The Library Mark Twain Built

The author helped create a library in the last town he called home—and it’s full of great summer reading suggestions

An 1898 portrait of Twain painted by Italian artist Ignace Spiridon, which now hangs in the Mark Twain Library in Redding. (Image courtesy of Flickr user Terry Ballard)
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In the early evening of June 18, 1908, the 72-year-old American author and humorist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, arrived in Redding, Connecticut, on a special express train. The celebrated writer had recently bought 195 acres of land in the idyllic New England town sight unseen and had commissioned a house there, telling the architect that he only wanted to see the finished product. Twain would later dub his southern Connecticut villa “Stormfield,” after the lead character from the short story he’d recently sold and which provided the funds for the extravagant home. Beth Dominianni, director of the Mark Twain Library in Redding, says: “The story goes that he pulled in, was greeted by the town dignitaries and then took a carriage to his house and people left him alone. He had privacy here.”

Twain took to his new hometown immediately. And with months of arriving, he came up with a way to make it even better: He formed the Mark Twain Library Association, and began fundraising to build a new library for Redding. Twain employed “amusing stratagems” to raise money, such as playing bellhop for his houseguests and hosting lively supper dances. He also asked wealthy friends and associates to donate money, including Andrew Carnegie, who gave $500 a year for several years. Twain even contributed his private funds to the cause, much of which came from the sale of the house and property he had once given to his daughter Jean. On Christmas Eve 1909, she had died as a result of an epileptic seizure, leaving Twain heartbroken and with property he no longer wanted.  

In mid-April 1910, Twain signed a check for the initial investment of $6,000 for the construction of the library. Days later, on April 21, 1910, he died at Stormfield with his daughter Clara by his side. Less than a year afterward, the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut, opened its doors to the public.

Today, the iconic writer’s legacy is still preserved in this small Connecticut town about 90 minutes northeast of New York City, mostly notably at the library that bears Twain’s name. While the original Stormfield burned down in 1923 (a similar mansion was later built on the same site), the library is still actively serving the Redding community. With folksy quotes from the author dotting the walls and artwork commemorating the man both inside and out, the library “is in many ways a tribute to Twain,” says Dominianni.

The library has several Twain artifacts, including his traveling writing desk, a billiard ball, a Bavarian clock and a self-pasting scrapbook. Dominianni explains, “[Twain] loved to do scrapbooking and took them everywhere with him. He got tired of the glue and paste, so he came up with the idea of printing thin strips of glue on to the pages … and he patented it as a self-pasting scrapbook. Apparently, it was his only invention that made him money.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mark Twain Library are the more than 200 books that were once part of the writer’s own collection. The volumes range from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey to H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds to books about history, philosophy and wildlife, and they show Twain’s eclectic tastes in literature. While seeing a great author’s library first-hand is fascinating in and of itself, the notes—or marginalia—that Twain left within the pages also provide a fascinating glimpse of his private thoughts.

The originals of these books are now behind glass at the library and require an appointment to see, but you don't need to read the original to experience a bit of Twain via his favorite books this summer. Of the 200-plus volumes at the library, several stand out for their historical significance, detailed marginalia and Twain's fondness for them. Here are five that once sat on Twain’s shelf, and would make great additions to any summer reading list: 

The Tour of the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

At the height of his career, the prolific French author Jules Verne wrote this 1873 adventure novel about navigating around the Earth in less than three months. Today, the book is known by the title Around the World in 80 Days, but this wasn’t always the case—as the book that sat on Twain’s shelf can attest. Since it was originally written in French, the English translations could be a little bit imprecise. In fact, this was the case for many of Verne’s books, and the author regularly expressed annoyance at shoddy, watered-down translations.

Twain’s green copy of this book was likely one of those early, imprecise translations. Within the book, Twain inscribed that he wanted "Theodore"—probably his brother-in-law Theodore Crane—to pay Twain’s wife (and Crane's sister) Livy $1.50. 

The Works of Robert Browning

The writings of English poet Robert Browning were among Twain’s favorites, Dominianni notes, likely due to Browning’s use of irony and dark humor. Twain had a number of Browning's books on his shelf and was known to share them with guests. “He liked to read out loud from Browning, likely when people came to his house here in Redding,” says Dominianni.

The image pictured above is that of Twain’s copy of Browning’s five-act poem Paracelus about the 16th century physician and alchemist. Known for his work in toxicology, Paracelsus revolutionized new ways to treat flesh wounds. Browning admired the physician for his constant pursuit of knowledge and dedicated this entire poem to him. 

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This children’s novel written by author Frances Hodgson Burnett, who would go on to write The Secret Garden, became part of Twain’s library a year after it was published in 1885. While not as popular as her later classic, Little Lord Fauntleroy had a pretty significant impact on the day’s fashion—popularizing velvet jackets, lace collars and long spiral hair curls for boys. 

The inscription inside of the front cover points to the book being a Christmas gift to Twain's then-12 year old daughter Clara, reading “Clara Clemens—Christmas, 1886—From Papa.”

Wild Wings by Herbert K. Job

Herbert Job was one of the preeminent bird photographers of his time and accompanied President Teddy Roosevelt on various trips to the wilds of the American South. Many of the images in the book Wild Wings, published in 1904, were from those expeditions. In fact, President Roosevelt wrote Job a letter and gave him permission to include it in the book. In the letter, Roosevelt writes: “I dare to express to you my sense of the good which comes from such books as yours and from the substitution of the camera for the gun.”

This particular copy was given by Twain to his daughter Jean while they still lived in their New York home on Fifth Avenue. He inscribed it on November 27, 1904, just about five years before she died.

James Watt by Andrew Carnegie

This biography of the 18th century Scottish inventor and engineer famed for making improvements to the Newcomen steam engine was given to Twain in 1905 by its author, industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie wrote in the book “To the one I am proud to call a friend,” but appears to have added a “t” to his friend’s real name in the inscription, writing "Clements."

When Carnegie’s publisher first asked him to write about Watt, Carnegie said he had no interest. He reconsidered when he realized that his entire career and fortune were owed to his fellow Scotsman's work. After researching and writing about Watt, Carnegie called him “one of the finest characters that ever graced the earth.”

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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