BATAVIA – A life-size bronze statue of Mark Twain greets visitors at the entrance to the Batavia Public Library.
Comfortably seated at one end of a bench with his legs crossed, the celebrated author smiles jovially as he holds an open book in one hand, his other arm extending casually across the top of the back rest, inviting visitors to sit down with him.
The statue is a reminder not only that Twain’s novels and short stories are just inside the door, but that the famed American author and humorist once visited Batavia.
Twain was on the brink of literary greatness when he came to Batavia in 1869 to deliver a lecture about his travels to Europe and the Holy Land.
In late 1868, Twain embarked on a railroad tour of several states, entertaining crowds with his observations of “The American Vandal Abroad.”
On Jan. 26, 1869, Twain arrived in Batavia at the railroad depot at the corner of South Van Buren and Webster streets. That same station building was moved more than a century later and is now home to the Batavia Depot Museum.
The location of Twain’s lecture and where he lodged for the night before leaving the next day is uncertain.
The best guess seems to be the Revere House, a three-story hotel building that stood at 131 S. Batavia Ave. (Route 31).
Batavia Public Library Director George Scheetz said there were several other possible locations for the lecture, including the assembly hall of the West Side School or a place called Dorn’s Hall in the Dorn Block building.
In any case, the lecture apparently drew a large crowd in a time when the 19th-century’s great Lyceum movement created demand for literary speakers and found fertile ground in Batavia.
“This was a community that was focused on education and culture,” Scheetz said, with the Batavia Lecture Association sponsoring Twain’s appearance.
Twain, 33 years old at the time, was awaiting publication of his first book, “The Innocents Abroad,” which covered the same material as his lecture and appeared in July 1869.
The Batavia City Council recently approved an official proclamation from Mayor Jeff Schielke declaring 2019 to be “The Year of Mark Twain in Batavia,” celebrating the sesquicentennial of the author’s visit.
In front of the circulation desk, the library is featuring a display of books by and about Twain, perhaps best known for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” considered one of the greatest American novels.
Several literary programs celebrating Twain are in the works, Scheetz said.
While in Batavia, Twain wrote a letter to his future wife, Olivia Langdon. Twain references his surroundings and at first glance seems less than impressed with Batavia.
“… today this sad-looking village makes me feel ever so friendless & dreary…” Twain wrote, before describing his feelings when looking at a photograph of Langdon that his beloved had sent to him.
“…& behold, the picture is so overflowing with friendliness & tries so hard to come out of the case to me that I grow contented & glad again in spite of the sad village & its solemn surrounding. I wouldn’t part with the picture for the world.”