The Mark Twain Library in Redding, Conn., started with 200 books donated by local resident Mark Twain – books he’d scribbled over with comments, praise, criticism and corrections.
He read widely, which you’d expect from a writer, and his books include novels, biography, poetry, history and adventure.
He donated books he liked, books that didn’t belong to him and books he hated. You might wonder why someone who started a library in his own name would want to fill it with lousy books. But Mark Twain, never short of words, had a reason:
“The exquisitely bad is as satisfying to the soul as the exquisitely good,” he wrote. “Only the mediocre is unendurable.”
The Mark Twain Library
Mark Twain left his house in Hartford in 1891 when he suffered financial reverses. He and his family traveled in Europe, where he raised money lecturing and lived more cheaply. He didn’t return to the house after his 24-year-old daughter Susy died because he couldn’t bear the reminders of her.
Two years before he died in 1910, Mark Twain moved to a villa he built in Redding, Conn. He called it Stormfield because his book, Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, paid for it.
Five months after he moved in, he and his neighbors formed the Mark Twain Library Association. He raised money for it by charging his houseguests to retrieve their luggage. He also prevailed upon them to donate books as well. His daughter Clara, an opera singer, held a benefit concert for the library.
In classic fashion, Twain announced that a local farmer, Theodore Adams, would donate the land for the Mark Twain Library. Theodore Adams hadn’t actually agreed to donate the land yet, but he did anyway.
Twain’s youngest daughter Jean lived with him in a farmhouse on the Stormfield property. When she died tragically – most likely of an epileptic seizure – Twain sold the land and gave the $6,000 proceeds to build the Jean L. Clemens Memorial Building.
His daughter Clara donated several thousand more books from the family library after Mark Twain died in 1910.
Mark Twain couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, and recorded them in the margins of his books. He disagreed with President William McKinley’s imperialism in a book called The Philippine Problem. The author wrote McKinley became convinced that ‘it was the will of the people’ that the United States “should acquire the Philippines.’ Twain would have none of it. He scribbled, “If McK had opposed it, these empty heads would have applauded that. He put imperialism into them, and they responded.”
Twain mocked a book called Saratoga 1901 by Melville Landon. Calling it ‘The Droolings of an Idiot,’ he noted the stolen jokes throughout and on page 104 wrote, “Hear this humbug, this sham, deliver himself.”
Twain carried on a running debate with a woman named Mary Somerville throughout her memoits. On page 125, the author described how she smuggled some antiquities out of Pompeii. Twain wrote, “Evidently Mrs. S. thinks there are kinds of immorality which are not immoral.”
Mark Twain was a stickler for good grammar, and even rectified his friend Rudyard Kipling’s grammatical errors in his books. Robert Louis Stevenson stood corrected by Twain, as well.
He criticizes an author for writing, “A long procession of angelic beings move in procession” by noting sarcastically, “of course a procession moves in procession.”
Lew Wallace, an Autobiography, by the Civil War general who wrote Ben Hur, did not impress Twain. In the inscription, he wrote, “The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction. I wonder what “Ben Hur” is like.”
What Did He Like?
Not every book donated to the Mark Twain Library contained the author’s acerbic comments. He admired the poet Robert Browning, for example, and he marked up the poems with cues to help him read them for the most dramatic effect.
Twain also liked The Arctic Traveller by Hans Hendrik, an adventure story. “A very valuable book – and unique,” he wrote.
Books that belonged to his daughters had loving inscriptions in them. His daughter Jean loved animals, and his library includes her books about wildlife. Birds of Eastern North America, is inscribed, “To Jean Clemens with her Father’s love.”
The books are still at the Mark Twain Library, but you can see some of his comments here.
The Mark Twain Library can be found at 439 Redding Road, Redding, Conn.
This story last updated in 2022.
Image: Mark Twain Library By Aab254 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71297666.