Posted on by Peter Rettig

Why did Mark Twain like Heidelberg?

Mark TwainRecently we put together a YouTube video “Why did Mark Twain like Heidelberg?”.

This was based on Scene 4.5 of our German 1 course and our conjecture that Mark Twain liked the name "Heidelberg" because Heidelberg in English means Huckleberry mountain.

Actually, more correctly, Heidelberg is an abbreviation of "Heidelbeerenberg" (huckleberry mountain).

Huckleberry Adventures

We found it interesting that Twain had stayed in Heidelberg with
his family for several months in 1878.

Twain had unsuccessfully tried to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen.

He resumed his study 28 years later in preparation for a trip to Europe." [Wikipedia: "Mark Twain"]Heidelberg - Gamesforlanguage.com

Mark Twain had published his novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in 1876 and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in1884.

A little further digging found several German sites which also describe his love of Heidelbeeren. He found them in the forests around Heidelberg and enjoyed Heidelbeerkuchen (huckleberry pie).

By the way, a similar confusion between a huckleberry and a blueberry also exists in German between a “Heidelbeere” and a “Blaubeere.” (For further enlightenment try this link.)

Heidelberg, Mississippi

Huckleberry Finn - BookcoverSo the character of Huckleberry Finn had already been well-established by the time Mark Twain arrived in Heidelberg, Germany in 1878, as the travel writer Lucy Gordan explains:

Supposedly looking for a quiet village, where people didn't know him, neither of which fit Heidelberg because it was already home to active American and British communities, he arrived with his family on May 6 for the day and stayed three months.His biographer Justin Kaplan asserts Twain was aware that Heidelberg derived from "Heidelbeerenberg", meaning "Huckleberry Mountain", which may explain his affinity.

Nobody really knows," writes Werner Pieper in his updated Mark Twain's Guide to Heidelberg , 'what made Mark Twain stay in Heidelberg for such a long time. Maybe he was prompted by old dreams from the times he was passing Heidelberg, Mississippi, while working on the steamships? Did he plan to stay here or did he and his family just fall in love with this city?"

While the above allusion to Mark Twain's passing by Heidelberg, Mississippi, during his days as a river pilot may be compelling, a little further digging causes some doubts:

Mark Twain worked on a steamboat, first as an apprentice, then as a pilot during 1857 to 1861.

However, Heidelberg, Mississippi was only founded in 1882 by Washington Irving Heidelberg - and even more importantly: Heidelberg is not situated ON the Mississippi, but located in the State of Mississippi, southeast of Jackson, MS, and about 130 miles from the Mississippi river.

Twain visited the river a number of times after his pilot days, most notably in 1882 as he prepared to write "Life on the Mississippi" and maybe on his travels TO the river he came through the little town. 

Maybe that's when he came across the name Heidelberg again.

So whether he already knew the name Heidelberg or whether he related to it as a translation of "huckleberry" we'll never know.

But we do know that he liked his three months in Heidelberg, Germany, in spite of his continuing struggle with the German language.

And we'll explore in another blog post Mark Twain's love-hate relationship with "The Awful German Language" which he published as an Appendix to his  "A Tramp Abroad" in 1880.

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.