By Marshall S. Berdan
(c) Connecticut Explored Spring 2010
2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, the 125th anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 100th anniversary of the author’s death. Events across the country will mark the triple convergence, including many in Connecticut, where Twain spent some of his most productive and prosperous years.
In June 1908, 73-year-old Mark Twain, America’s most beloved man of letters, returned to Connecticut to what would be his final residence, a newly completed Italianate hilltop villa in Redding that he had never seen and that he would christen “Stormfield.” By then, however, Twain was an old—and in many ways—a beaten man. His eldest daughter, Suzy, had died in 1896; in 1904 his beloved wife Olivia had died. During the 22 months he would reside in Redding, he would enjoy one very bright day—the marriage of his youngest daughter Clara in 1909—and one more very dismal one—the unexpected death of his middle daughter, Jean, on Christmas Eve in 1909.
Just days before Jean’s death, the spirit of America’s quintessential humorist had shone through in a public holiday greeting: “I hear the newspapers say that I am dying. The charge is not true. I would not do such a thing at my time of life. Merry Christmas to everybody.”
But four months later, at sunset on the night of April 21, 1910, Twain saddened the nation and the literary world by doing just that. Amazingly, Twain had presaged his death a year earlier in an off-hand remark to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine when he had noted that he’d been born during the last appearance of Halley’s Comet, in November 1835. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet,” he quipped. “The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh! I am looking forward to that.” In that regard, at least, Mark Twain died content.
To commemorate the centennial of Mark Twain’s death, Governor M. Jodi Rell has proclaimed Wednesday, April 21, 2010 “Mark Twain Day in Connecticut.” The broader celebration, however, will take place over several months, with exhibitions, events, and performances throughout the state. Not surprisingly, Hartford, the town newlyweds Sam and Livy Clemens first moved to in 1871 and would call home—off and on—until 1903, and Redding, where the former steamboat captain finally ran aground, will host major events. But other Connecticut towns that played supporting roles in the picaresque novel that was Twain’s life will also join the party. The Mark Twain Centennial Project, conceived and executed by Redding town historian Brent Colley, will sponsor “Twain Connections,” a series of location-specific informative exhibits to be placed at libraries and public buildings around the state.
Marshall Berdan is a freelance writer living in Glastonbury who made his first pilgrimage to Hannibal in 1974. This is his third appearance in Connecticut Explored.
Here’s a list of major centennial venues and events in Connecticut.
Mark Twain Library
439 Redding Road, West Redding, (203) 938-2545, www.marktwainlibrary.org
April 2.1 Evening party to celebrate the opening of the Town of Redding’s Centennial Exhibit, to be followed by a slideshow presentation about Twain’s final two years in Redding
The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, (860) 247-0998, www.marktwainhouse.org
February 13 – January 10, 2011: “Legacy,” an exhibition celebrating Twain’s cultural impact
April 1 – August 8: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” an exhibition of cultural artifacts related to the 1876 book that made Twain’s name as a novelist
April 17 and 18: “Tom Sawyer: A Chamber Opera,” by Phillip Martin, performed by Hartford Opera Theater (www.hartfordoperatheater.com), the Lincoln Financial Auditorium at the Mark Twain House & Museum
April 21: “The Mark Twain Séance,” a recreation of a Victorian séance by magician and theater performer Todd Robbins, plus after-dark tours of The Mark Twain House led by ghost investigator Lorraine Warren
May/June: Lecture Series: “The Trouble Begins at 5:30,” three Wednesday-afternoon lectures
May 19: St. Joseph’s College professor and nationally known Twain scholar Kerry Driscoll on “Mark Twain’s Music Box”
May 26: Hartford Courant columnist – and Missouri native — Susan Campbell on “God, Missouri, Fundamentalism and Mark Twain”
June 2: Mark Twain House & Museum Curator Patti Philippon on “Mark Twain’s Women”
June 12: “Tom Sawyer Day,” featuring children’s games, activities, and performances on the museum’s grounds
August 9 – January 10, 2011: “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” an exhibition about Twain’s most famous book’s lasting impact, including its role in the national discussion about race
Hartford Public Library
500 Main Street, Hartford, (860) 695-6300, www.hplct.org
April 1: The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts-funded initiative designed “to restore reading to the center of American culture,” formally launches its local 2010 program with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The April 1 kickoff will be followed by 250 individual programs held at 84 locations in the Greater Hartford area.
April 25 – June 30: “Life Along the Connecticut River,” Opening reception, Sunday, April 25, 2 – 4 p.m.
Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library presents a Big Read exhibition showcasing images, maps, books, and newspapers from the late 1800s, when Mark Twain walked the streets of Hartford. The opening reception features Dr. Eugene Leach, professor and a founder of the American Studies program at Trinity College, speaking on “Hartford in the Gilded Age,” and music by the “Boys of Wexford,” featuring Don Sineti (the “Chantey Man of Mystic Seaport”), Bill Walach, and Mike McGarry performing songs about life along the Connecticut River and the history of the Connecticut River Valley.
May 13: The Big Read Keynote Address, “Mark Twain: The Springs of Humor,” by Dr. Jerome Loving, The Lincoln Financial Auditorium at the Mark Twain House & Museum
50 Church Street, Hartford, (860) 527-5151, www.hartfordstage.org
April 1 – May 9: World premier of Laura Eason’s adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Hartford Children’s Theater
360 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, (860) 249-7970, www.hartfordchildrenstheater.org
April 30 – May 9: The Prince and the Pauper, The Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph’s College, West Hartford