  • Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters  This National Historic Site in Cambridge, MA preserves the home of Henry W. Longfellow, one of the world’s foremost 19th century poets. The house also served as headquarters for General George Washington during the Siege of Boston, July 1775 - April 1776. In addition to its rich history, the site offers unique opportunities to explore 19th century literature and arts. Of course, a visit to Cambridge would be incomplete without visiting Harvard University, home to too many writers to mention.
  • Boston by Foot  Take a walking tour of the homes and haunts of such great American writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
New England welcomes literary pilgrims of all stripes - intrepid readers, history buffs or writers in need of the inspiration you can find when you follow in the footsteps of legends.  For more information about writers' houses, visit

Monday, April 4, 2011


In late 2009, folks from The Mark Twain House & Museum started a conversation with our neighbors at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The jumping off point of discussion: “Why don’t we start a monthly program that encourages people to read the works of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe?” As historic house museums, we preserve and restore the homes of these two legends. But as centers of education charged with promoting their legacies, we needed to get people reading…and talking.

With Nook Farm being the home of two of America’s most significant authors, as well as other literary figures like Charles Dudley Warner (co-writer of Twain’s first novel The Gilded Age, among others), William Gillette (who adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes into a successful stage play), and Richard Burton (literary critic for The Hartford Courant), we knew that launching an ongoing series of book talks was essential. This area of Hartford was a hotbed of literary conversation in the mid-to-late 1800s -- a tradition well worth reviving in the era of 140-character tweets, scrolling news feeds, and visual over-stimulation.

Our main concern was limiting ourselves solely to the writings of Twain and Stowe. First, they would be finite in number (although both authors wrote a prodigious amount). Second, we feared that once the “big titles” -- Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – were discussed, that attendance would drop precipitously. Finally, Stowe and Twain’s interests were incredibly wide and varied taking in social issues, religion, domestic concerns, humor, war, human trafficking, and more. Why not pursue books that would have interested them, as well?

As a result, we decided that we would take a broader view. Both museums agreed that we would pick an initial slate of ten books that would mix Stowe and Twain works with biographies, fiction and non-fiction that look at the Gilded Age, and modern books that would focus on issues relevant to their interests. The challenge would be how to whittle it down to only 10 books with so much ground to cover. Each museum would select 5 books and we would alternate throughout the year. The discussions would alternate between the two properties, as well. Of course, refreshments would be required to keep the participants lively! Thus began the Nook Farm Book Club.

We kicked off the series in February 2010 with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as that month marked the 125th anniversary of the controversial masterpiece book being published in the United States. Sixty-five book clubbers showed eager to talk about this landmark Twain novel. We met in the Mark Twain Museum Center classroom in a U-shaped arrangement of chairs. A first edition Huckleberry Finn and other items drawn from our collection made this first meeting quite different than a standard book club.

The second meeting drew an equally large and engaged crowd to the Katharine Seymour Day House at the Stowe Center to discuss Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was contextualized by Stowe Center Director Katherine Kane and then the talk was off and running. Precious little moderation was required as the participants were extremely eager to share their feelings about Stowe’s landmark abolitionist novel. And to think we were discussing it only yards away from where the great lady herself lived for over two decades.

Having gotten to the two most obvious choices within the first two meetings, we were then prepared to start heading in different directions. The third book selected was Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America. Of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made the list. Having just discussed the books, the conversation allowed us to put them into perspective alongside the other classics considered – from early landmarks Of Plymouth Plantation and The Federalist Papers up through How to Win Friends and Influence People and Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.

Illustration from "Pink & White Tyranny"
The rest of the year allowed participants to examine more obscure Twain (Tom Sawyer Abroad & Tom Sawyer, Detective), a biting society novel by Stowe (Pink & White Tyranny), a work that examines Stowe and Twain alongside their post-Civil War contemporaries artist Martin Johnson Heade and poet Emily Dickinson (A Summer of Hummingbirds), a biographical collage of Stowe (Stowe in Her Own Time), a dark novel examining Huck Finn’s adventures from his father Pap’s perspective (Finn, with author John Clinch participating via Skype), a powerful look at New Orleans post-Katrina (David Eggers’ Zeitoun), and a warm-hearted reading of Twain’s beloved The Diaries of Adam & Eve for the holidays.

At the end of 2010, Stowe and Twain staffs reconvened to examine the success of the first year and plot the second year. The first decision made was to switch from calling the meetings “Nook Farm Book Club” to “Nook Farm Book Talks.” The thought was that calling it a “book club” might preclude the attendance of people who have not actually read the books. By calling the meetings “book talks,” anyone with an interest can attend. For certain, the conversation will be more rewarding if one has read the book, but someone who has not read the book will be able to enjoy the chat and hopefully be inspired to read the book at a later date. The second change was trying to get guest authors and scholars when possible.

The first selection of 2011 was apt: A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses by the skeptical scholar Anne Trubek. Anne traveled through a blizzard to be with us in January and led an engaging conversation about her travels visiting house museums dedicated to authors. This year we celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, so the next choice was also apt: the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Stowe by Trinity College professor Joan Hedrick. Again, the author was present and participated in a lively conversation about her research. The March selection was the hefty Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, the recently released blockbuster. As Twain specified the book could not be published in full until after 100 years after his death, the author was not present, but was ably represented by Twain scholar and St. Joseph College professor Dr. Kerry Driscoll.  Participants have enjoyed the small changes and attendance has been terrific.

So what is coming up for the Nook Farm Book Talks and why did we pick them?  Mark your calendar and start reading!

April 7th at Stowe

This book, which focuses on gender oppression including rape, genital mutilation, and sexual slavery, is the groundbreaking selection for the first-ever Stowe Prize. Not merely a catalog of atrocities, the authors offer a path forward through empowerment, education and investment.

May 5th at Twain

This #1 national bestseller is a remarkable and page-turning distillation of a turning point in America’s history. The excesses of the Gilded Age reach a simultaneous high and low with the creation of the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago and the arrival of the nation’s most diabolical serial killer.

June 2nd at Stowe
THE MINISTER’S WOOING by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe's domestic comedy is a powerful examination of slavery, Protestant theology, and gender differences in early America. First published in 1859, and set in eighteenth-century Newport, Rhode Island, The Minister's Wooing is a historical novel that satirizes Calvinism, celebrating its intellectual and moral integrity while critiquing its rigid theology.

July 7th at Twain

The esteemed and dynamic leader of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Joseph Hopkins Twichell was the perfect and most unlikely best friend for the irascible Mark Twain. MTH&M staffer Steve Courtney will discuss his Connecticut Book Award-winning biography.

September 1st at Stowe

The Swedish author Stieg Larsson tragically died before he saw his trilogy about the brutal adventures of a computer hacker and a dogged journalist turn into a worldwide publishing and movie sensation. This Nook Farm Book Talk focuses on the middle book of the trilogy and its unflinching look at human trafficking in the sex trade.

October 6th at Twain

Twain and his contemporary Henry James are linked as two major figures in the 19th century movement of Literary Realism. October’s meeting takes on James’ spooky classic ghost story of two children who may be inviting evil into their forlorn estate.  See if you agree with Twain's assessment of a Henry James novel:  "Once you put it down, you simply can't pick it up." 

November 3rd at Stowe

The Stowe Center considers the impact of two seminal figures of the Civil War Era: President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. We will examine the text of several significant speeches of these two famous orators and boundary-shattering abolitionists.

December 1st at Twain

The year draws to a close with another little-read Twain classic. Roxy, a slave woman who is 1/16th black, switches her baby boy with the white son of her wealthy master. With only 1/32nd of black blood differentiating them, the two boys grow up in vastly different circumstances.  Pudd'nhead Wilson marks a darker turn in Twain's writing and presages his turbulent later works.  It also points the way to 2012 and a whole new year of book talks.

Nook Farm Book Talks are free and open to all. Meetings begin at 5 p.m. with a free reception featuring light snacks, wine and soft drinks. The discussion begins at 5:30 p.m. and runs an hour in duration. Book titles are generally available through the Twain and Stowe gift shops, but are also widely available in book stores, libraries and online.

Special thanks to the Connecticut Humanities Council for their support of the Nook Farm Book Talks series.