Mark Twain: Homeschooling the Clemens Way

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By Jennifer Huget

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2007

Yesterday the children and I decorated the school room with wild flowers, grasses and ferns for today’s examination…. The children were both examined in Arithmetic. Next Susy was examined in Geography, then Clara in United States History. Then Susy in United States History, Susy’s was a brief but very good synopsis of United S. H. from the earliest discoverers down to the Civil War—Clara’s was giving more particulars on the Civil war.  Olivia Langdon Clemens, private journal entry dated June 12, 1885

 

Mark Twain’s quirky and majestic Hartford residence served many purposes during the 17 years (1874-1891) he lived on the property: a gathering spot for the city’s—and the nation’s—literary elite, a source of inspiration and solace for the author, and, occasionally, a place where he actually put pen to paper.

The house also provided backdrop and context for the happy childhoods and education of Twain’s three daughters, Olivia Susan (known as Susy, born in 1872), Clara Langdon (born in 1874), and Jane Lampton (known as Jean, born in 1880). Much of their daily activity took place in the schoolroom, where the girls variously took their academic lessons, practiced the piano, performed amateur theatricals, and opened their Christmas presents. The Clemens house, with its schoolroom, is the chief artifact in the collection of The Mark Twain House & Museum.

Twain, whose real name of course was Samuel Clemens, was a believer in public education, despite his having left school himself after grade 5. His wife, Olivia, was also a believer, though her own frail health had kept her from attending public school. (Education—provided in a formal school building or in the home, following broad state guidelines—had been made compulsory in Connecticut in 1872, twenty years after the first state, Massachusetts, mandated school attendance.) Still, when time came to educate their daughters, the Clemenses opted to school them at home.

The Clemens family’s schoolroom originally was intended as Samuel Clemens’s study. Its proximity to the nursery and to the room where his mother-in-law stayed when visiting, along with distracting panoramic views of his pastoral property, proved detrimental to his productivity. Clemens moved upstairs to the billiard room (a spot with its own share of distractions), and his study was converted to a schoolroom just as his oldest daughter came to require schooling.

As they approached school age, Susy and Clara were taught at first for three hours a day by a woman whose name is lost to history. Bent on having her daughters learn to read and speak German, Mrs. Clemens had intentionally hired German-speaking nurses, and the girls appear to have learned that language before mastering English. During an 1878 trip to Europe, Susy and Clara’s nurse Rosina Hay was told to speak to the girls only in German—which drove the girls crazy.

Upon their return to Hartford, in 1879, Olivia took on the teaching duties, giving her girls lessons in geography, “mental arithmetic,” “numbers,” writing, and English. A year later, Olivia passed the baton to governess Lily Gillette Foote (a cousin of author and neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe). Foote eventually came to serve as a private teacher for several other girls in the Clemens’s Nook Farm neighborhood.

Susy and Clara were largely educated together, with the elder girl’s lessons appropriately advanced. Jean’s education, though less fully documented than her sisters’, appears to have followed a similar course, though she did attend day-long school in Paris in 1893-1894 after the Clemenses left Hartford.

In addition to their formal education, the Clemens girls learned much by osmosis. They sat on the stairs and eavesdropped as famous guests traded witticisms and political commentaries in the dining room below. Family dinners were marked by lively, often intellectual, conversation. Olivia Clemens’s appreciation for learning infused her children’s lives, and she found opportunity for teaching in everyday occurrences. Little Jean, for instance, learned natural history in part through collecting dead insects; her mother forbid her killing them, even in the name of science.

Mark Twain was famously interested in education, both that of his own children and that of the population at large. Among his unsuccessful business ventures was his invention of Mark Twain’s Memory Game, a board game with complicated rules that was meant to serve as an aid to memorizing key dates in history. At the family’s summer retreat in Elmira, New York, Twain staked out along a road the lengths of the reigns of each of the monarchs of England. He and the girls raced from stake to stake, calling out the name of the ruler and the dates of the reign.

Olivia Clemens’s desire for her daughters to experience the social advantages of attending public school led to Susy’s entering the prestigious and academically rigorous Hartford Public High School in 1887. Clara followed in 1888. Susy went on to attend Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania in 1890, but homesickness brought her back to Hartford after just a year. Clara went to Europe to continue studying piano.

The Clemens girls’ education was not intended to lead them to careers, but rather to prepare them to hold their own in society. Still, Clara’s musical education led to her becoming a professional pianist. It’s impossible to speculate what Susy, whom her parents considered brilliant, might have done with her life; she died of meningitis at age 24. Jean was diagnosed with epilepsy soon after, and she spent the rest of her life with her parents, dying on Christmas Eve, 1909.

 

Jennifer Huget is editor of Connecticut Explored, and director of writing programs for The Mark Twain House & Museum.

Explore!

The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, is open Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Sunday 12-5:30 p.m.; closed Tuesdays January – April and on major holidays. (860) 247-0998; www.marktwainhouse.org.

LISTEN: Follow along on a tour with Mark Twain’s maid in episode 8 of Grating the Nutmeg, the podcast of Connecticut history produced by Connecticut Explored and the state historian.

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