With Her Legacy Intact, Stowe House Had Nothing to Prove
By Rae Martin
HARTFORD, Conn. – My visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe house didn’t start as auspiciously as the trip I made to the Mark Twain residence.
As we exited the Twain center for the Stowe tour, the first thing I felt was a hazy heat tickling my face and any other exposed pieces of skin that typically go uncovered for the duration of the summer months.
My fellow students wanted to walk around the front, which would have only served to further expose us to the sun, so naturally I thought it wise to say we should walk around the back, past the Twain house. It would have been a longer walk, yes, but a shady one; and the shadier path is always the more bearable one. No sooner had I said that did everyone else begin to walk towards the sidewalk, from which the former driveway to the Stowe center diverted.
I didn’t really care, personally. I had bigger concerns, much bigger; an empty stomach, prompting me to absorb as much information as possible in as short a time as I could with the hope of returning to our classroom and eating my lunch.
We entered the Stowe center, finally, and quickly met our tour guide. The guide was a round-faced woman, Caucasian, and looked to be in her mid-twenties. Her voice was not as loud as the Twain house guide’s was, but it was not difficult to listen to, which made up for having to walk in the heat to the door.
The exterior of the house itself was remarkably and boldly plain in contrast to the remaining historical Nook Farm neighborhood residences. The outside was colored a monochromatic shade of cream. A completely unremarkable color. Memorable exactly for its unexceptional nature. Without its Victorian architecture, it would have been bearable solely due to the history of the family who called it home.
Against the backdrop of the Twain house interior, the memory of the inside of the Stowe residence already has begun to fade as of this writing, whereas Twain’s is still firmly in my mind’s eye.
The ceilings appeared much lower, though whether that is the result of an actual difference in height or taller furniture, I don’t know. The wallpapers, carpets, and furniture were all presented in a simpler way, although to say that the house was unadorned would be far from the truth. It still boasts art pieces that most today only dream of having. Some, our guide told us, were bought on one of her three “grand” treks through Europe, and Stowe did many of the other paintings herself.
Many of these differences between the Stowe and Clemens estates can be attributed to generational differences between the two; with Stowe born in a period where Victorian influences on culture were still strong.
This accounts for the more traditional sophistication presented in an almost unshow-offy manner. Twain, being a strong byproduct of the Gilded Age, goes to excessive lengths to keep up appearances. That accounts for the pomp and grandiose style of presentation and architecture Twain specifically sought.
While I’m on the topic of presentation and appearances, it is worth noting the variation in panorama as well.
From the roadside, the Twain residence turns heads. It’s an unforgettable Victorian architectural vista. If we live on in the memory of others, than as long as the Twain house stands, Samuel Clemens will scarcely be forgotten as the visionary he was.
Not to discredit the memory of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the roadside view of her dwelling is a bit wanting. This complaint can also be rationalized – this time to age differences. Twain came to Nook Farm to begin his legend in earnest; Stowe came to retire in hers, having already become an international literary icon. For his part, Twain wouldn’t attain that status for a few years still.