The shelf of Charles Dudley Warner's books stands at 15 volumes, but like many works by the triple-named writers of the Victorian era, they are largely unread today. When he lived on Hawthorn Street in Hartford, and later on Forest Street in the heart of Nook Farm, he was considered on a par with his great neighbors, Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. National magazine writers of the 1870s assigned to visit Hartford described the homes and careers of all three. If anything, they considered Stowe an interesting figure of the past but Warner a modern man.
His personality and writing style radiated a genteel whimsicality that is no longer in favor and has not survived alongside the tougher, funnier stuff of Mark Twain's. Some contemporaries compared him with essayist Charles Lamb, the quieter member of the circle of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
If anything of Warner's is still read, it's the lyrical essays of "My Summer in a Garden" with its quotable (and over-quoted) lines ("politics makes strange bed-fellows"). Beer, ice cream and jelly cake is not a combination suited to the modern taste either, but President Ulysses S. Grant partook of it in Warner's garden. In another essay, Warner turned his garden into an allegory of Calvinism, his black cat being Calvin.
"My Summer" appeared in a series in The Courant during the summer of 1870 (and bits of it recently in Northeast magazine). On the recommendation of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe's brother, the essays were published as a book and became a bestseller.
Warner was editor and part owner of The Courant, but in those days that didn't mean he had to spend a lot of time in the office. Turning the work over to a deputy, he traveled in Europe and the East, then turned his attention to California and the Adirondacks. His travel books included "My Winter on the Nile, Among the Mummies and Moslems," "Baddeck and That Sort of Thing" and "Our Italy" (about California, paid for in part by the Southern Pacific Railroad).
Kenneth R. Andrews, the historian of Nook Farm, finds "Being a Boy," a memoir of Warner's childhood in the Berkshires couched as a novel, his most interesting book. "The tenor of all his serious work was in a sense not only a summons, but a recall to the good life - as if that life had once been a reality in the earlier days of the nation before the immigration of poverty-stricken masses from Europe had diluted the Puritan stock and before the idealization of material success had superseded the attainment of individual culture."
Warner, of course, collaborated with Twain on "The Gilded Age." When in 1900 Twain returned from a long period of traveling and living in Europe and almost immediately had to attend Warner's funeral, he made a final decision about Hartford. He and Livy put their Farmington Avenue house on the market.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun