Mark Twain: Why Germany is the Answer to Writer’s Block

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It can happen to anybody. Mark Twain had started several new books when it struck in 1878. His solution to writer’s block might surprise you. And the results probably surprised him.

Mark Twain had a similar view

Heidelberg from above. Papkoom Kamchuai, Shutterstock

Mark Twain in Heidelberg

Twain decided a change of scenery would help and booked a 16-month trip to Europe with his family. He had already become famous for Innocents Abroad and his goal was to get away to a quiet place, where people didn’t know him. “I had a couple of light minor purposes, also: to acquire the German language, and to perfect myself in Art,” he wrote.

Mark Twain's sketch

Twain’s sketch of a raft on the Neckar in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Heidelberg offered the perfect refuge. On the Königstuhl Mountain, perched high over the city, Twain found an inn where he rented a room as an office. Further downhill, he booked a $250 per month suite for his family in the Schloss Hotel. He lived there for several months. The view from his hotel distracted him from his writing, but later inspired him. In a May 26, 1878 letter to his friends, he wrote:

… divinely located. From this airy porch among the shining groves we look down upon Heidelberg Castle, and upon the swift Neckar, and the town, and out over the wide green level of the Rhine valley—a marvelous prospect. We are in a Cul-de-sac formed of hill-ranges and river; we are on the side of a steep mountain; the river at our feet is walled, on its other side, (yes, on both sides,) by a steep and wooded mountain-range which rises abruptly aloft from the water’s edge; portions of these mountains are densely wooded; the plain of the Rhine, seen through the mouth of this pocket, has many and peculiar charms for the eye.

Another Mark Twain sketch

Another one of Mark Twain’s raft sketches in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Neckar River as Distraction and Inspiration

Our bedroom has two great glass bird-cages (enclosed balconies) one looking toward the Rhine valley and sunset, the other looking up the Neckar cul-de-sac, and naturally we spend nearly all our time in these—when one is sunny the other is shady. We have tables and chairs in them; we do our reading, writing, studying, smoking and suppering in them.

The view from these bird-cages is my despair. The pictures change from one enchanting aspect to another in ceaseless procession, never keeping one form half an hour, and never taking on an unlovely one.

Rafts like these sparked Mark Twain's phantasy.  LOT 12687, no. 8 (H)

19th century log raft. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

At some point Twain looked beyond the beauty of the Neckar River to its commercial activity. Log rafts floated down regularly from the Black Forest. Twain sketched them and described them in A Tramp Abroad. In August, 1978, he took a trip upstream to Heilbronn and returned, in part, by boat, but his fantasy was working the entire trip. Twain concocted a story about a return trip in a raft.

Raft Trip on the Neckar River

While I was looking down upon the rafts that morning in Heilbronn, the dare-devil spirit of adventure came suddenly upon me, and I said to my comrades:

“I am going to Heidelberg on a raft. Will you venture with me?”

Twain claims to have chartered a raft for his return trip and describes a myriad of adventures on the return trip: boys swimming out to them, a naked beauty bathing under a willow tree, a storm, and a shipwreck.

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Inspiration for Huckleberry Finn

Back in Heidelberg, Twain got fresh inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. He had already been toying with the raft trip idea, but now his ideas crystallized. He wrote chapter 16, in which Jim and Huck take off on the raft but missed Cairo in the fog, in Heidelberg.

Twain’s biographer Justin Kaplan views the fictional raft trip on the Neckar as a crucial remedy to the writer’s block that stalled Huckleberry Finn. A German river might have inspired one of the greatest works of American fiction. It would be no surprise to the Germans, who consider the Neckar the most “literary” of all its rivers. Friedrich Schiller, author of the Ode to Joy and William Tell, was born on its banks. Goetz of Berlichingen, who inspired Goethe, had a castle on the Neckar.

Can’t write? Then come to Germany!

What places inspire your creativity?

Literature on point:

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

Werner Pieper (ed.), Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through German in 1878 (Lörbach: Medien Xperminente)

Jan Bürger, Der Neckar: Eine literarische Reise (Munich: C.H. Beck 2013)

3 Comments

  1. Brian
    Jan 7, 2015

    What title should people look for to find what he wrote about Germany? I bet they sell it in Heidelberg giftshops.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 7, 2015

      A Tramp Abroad is Twain’s main work about Germany, but he mentions Germany in a number of other works. Pieper’s book, which I listed in my literature, is an excellent introduction. I bought mine in a Heidelberg gift shop!

      • Brian
        Jan 8, 2015

        I always forget to read the footnotes

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