Everyone knows that young Samuel Clemens hit the road at age 17 to see all
of those cities that he had read about. When he got to New York, he got
lodging at a boarding house on Duane Street. All of the conventional wisdom
was that the actual location was lost in the sludge of time and we’ll never
know. I had pondered this gap a lot because my last full-time job was in
Tribeca, and my office was one block away from Duane Street. I really
wanted to know where, specifically, he went at night and complained about
the food. But we can’t find out. Or can we?
Today I saw a posting about the New York Public Library digitizing a
large collection of NYC city directories. As luck would have it, there were
the standard city directories with names alphabetically listed along with
address and occupation. There were also a few business directories from the
exact time frame that Clemens was in that “abominable place.” The latter
had listings by category, one of which was “Boarding Houses.” There were
hundreds of them listed, but only four were on Duane Street.
Okay, that seemed to be as far as I could take this. Then I took another
look at Twain’s letters and got more. First off, they describe Twain’s
lodgings on Duane Street “Near Broadway.” One boarding hyouse at 54 Duane
was about two blocks from Broadway. Another at 98 Duane was just around the
corner from Broadway. Then I saw in a letter to Pamela in October 1853 that
he spent his free time at the Printers’ Library about a quarter mile away.
Two boarding houses that I didn’t just mention are much further away. The
one at 54 Duane is a tenth of a mile. The one at 98 is seemingly a perfect
match. This one was run by a French immigrant named Antoine Maniort. If I
were a betting man, I’d put my money on this. Feel free to let your
imagination run wild if this experience helped to mold his famous opinion
about the French.
Today there are three subscription libraries in New York that have been
in continuous operation since at least 1820, and the oldest was founded in
the 1750s. I visited all of them gathering research for my current book
(pause for shameless plug – Fifty Specialty Libraries of New York City, see
sig file below). I’d wondered if the Printers Library was an early
iteration of one of these, but I was told it was not. I later found out the
the whole enterprise had evaporated a few decades after Twain’s time there.
Now that a door has possibly been opened, there is much that can be
done. I see that the New York Historical Society has a folder on 98 Duane
with architectural renderings and possibly more. The Municipal Library
probably has more to offer about this. Duane was an interesting place at
that time – I saw several things in the Internet Archive (archive.org) that
implied that the street was known to have a thriving trade in prostitution.
I will keep poking around on this, and look forward to hearing if
anybody else comes up with something.
Author and Leisure Studies Manager
Author of the book "50 specialty libraries of New York City: From botany to
magic" http:// <http://googlethisforlibraries.com/>librariesnyc.org
"My memory has a mind of its own."