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Twain Floated His Opinions on Utah
Will Bagley
Published: 11/12/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Hartford, Connecticut legend says Samuel Clemens, better known by his Mark Twain pen name, built the spectacular home here to resemble a steamboat, recalling the ones he had piloted on the Mississippi River as a young man. Like many American tales, it isn't exactly true. Actually, after it was built, critics complained the house looked like a steamboat. But it's a great story, and curators at the Mark Twain House long ago gave up trying to dispel the myth.

The 19th-century writer most associated with the American West eventually settled in the genteel East. It was from this odd and elegant mansion that Clemens captured the authentic voice of the American heartland over the best seventeen years of his life. It was here he raised three daughters, and here a tragic loss broke his heart.

In his twenties, Clemens thought he would spend his life as one of the princes of the Mississippi, a steamboat pilot. The Civil War changed that. He had to abandon the river to avoid being drafted by the Union gunboat navy. He enlisted in a Confederate cavalry unit, but after a month's service he said he knew more about retreating than the man who invented it. Sam headed west to make his fortune.

His trip to Utah Territory in 1861 resulted in what is hands-down the funniest account of life in "the capital of the only absolute monarchy in America--Great Salt Lake City." Today's Mormons generally don't appreciate his humorous commentary on their religion, such as his observation that Destroying Angels were "Latter-day Saints who are set apart by the church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens." Even worse, young Clemens had some unkind words for our polygamous grandmothers. He spent only two days in Salt Lake and didn't have time to make "the customary inquisition" into polygamy, but he was ready to join the crusade against the peculiar institution--until he got a close look at Mormon women.

His heart went out to "these poor, ungainly and pathetically 'homely' creatures." The man who married one of them performed an act of Christian charity, he wrote, while any man that wed sixty of them "did a deed of sublime generosity." One much-married Mormon assured him: "Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need--never go over it."

Just as scholarly lunkheads denounce Huckleberry Finn because they don't grasp its eloquent denunciation of racism, Utahns often cast Mark Twain into the fiery pit that awaits all "anti-Mormons." Such critics miss Twain's sympathetic and fair picture of the people and the place. In its day, his book Roughing It was severely criticized for being entirely too kind to the Latter-day Saints. Twain did make unkind comments about the Book of Mormon. Taking out the phrase, "and it came to pass," he noted, would result in the Pamphlet of Mormon. "It is chloroform in print," Twain wrote.

Twain left the West to marry a charming heiress, raise a family and write great novels. The innovative door-to-door book-selling techniques his Hartford publisher developed made him wealthy. Unfortunately, Twain passed up the chance to invest in a new invention called the telephone, instead putting his money in a typesetting machine that never worked. Close to bankruptcy, he closed his home and toured the world (including Salt Lake City) lecturing to pay off his debts.

While her father was in Europe, meningitis struck Twain's favorite daughter. Hoping to help her recover, friends took her to her childhood home, where she died. The Clemens family never returned to the mansion, but today it stands beautifully restored, proud as a steamboat on top of its Connecticut hill.

Will Bagley, Utah author and historian, took a raft down the Mississippi at age nineteen.

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