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‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Goodspeed Opera House a Total Delight

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

I love theater. Especially musical theater. Few of God’s creations can top the surreal world that allows people to sing and dance their way through their troubles and triumphs. And few establishments celebrate this creation better than the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. It’s been around since 1876, and, after numerous lifetimes, has been home to the Goodspeed Musicals company for fifty years this year.

This commemorative season included a special summer treat – Jerry Herman’s 1964 classic Hello, Dolly!

I was fortunate enough to snag a student-rush ticket to the show. I’ve always enjoyed this one, but my school’s band director, who played trombone in the pit, really sparked my interest to come by saying it was one of the best shows he had ever played at the Goodspeed, and he has played many.

Overall, I rank it among the top 10 Goodspeed productions I’ve seen, and that’s saying a lot.

One of the Goodspeed’s features is an amazing ability to fit so many people and so much activity onto a relatively small stage. There’s a ton of action, especially in a high-spirited show like this one.

The two major dance numbers in the second act blew my mind, partly because of the complexity of the dancing, and partly because of the spatial confines in which it was happening. It was a wonder to behold.

I have also always known the Goodspeed for its seamless scene transitions. The set transforms effortlessly from piece to piece, and many set pieces serve as creative doubles for other backdrops. It looks like a snake shedding its skin.

Given that so many productions are slowed down by hauling bulky sets on and off, the Goodspeed’s changes are always refreshing.

And the performances were truly standout this time. All the actors had excellent comic timing.

I can hardly remember a moment throughout the whole two and a half hours when I wasn’t smiling. The ensemble was energetic and synchronized, which is tougher to achieve than one might think. And the woman singing the role of Mrs. Molloy had a voice to die for. I hope my music studies in college will bring my singing ability nearer to hers. The whole cast had the audience hanging on every note.

Hello, Dolly! was one of the highlights of my summer. Catch a show at the Goodspeed and you might grab some of the magic, too.

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The Grating American Novel

By Grant Henry

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

For a nation so proud of its literary canon, the most popular books in America tend to be nothing to write home about.

William Faulkner and Mark Twain are among the many skilled authors that have defined the standards for the novels and nonfiction writing of the nation. But when checking The New York Times bestseller list, you will never find books of the caliber of American Classics listed.

The erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey succeeded in selling a million physical copies in only 11 weeks, and that is not considering the millions of sales on digital e-readers like the Kindle. Meanwhile, there likely are hundreds of potential instant classics that get ignored every year.

Back in the 1990s, according to the Lakeland Ledger newspaper, the Delray Beach Public Library in Florida had little space in the library and used the frequency a book was loaned out to decide which stayed on shelves and which were archived in a back room.

To the discomfort of many, the number of times novels by Tom Clancy or Stephen King got checked out was high enough for those books to stay openly available while works by Hemingway and other classic authors had to be stored away, only obtainable by asking a librarian for access.

Stories like these are not rare. The reading habits of the average American seems to contradict what they learn in their high school English courses. Those who are angry about this are incredibly vocal about their thoughts on the matter.

What audacity writer James Patterson must have, to write cheap thrillers meant to mildly entertain people on airports! He should put his talent – and team of ghost writers – on the task of creating something meaningful that will last against the changing tides of cultural fads! It is the saddest thing to learn that those books get read more than critical darlings and classics, many fans of literature and struggling novelists might say.

Folks on the side of high-brow literature fight a mean fight when given the chance. They cannot fathom the stark contrast between the opinions of critics and the reading habits of consumers.

What needs to be considered when addressing the topic of high and low art is the criteria and amount of time required for something to be regarded as “important,” and how public perception and awareness of a work of art can change drastically over extended periods of time.

Let’s look at Mark Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though it paved the way for the modernist movement, the novel’s controversy existed right from publication.

The language, for example, was criticized. In Huck Finn, Twain portrayed the common language of Missouri rather than the idealized Oxford way of speaking commonly seen in literature. Today, English majors and writers alike see this as a milestone in literature, but at the time of release, people saw the phonetically spelled words an inconvenience that got in the way of telling the story.

Critics hated the handling of race as well. To some, the runaway slave Jim comes off as a caricature and the heavy use of the word “nigger” is still a tough issue today.

Stephen King, Patti P

Stephen King at The Mark Twain House in July 2013

But over time and many readings, the consensus grew to see the novel as incredibly anti-racist, vilifying the communities that owned slaves and raised children to morally accept it.

The world could easily have shrugged Huck Finn aside after its publication, and the book wouldn’t be seen as the achievement it is today. But the test of time proved it a classic and a high contender for the Great American Novel. It’s unfair to compare classics like Huck Finn to most modern novels because contemporary fiction doesn’t have the volumes of in-depth analysis Huck has.

It took decades for The Great Gatsby to gain the legendary status it has today, and A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously long after John Kennedy Toole’s suicide. We will not know what novels will define our generation, just as people didn’t know how Huck Finn would be remembered a century ago.

But even so, is it worth throwing a fit over people reading paperback romance novels rather than complex contemporary fiction? Should we care when Twilight sells more than a Murakami novel?

Many people believe that people shouldn’t sweat over books that don’t strive for greatness. The popular novelist Stephen King calls himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

During a recent appearance at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, King explained that he dislikes people who willingly avoid the kind of pop-literature that often includes his own work. He compared those people with children who try to keep different types of food on their plate from touching.

Sculptor Joe Keo brought insight, pointing out that art is a business just like anything else. An artist, Keo said, is more than a pretentious person wearing a beret.

An artist is anyone, and the few artists that become household names are incredibly uncommon.

An actor isn’t only those seen on the Hollywood screen or Broadway stage, either. There are thousands of actors trying to make a living doing what they love.

To bash books that become financial successes despite sub-par quality is to put up an imaginary distinction that does not exist.

Joe Bun Keo

Joe Bun Keo

One of Mark Twain’s primary focuses when writing was to make money.

In an 1887 letter to William Dean Howells, Twain wrote, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

Had it been impossible to make money from book sales, we wouldn’t have James Patterson OR Mark Twain.

Time sorts out the imbalances we observe in present-day art. You likely don’t know the name of the novel that will be known as this generation’s greatest literary achievement. That book will be analyzed and read extensively in literary journals and English classes everywhere.

50 Shades broke sales records, but that won’t go on forever. As long as you wait it out, you will find the early 21st century’s Great American Novel, but for now, don’t sweat about it.

Distinctly American, Twain’s Style Celebrated the Vernacular

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Do you speak American?

Mark Twain did. In fact, he is credited with pioneering the presentation of a distinctly American language as literature.

At the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Patti Philippon, chief curator, and Steve Courtney, publicist and author, had much to say about the forward-thinking 19th-century literary superstar. According to Philippon, Twain’s use of the vernacular – “slangs and colloquialisms” peculiar to certain geographical regions and races – is what makes books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stand out.

“It’s putting into words how people from that era sounded,” Philippon said.

Of course, oftentimes people didn’t sound so nice. Huckleberry Finn is defined today by the censorship and controversy surrounding Twain’s extensive use of the racist word “nigger.”

At New Britain High School a few years ago, a teacher in an American Lit class began to teach the novel – but not before closing the door. She introduced the book in hushed tones and told students not to mention it if they ran across the principal. She never said why.

Today, teachers across the state and the nation are working to combat this sensitivity.

Prof. Kerry Driscoll, who teaches English at the University of St. Joseph, is a longtime Twain enthusiast. She taught a summer class on Huckleberry Finn at the Twain House, where she has lectured a number of times.

Kerry Driscoll

Prof. Kerry Driscoll

In her experience teaching the book, two major dialectical barriers have stood in Driscoll’s way.

“At the level of comprehension,” she said, “It’s hard for students to understand.”

Sometimes, it helps students to hear the language rather than read it.

“What I recommend is that if there’s a word or sentence that you don’t understand, say the sentence out loud,” Driscoll explained.  For instance, when the character Jim says “gwine,” what could g-w-i-n-e possibly mean?

“Sound it out,” Driscoll said, and the reader realizes that Jim is saying ‘going to.’

The accuracy of Twain’s characterization through dialect is astounding. Driscoll often asks her students’ opinions on why Twain includes, before the first chapter, a list of the seven dialects used throughout, such as ‘rural Pike County.’

“This is a realist book,” Driscoll said.

In using local dialects, Twain is holding a mirror to the lifestyle of those regions.

The other obstacle in Twain’s use of dialect is harder to conquer. The racial slur, Driscoll said, is what “makes the book so controversial.”

But she said it is key to understanding the “evolution of [Twain’s] own racial attitudes” and those of the times.

A recent edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word ‘nigger’ is replaced with the word ‘slave’ is “an appalling decision,” Driscoll said. “That’s not the book Mark Twain wrote.”

As a teacher, she said, it is her responsibility to use the word in class discussion and stay true to Twain’s motives.

“The word appears 219 times in the book for a reason,” she said. “I’m going to read what Mark Twain wrote. It’s deliberately ugly, and I want students to hear it.”

Her determination has occasionally come at a cost. A student once complained that she was a racist teacher forcing the class to read a racist book.

But Driscoll has no intention of abandoning her approach.

“There’s no magic cure or fix,” she said, adding that the best teachers can give their students is “background preparation” – the word’s historical context and the obvious differences in tolerance of the word between the 1880s and now. Still, this is sometimes not enough to alleviate the soreness.

There’s been soreness for a while, and for a number of reasons. Since its publication, school districts and libraries in 28 states have banned the book.

But in 1885, public outrage stemmed from the opinion that Huck was not a proper role model for children. People were taken aback at Huck, the “irreverent” narrator, said Driscoll.

Driscoll described Huck as a “white-trash kid [allowed to] tell his own story on his own terms.”

In a pivotal scene, Huck decides to protect his friend Jim, a runaway slave, despite childhood teachings that the act would condemn him for eternity.

“All right, I’ll go to hell,” the boy resolves.

Huck was “a bad boy,” said Philippon, and Twain’s adult readers had a problem with that.

Driscoll pointed out the irony that while the objection in 1885 was not to the language used but to Huck’s offensive behavior, it has only been since the New York City school board banned it in 1957 that Huck’s character is celebrated and the language is found offensive.

The civil rights movement of the ‘60s, Courtney said, was a turning point for the racial slur. That was when it evolved into “a fighting word,” he said.

But Driscoll holds fast to her image of Twain as a “careful wordsmith.” Whatever words he chose, he wanted, she said.

In an 1888 letter, Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Lightning can be both amazing and frightening to behold. It is an energetic force capable of destruction, but it plays a necessary role in the ecological cycle, and nature certainly would not be complete without it.

Using his charged language, Mark Twain infused our literature with a little more lightning, a spark that is uniquely American.

Mark Twain’s House Has Always Had a Certain Ring To It

Mark Twain House, July 2013

The Mark Twain House, July 2013

By Ambriel Johnson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

    Hearing the ring of a telephone has become a regular sound in the American household, something easily taken for granted.

However, in Mark Twain’s time, the Gilded Age, this harsh ring was out of the ordinary. Only the wealthiest of households had these new-age communication devices installed in their homes.

Fascinated with modern technology, Twain himself had a telephone in his Farmington Avenue mansion. He didn’t use the phone much, though he complained about the quality of the phone calls endlessly.

The member of the household who used the phone most was the family butler, George Griffin.

The 25-room home built for Samuel Clemens, his wife and daughters – Mark Twain was Clemens’ pen name – was a showcase.

“They were an up-to-date, sophisticated family,” said Steve Courtney, author of The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

The Victorian Gothic Revival house features a breathtaking grand hall with decorative arts by designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glass walled conservatory overflowing with green plants, a cozy library, and a third floor billiard room where Clemens wrote his world-famous novels.

Tiffany supervised the interior decoration of the house and designed most of the glasswork.

Legend says the home was designed to look like a riverboat to mimic the theme in Twain’s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, construction began in 1873. The house rested on a large parcel of land when Twain owned it, even more than the museum owns today.

“There was a much more rural landscape then,” Courtney said.

The family moved into the house in 1874, three years after Twain decided to build a home in Hartford.

The house in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood had hot and cold running water, central heat, gas lighting and other modern conveniences common in the day.

“Any middle class home had indoor plumbing by 1874,” Courtney said, adding that gas lighting wasn’t new, either.

The Clemens family had all these things.

“In general, it was a time of tremendous change, a very dynamic time,” Courtney said.

Gas lighting, which eliminated the problem of smelly whale oil and weak lights that would damage the eyes, was popular.

“Central heating was pretty new,” said Courtney, as were the speaking tubes the Clemens had in their walls.

Family members used the speaking tubes to communicate with household staff in different parts of the house.

The telephone made communication with those outside the house easier.

Twain’s house was one of the first in Hartford to have a phone, Courtney said, and the listing for Samuel Clemens was one of the first in the local phone book.

Before people had phones, Courtney said, “To talk to someone, they would have to ride their horse downtown.”

Courtney said there were odd noises coming over the phone line, possibly because people didn’t know how to install the wiring.

Twain kept score, Courtney said, of the various noises he heard on the phone. He tallied them as “cannon fire” or “thunder” and subtracted the number of times he heard them from the balance of his phone bill.

“There were definitely things that went wrong,” Courtney said.

Courtney said Twain was always interested in inventing and once invented a game for his daughters so they could learn about British royalty.

Twain also invented a self-pasting scrapbook, Courtney said, that proved quite popular in his time.

Twain invested in items that were familiar to him, Courtney said, such as the typesetter and the Paige Compositor. Courtney said Twain lost $300,000 on the Paige Compositor.

Despite his interest in technological gadgets, Twain remained old fashioned when it came to his work.

Twain had a typewriter, Courtney said, and it made writing faster. But Twain didn’t like using it. He did have other people type his stories for him, Courtney said, but preferred writing in longhand himself.

“It was fashionable to have new and updated technology,” said Courtney, and Twain loved to keep up with the latest trends. “He was interested in fads.”

The Clemens family lived happily in their home until 1891, when mounting debt forced them to leave. In order to pay off his debt, Twain was forced to go on a lecture circuit.

Some of the family went with Twain on his circuit and others stayed elsewhere. They never lived there again.

In the 1920s, the home was sold to real-estate investor J.J. Wall and survived a number of different owners, including a boarding school for boys.

Katharine Seymour Day’s Friends of Hartford campaign ultimately saved it from demolition, restored it, and made it the popular museum that it is today.

In 1963, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Mark Twain: An Estrangement with Religion

By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     It’s no secret that throughout Western history – before the rationalist and secular movements of the past few centuries – organized religion has held massive sway over humankind.

By Rae MartinMark Twain, for his time, was quite progressive in some of his views on religion – and obliquely depressing in others.

It’s surprising, on both accounts, considering he was born in a conservative small town, which typically leads to a strong sense of faith.

Being born in Florida, Missouri today would be hard enough, but during the 19th century? Unfathomable. It’s simply stunning that Mark Twain grew to criticize religion, an establishment still venerated by some today.

“If you think something is important, and it’s going the wrong way, you get really passionate,” said Steve Courtney, publicist and publications editor of the Mark Twain House & Museum,

Passionate is a meek word for some of Twain’s last writings on religion and life.

If his appreciation of the importance of religion comes from his social environment growing up, then his amiability in terms of differing beliefs comes from his mother, Jane Clemens.

She was not a puritan in any sense, but a sampler of religion who brought her son along for a taste of faith at different houses of worship.

And from church, to cathedral, to synagogue; she sampled religious tastes. And if you can’t already tell, that kind of thing simply didn’t happen.

“His attitude toward religion changed considerably,” said Courtney.

With that history in mind, it now seems unlikely that Twain would have grown up to be anything other than open-minded when it came religion and slavery, the two biggest social conventions of the day.

Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum, described Twain as “very spiritual.”

It’s clear to me that Twain did believe in some sort of god, and his rants against that god is more to disparage the church of the day and as an expression of feelings stirred by the deaths of three of his four children.

The untimely deaths of all but one of his children, coupled with increasing American imperialism, the hypocrisy of Gilded Age culture and immense worldwide fame built up a mocking critique of bullshit dogma from religious institutes.

If Twain was alive and writing today, he would probably be agnostic.

Mark Twain “gravitated between two views,” said Courtney, either believing that God didn’t exist, or thinking God is a sadist.

He’d have possibly railed against the contemporary church even more than he did against the church of his time, due to a surge in anti-religious and anti-church thought that has swept through the Western world.

If he had been born in contemporary times, he would be a Christopher Hitchens-type figure, relentlessly questioning and challenging organized religion.

Twain was not only a magnificent writer of prose but a well-versed public speaker on all issues of culture and society. Not only jabbing at religion, but also foreign policy, class warfare, social and economic dispositions.

His provocative inquiries would likely ignite hatred and threats of personal violence as his distinct boldness in the oral and literary arts is marked by a refusal to back down in the face of cultural taboo.

Another parallel is the surprising friendship that the atheist Hitchens found with Pastor Douglas Wilson. Twain found close counsel in the Rev. Joseph Twichell of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, where the Clemens family attended.

In today’s extremely polarized society, Twain’s caustic demeanor would certainly have been drawn out even more than in his day. He would have been right at home in contemporary pop culture, a place ripe for the pickings of a satirist of Twain’s caliber.

Daughters Died of Illnesses That Can Be Treated Today

By Lina Allam

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Like any father, Samuel Clemens adored his children and worked hard to provide them with the life that he never had.

But during the 1800’s medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and Clemens lost three of his four children at a young age to medical troubles that might have been prevented today.

susy_clemens

Susy Clemens

Clemens, famous for the writing he did under the pen name Mark Twain, lost h is first and only son, Langdon, to diphtheria around the age of 19 months.

Clemens and his wife Olivia also had three girls: Suzy, Clara, and Jane, who lived in the family’s Hartford home until their teenage years.

But when their father lost all his money from investing in the failed invention, the Paige Compositor, he traveled the world doing public speaking to pay off his debts.

When the time came for his family to return home, his oldest daughter, Suzy, then 24 years old, died of meningitis.

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that attacks the brain or spinal cord. The viral strain is untreatable, but eventually the patient’s organs are able to defend the body against the virus, though it could take a week or two.

Bacterial meningitis can be treated through antibiotics, however if it is not treated, it can be fatal. This deadly type of meningitis – called meningococcal disease – causes an overwhelming infection in the body’s internal organs.

If antibiotics are given early during the infestation, the antibiotics could save a life, said Dr. Leonard Banco, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer of Bristol Hospital.

At the time Suzy died, there weren’t antibiotics available to treat the disease, according to Dr. K. Patrick Ober, an endocrinologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has a keen interest in historical medicine.

Jean, the youngest daughter, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15 and suffered seizures.

Banco said epilepsy is a seizure disorder that occurs in an organism mainly because of incorrect wiring in the brain. In a person with epilepsy, this causes seizures to sometimes occur in order for the body to regain its normal state. They can include the clenching of teeth and intense shaking, Banco said, and sometimes loss of consciousness.

An epileptic episode occurs because of a large discharge of energy released by the brain, Banco said.

jean_clemens

Jean Clemens

But unlike meningitis, epilepsy cannot be cured and is often something that one is born with.

Without antibiotics and other medicine, Ober said, medical treatment during the time of Mark Twain was limited. Some medicines doctors used, including Lepomane, which is a drug like heroin and often leads to addiction, could be harmful.

Without other options, doctors also often tried to bleed the patient out in order to remove any of the “bad” or “sick” blood, Ober said.

Doctors had no way to treat meningitis in Jean’s day. Ober said there was no medicine for epilepsy. Many medical professionals at the time thought that the epileptic seizures were the cause of intense amount of stress.

Though her family tried to keep Jean calm, she died of a heart-attack brought on by a seizure in 1909. She was 29.

Today, epilepsy is most treated with anti-seizure medicine, though sometimes other treatments are used, according to information provided by the Mayo Clinic.

Clemens Girls Learned Many Languages

By  Indira Senderovic

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Mark Twain’s three daughters grew up learning foreign languages, mostly at home.

Suzy, Clara and Jean Clemens all were homeschooled in the family’s Farmington Avenue mansion in Hartford, according to Mark Twain House & Museum tour guide Grace Belanger.

Their mother, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was an educated woman, having attended a women’s college in Elmira, New York, so she handled some of the lessons for her daughters.

They also had tutors and others who provided instruction.

Just like her father the famous author, Susy was a talented writer.

At the young age of 13, she secretly wrote a biography of her father that he published when he found out about it.

Clara, an accomplished musician, was only two years younger than Susy.

All the Clemens girls’ early years included a full social life‚ home schooling in language and music‚ and traveling.

The youngest daughter was Jean, who was born in 1880. Though she was also homeschooled, Jean took some classes in France. Jean was like her mother, kind-hearted and fond of animals.

According to Belanger, one of the family’s household staff was a German woman who spoke with the girls only in native language. She said this sometimes frustrated the girls.

German was one of four languages the Clemens girls learned. They also studied Latin, Italian and English.

Karen Demonte, who teaches Italian at Wethersfield High School, said it is hard to be motivated to learn a new language.

“Learning a new language can be frustrating, but if you keep trying you will succeed for sure,” she said.

Much like the German woman on the Twain household staff, Demonte doesn’t talk to anyone in English. In the classroom, it’s strictly Italian

“That’s what helped a lot of students pick up the language faster,” Demonte said.

Demonte said she believes that the Clemens were right to have their children learn multiple languages.

Mark Twain Sketch

Twain Sketch, Alan Burkholder

Mark Twain sketch by Alan Burkholder, Writing Apprentice

Sam Clemens AKA Mark Twain

By Meaghan Szilagyi

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Who was Mark Twain? A novelist? A newspaper reporter? A famous author? A popular speaker?

Mark Twain was a “persona” in the eyes of Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum. He was a mask that was worn by a man named Samuel Clemens.

Samuel Clemens was a real person: family man, father, son, husband.

Philippon said that Clemens’ daughters disliked Mark Twain. The world saw their father as the humorist he presented himself to be, when he was really so much more than that. He was caring and loving. Clemens would do anything for his family but when people saw Mark Twain, they didn’t see the family man he truly was.

Sam made mistakes. Any real person makes mistakes. A few times, before his years as a husband, Clemens spent a few nights in jail for disruptive behavior and disorderly conduct, according to a Ken Burns documentary about Twain.

Clemens grew up as a rowdy young fellow and had no trouble seeking out adventure. He had many memories of his childhood friends that he later used in his stories.

Samuel Clemens traveled the world during Mark Twain’s great lectures. Samuel Clemens fell in love with and married Olivia Langdon. And Samuel Clemens became the mastermind behind Mark Twain.

While leading a tour of the Mark Twain House, Grace Belanger, assistant manager of visitor services at the museum, said that when the Clemens’ had guests over, Mark Twain was present.

Samuel Clemens treated Mark Twain as his job, nothing more.

Mark Twain was a one-dimensional character. Sure, you could go to the theater and watch him in 3D but it wouldn’t really be him, would it?

Twain presented himself as a humorist – that much is clear.

Twain House publicist Steve Courtney even goes as far to call him a “stand-up comedian.” But was he anything more than that?

Could Samuel Clemens have had multiple personality disorder?

Philippon and Courtney think not. Since it was common for people to have pen names in the Gilded Age, they believe that Clemens was a person with a pen name and that’s it.

So who was Mark Twain, really?

Now that he is long gone, I guess we’ll never know the real story. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Mystery adds intrigue and who was Mark Twain, if not a man of mystery?

The Life of Labor in Hartford

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Although Mark Twain’s neighbors in Nook Farm may have represented the late 19th century Hartford aristocracy, many of them, especially former abolitionists, supported workers’ rights.

Opposition came from captains of industry, said Hartford labor historian and former union organizer Steve Thornton. In Hartford, this meant people like Albert Pope of the Pope Manufacturing Company.

In a speech given at his Monday Evening Club, Twain called the Knights of Labor “The New Dynasty.” The Knights had more than 30 people elected to the state legislature to represent the workers’ interests, said Thornton, including safety and child labor laws. They encouraged everyone to join, and were certainly powerful, but they had    no legal protection.

Workers didn’t have the right to organize into unions until 1935, and workers who would try to organize were often fired, blacklisted, or jailed for conspiracy.

In 1883, telegraph operators in the Hartford branch of the Western Union Company participated in a nationwide strike, according to Thornton.

Operators worked for 12 to 16 hours at a time. They pushed for an eight-hour day, overtime pay on Sundays, a raise to compensate for the increasing hours and profits, and equal pay for both genders.

The telegraph operators’ strike lasted for about a month, and yielded no results for the Western Union workers. Most strikers were fired, and those who weren’t were forced to sign “yellow dog contracts,” Thornton said, which prohibited them from joining a union.

According to Thornton, many workers’ issues stemmed from the transfer from farms to factories after the Civil War.

“People weren’t working for themselves anymore,” said Thornton.

Workers would commonly fight for better working hours.

“That was something everyone could fight for,” said Thornton. The slogan, Thornton said, was “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.”

The business mantra at the time was “make more stuff more cheaply,” said Andrew Walsh, who is associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. The health and living conditions of the workers weren’t taken into consideration.

“They wanted to take advantage of mechanization,” said Walsh. “They wanted less skilled work.”

If the Paige Compositor – an invention Twain poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into – had been successful, Twain would have helped management take as much skill as possible out of the printing process.

The biggest issue facing workers, in Thornton’s view, is the right for unions to exist. This is somewhat similar to the concern that faced workers while Mark Twain lived in Hartford.

“There’s this all-out assault on … unions,” said Thornton, referring to recent collisions between workers and legislators around the country. “The right to exist is the first big issue.”

With Detroit hoping to cut workers’ pensions in order to aid the city’s economic recovery, and fast food employees across the country striking for higher wages and the right to unionize, the issues facing workers today are somewhat similar to those workers faced in Twain’s day.

“The people who thought that unions should never have any benefits are now in power,” said Thornton, making retirement funds “an easy scapegoat.”

However, there are many who believe that unions just aren’t as pertinent in a world where workers already have the rights they need.

Wallace Barnes, former CEO and chairman of Barnes Group Inc. and former chairman of the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission, doesn’t deny the importance of unions in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“They were very, very necessary,” said Barnes. “There was an imbalance of power between workers and management.”

But Barnes doesn’t think they are as necessary today.

“There’s still some need,” Barnes said, “but the balance has shifted. Workers have recourse now through the law that they didn’t have then.”

As a lawyer, Barnes negotiated contracts with unions. Since workers can sue, he said, there’s less of a need for organized labor.

Barnes sees Detroit’s bankruptcy as “a wake up call to all cities that they’ve got to adequately fund these pension programs,” but he says that unions needn’t be involved.

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