They are Germany’s most famous stuffed animals, at least for Americans. A snowy owl and a wildcat lurk in the taxidermy display cases of the Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany. They’re renowned because Mark Twain wrote about them in A Tramp Abroad. And every year, dozens of tourists enter the museum, book in hand, with just one goal. They want to see the owl and the wildcat.
Mark Twain in Hirschhorn
Twain visited Germany in 1878 while he was writing Huckleberry Finn. While living in Heidelberg, he took a trip along the Neckar River and stopped at Hirschhorn to spend the night of August 9, 1878. It was a night to remember.
“We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three miles, and reached ‘the Naturalist Tavern’ in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror. I can never forget that night.”
The Naturalist Tavern: An Inn Full of Animals
Carl Langbein, a hobby biologist, ran the Naturalist Tavern. It contained a menagerie of taxidermically prepared animals. After the inn closed down in the 20th century, the animals found a new home next door in the Langbein Museum, where you can still see them today.
“ ‘The Naturalist Tavern’ was not a meaningless name; for all the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural and eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.”
A Crouching Cat
But at least Twain could sleep. His travelling companion had it worse:
“But young Z. did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aims straight at him. It made Z. uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes, but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at him, — which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won, that time.”
This was Europe’s wildcat, felis silvestris, somewhat larger than a housecat. That busy tail with three bold black stripes is one of the field marks for this species.
The Warbler Nobody Noticed
I wouldn’t describe Longbein’s cat as crouching (okay, Twain was known to exaggerate at times), but maybe it gave that impression in the moonlight. But there would have been no reason for Z. to fear: the cat had already found its prey. The taxidermist had prepared it with a male blackcap warbler in its mouth. Poor Z. probably never noticed the small, gray bird in the darkness of his room, and if he had, he might have been able to sleep more easily, knowing the cat had already found its meal for the night.
Have you ever had an animal keep you up at night?
Literature on point:
All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)
Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)
Der deutsche Mississippi, Welt am Sonntag
Reichtum der Region, Echo online
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)Read More