On April 21st, Easter Sunday…

Easter Sunday fell on April 21st in 1867. It seems likely that Samuel Clemens observed the holiday largely alone at the Westminster Hotel. He stood on the precipice of lasting fame. His “Jumping Frog” story had been a viral sensation. A collection with it at the center was scheduled to be published at the end of the month. It would sell 5,000 copies in less than a week. He had just spent a considerable portion of his savings to book the lecture hall at the Cooper Union. It would be prove an early example of the wisdom of investing in himself.

Eleven years later, Easter Sunday again fell on April 21. The Clemens family – Sam, Livy, and two daughters, Susy and Clara – celebrated the holiday aboard the steamship Holsatia bound for Hamburg. It was the ship’s final voyage and it was a rocky one. Sam reported that neither Livy nor the girls could bear to eat because they were “worn out with the rolling and tumbling of the ship.” “I have had inexhaustible appetite,” Sam assured Livy’s mother, “and have tried to make up for them.”

The Steamship Holsatia, Docked in Hamburg

Again in 1889 Easter Sunday fell on April 21. The Clemenses now had three daughters, all of whom celebrate the holiday at their resplendent home in Hartford. Sam was confident that the Paige Compositor Company he had recently invested in would secure their future and free him of the pressures of the lecture circuit and writing under deadlines. It was 22 years to the day since he has spent Easter as a bachelor in New York and 21 years to the day before his death.

Happy Easter from The Center For Mark Twain Studies!

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Sympathetic Funk

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Mark Twain

If a skunk walks into your house at 2:30 in the morning you may not notice. You might, and will most likely, sleep right through the visit. It is, if fact, in your best interest to sleep through the visit; startling any creature at such an ungodly hour—especially a loaded one—is risky behavior. 

Knowing this—at least on a subconscious level—was why I kept my eyes shut. If I pretended to be asleep maybe would it just go away? I had to try. Please, I begged my own brain as my trachea constricted in self-defense, this has to be a weird dream.  Little paws, soft leather steps, on the wooden floor around my bed in the dark. The math. The odds of a skunk finding the secret cat door under the house and entering and climbing the stairs and pushing my door open and strolling right past the dog and jumping on my bed: slim. 

Mark Twain’s pet cats “Awake”

I sprang up, startling the animal (the damage had already been done,) and flailed around for the light by my bed. It was hard to function through the gagging; it was hard to see through the invisible-green sulfur cloud in the dark; I could only hear the quick, scratching claws on the door as the animal deftly pulled it open enough to slip out. My Olfactory senses were desperately trying to outsource and my stomach was refusing the work. 

I stumbled across the room blinded by the light and the stench and followed the trail. I thought about how much better it is to be sleeping at 2:30 in the morning. I wondered why humans feel it’s so fun to have pets. I wondered if a tomato juice bath is just an urban legend? 

In the adjoining room on the desk where I write massively important stories about cats, dogs, my kid and Mark Twain sat a soggy, disheveled animal hacking up the remnants of a confrontation—perhaps a date gone really wrong—on all the notes and papers in my disorganized, organized piles.

Everyone’s favorite Quarry Farm cat, Mr. Cat felt that it was ok to take a direct hit in the face from a skunk and then stroll into my room in the middle of the night and tell me all about it. Well, he’s actually a very literary animal; he showed me as opposed to telling me. He showed me how repugnant the nightlife can be by filling our entire home with a cloud of his bad decisions. 

With gentle hatred I grabbed the animal by the back of the neck and carried him as far away from my body as I could—there are no arms long enough—to the bathtub where I threw him, ever so delicately, in and slammed the shower door shut. 

A tomato juice bath isn’t a thing, which is good, because I didn’t have any tomato juice. Google was quick to find me the solution: hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap which is bad because I didn’t have any of that either—except for the dish soap. All the articles stressed the importance of working quickly before the oils in the spray “set”—A very inconvenient fact at that time of night. Once they do set it takes about six to eight weeks for the smell to dissipate. 

Caretaker Webb’s feline charge at Quarry Farm

A dish-soap bath for a cat in full protest while the glass, shower doors rattled in their tracks and I flailed with the howling, clawing animal is not a quiet affair. Yet, all the while, my son—one of those humans that thinks it’s fun to have pets—slept peacefully in the next room as I wrestled the soppy, raging pin-bag. It did cross my mind that he should share the joy pet ownership with me but I resisted the urge to wake him and did my best to quiet the beast. I considered some extended time under water to quiet him down but I also considered that the inclinations of the disturbed mind at 2:30 in the morning shouldn’t always be trusted. 

The dish-soap bath did almost nothing and I was not relieved as I wrapped the somewhat defeated creature in a couple of old towels and carried him to the basement where he would be quarantined until the Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide Store opened. 

Unable to fall back asleep with all the gagging I stripped my bed and tried to wipe down all the things I think he may have touched or rubbed up against before I woke up. This was a task of blind guessing and seemed pointlessly impossible. I felt that I was getting used to the smell and at the same time smelling it absolutely everywhere. 

I put some new sheets on my bed and lay down and stared into the darkness. It was almost four in the morning and the sky outside my window was black. The old iron radiators hissed and clinked, tired from the long winter. The neurotic little footsteps of a squirrel in the attic came and went it short bursts. The dog snored softly in the corner. The window lightened shade by minute shade until the trees outside became clear and towering into view. The alarm chirped from my phone—bird sounds—and I clicked it off almost before it started, only six weeks to eight weeks, I thought. 

I woke the small person with an apologetic look on my face as I could see the toxic air sink into his. “What the…?” (At eleven he’s not quite into his free-use-of-expletives-in-front-of-dad phase but I could tell what he wanted to say and I wouldn’t have punished him for it.) 

“Yeah, your friend, Cat, got into some serious business with a skunk last night. Not good.” Our furrowed expressions of funky disgust mirrored each other’s, although I was almost used to it by then he was experiencing it for the first time, so my expression was that of sympathetic funk. 

And getting used to it did not ease my mind; personally, that’s great, but publically it’s a real problem. I noticed at the gym later, after I dropped the boy off at school, that the woman on the treadmill next to me wilted like a water deprived seedling and flung off the back of the motorized track with a zing and a thud. I wanted to believe it was just a simple heart attack—she was well into her golden age—but deep down I knew and let the commotion of rubberneckers and EMTs be a distraction for my slinky disappearance.

And when I went to pick the boy up from school he had a very strange look on his face. “Today was a weird day.” He said with a ghostly expression. “I’ll tell ya in the car.” 

Apparently our hero, Mr. Cat, had rubbed all up on his backpack after the incident because when he arrived at school the entire class groaned in disapproval and he experienced his first taste of social ostracization. The teacher procured a trash bag and his backpack was sentenced to solitary confinement for the day; tied up tight in that bag and shoved deep into the closet. “It was really embarrassing, dad.”

“Well, at least you didn’t kill somebody.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” 

The boy went on to say that a couple of his friends were extra nice to him because they could tell he was super embarrassed and we had an at-least-you-know-who-your-real-friends-are Hallmark kind of moment; it was touching and profound and by no means worth it. At the same time, even though I didn’t wake him during the incident, he still got to experience the joy of pet ownership and I can’t say that was worth it but there is some relief in a deeply rooted, involuntarily blossoming, smirk. 

The “Quarry Farm” and “Antenne” Twain Marginalia Now Online

From the January 1985 issue of the Mark Twain Society Bulletin:

Twain marginalia from Tent Life in the Holy Land by William Prine

“When Sam Clemens married Livy Langdon he married into a family that loved books, bought books, gave books, read books and enjoyed discussing books. In addition to discovering a young lady who was beautiful, charming had a sense of humor and was cultured and wealthy, young Mark Twain found a bride who shared his love of reading. The Langdon family library, or the more than 1,000 volumes of it that remain at Quarry Farm, represents the purchases and gifts to each other of four generations of Langdons. It would be surprising if Mark Twain had not read some of these books in the many summers he spent in Elmira. Only recently has an examination shown that he wrote in as well as read some of the volumes belonging to his in-laws.

When Mary Boewe and her husband, Charles Boewe, the Rafinesque scholar, stayed at Quarry Farm … they examined the library looking for specific titles of books that they knew Mark Twain and Livy had read. They found extensive Clemens marginalia in three works by Lecky…”

The link to the entire article is found here. The discovery by the Boewe’s was the first of many.  Since the initial Lecky discovery, an additional forty-six volumes from the Quarry Farm library have been identified as containing marginal notes and/or inscriptions by Mark Twain.  Given that over three decades have passed, there remains no indication that the scholarly potential has been exhausted.  Within the last year, selections from the Quarry Farm library have been featured in the Mark Twain Journal (Fall 2018) and “new” marginal notes have been confirmed in Ida C. Langdon’s copy of Rubaiyat

In 1993, another set of books, this time from Mark Twain’s personal library at Stormfield, came to Elmira College through Robert and Katharine Antenne, descendants of the Clemens’ housekeeper, Katy Leary.  The Antenne’s donated 90 volumes, the majority containing inscriptions and/or marginalia from Mark Twain. 

As a cornerstone of the Mark Twain collection, these two collections of books are an important resource and curiosity for Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike.  Having been exhibited, used in presentations, and studied by many a scholar for many a publication, these volumes have begun to show signs of their extensive use.  In an effort to care for the originals and provide greater access for further educational and scholarly research, the pages of marginalia are being made available at the following address: https://nyheritage.org/collections/mark-twain-collection. The complete CMTS Mark Twain Archive can be found here, along with other research opportunities afforded Quarry Farm Fellows.

Enjoy!

CMTS To Participate in Collections Assessment for Preservation Program

The Center for Mark Twain Studies announces that it is one of 79 institutions in the United States selected to participate in the Collections Assessment for Preservation (CAP) program

CAP helps museums improve the care of their collections by providing support for a conservation assessment of the museum’s collections and buildings. The museum will work with a team of preservation professionals to identify preventive conservation priorities. The final assessment report will help the museum prioritize its collections care efforts in the coming years.

The CAP program is administered by FAIC through a cooperative agreement with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal grant making agency that supports museums and libraries.

The CAP program will be an important part of a multi-year CMTS project entitled Master Plan for Interior Environmental Improvements for Quarry Farm and Its Collections. With guidance from Johnson-Schmidt & Associates, an architectural firm specializing in the restoration, preservation, and revitalization of historic structures, CMTS has identified improvements in the climate and fire-suppression systems within the main house of Quarry Farm as a high-priority preservation project.

The Quarry Farm Parlor

As a retreat for Mark Twain scholars who spend weeks at a time doing their research, writing, and scholarly endeavors, it is not only important for Quarry Farm to have systems that will serve and protect the collections, it must also function as a living facility where Mark Twain’s presence is understood and its occupants can function in the manner in which the Langdon family intended their gift to the Humanities to be utilized. This is a special environment for scholars of one of the most important American writers, and therefore these priorities need to be balanced.  Not only are the climate and fire-suppression systems involved in these two types of uses challenging to resolve, but equally important is the manner in which the systems are woven into Quarry Farm’s historic fabric. Limiting the impact of these systems on historic finishes will be an effort, as will the routes the systems will need to take to get to their destinations in order to condition the space throughout the house and conserve its collections. For these reasons, preservation and collections assessment specialists need to be hired to help CMTS address these very important concerns and priorities.

CMTS is in the middle of its Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. This capital campaign is solely for the purpose addressing these specific preservation needs and is a part of the Master Plan for Interior Environmental Improvements for Quarry Farm and Its Collections. Groups and individuals who generously contribute will be honored with their names on a memorial plaque next to the one already gracing the entrance to Quarry Farm. This is truly a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for community leaders to become a permanent part of the proud legacy of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Quarry Farm, and Mark Twain. All interested participants should contact Dr. Joseph Lemak, Director of CMTS, at [email protected]

For more information about the Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign, here is Dr. Matt Seybold’s lecture from the kickoff event and Dr. Joe Lemak’s campaign appeal.

About FAIC – The Foundation for Advancement in Conservation saves cultural heritage for future generations, protecting it from decay and destruction. Learn more about FAIC at www.culturalheritage.org/foundation.

About IMLS – The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

New Updates to David Fears’s Mark Twain Day by Day Online Edition!

Our first update to Mark Twain Day By Day Online address several technical difficulties with the rollout version. There is a prominent searchbar associated with each volume, allowing scholars to quickly find keywords and dates from throughout the massive resource. Also, Paul Stonier has address many (all? most?) of the spacing and other formatting problems that were sprinkled throughout the text. We consider Day By Day to be a living resource, so additional updates are to be expected from time to time. If you encounter problems while using the database or imagine functionalities which would improve its utility, please let us know, recognizing of course that updates will be made as time, resources, and technical capacity allow.

MARK TWAIN DAY BY DAY by David Fears, print volumes

David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day is an exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens which was originally published in four enormous print volumes between 2008 and 2014. It has since become and invaluable reference for scholars who have the good fortune of having access to it, but the size and expense of the books have kept it primarily confined to university libraries and a few private collections. That is, until now. Independent Twain scholars, teachers, students, hobbyists, and all variety of Twainiac can now access a fully-searchable online edition of Mark Twain Day By Day for free from anywhere with an internet connection. 

CMTS is incredibly grateful to Mr. Fears for entrusting us with the fruit of his extraordinary labors, and also to the late Dr. Thomas A. Tenney, Dr. Barbara Snedecor, Leslie Myrick, Dr. Susan K. Harris, Nathanial Ball, and Paul Stonier, all of whom donated time and labor essential to getting this project online.

A Bouquet of Birthday Wishes from Mark Twain Scholars to Hal Holbrook on his 94th Birthday: What “Mark Twain Tonight!” Means To Us

2018 was the first year since 1954 that Hal Holbrook (who retired in September of 2017) did not perform “Mark Twain Tonight!”

I compiled this video to honor him on his 94th Birthday (February 17th) and to remind him that although he is no longer performing, his show continues to have an impact on what scholars write and what students learn in Hamden and Hong Kong; in San Antonio, Syracuse, and Stanford; in Charleston, Cambridge, and Tokyo – in short, all over the world. The seventeen scholars in this video pay homage – each in his or her own way – to what the show has meant to them and what they learned from it, in addition to conveying warm birthday wished to its star.

I am pleased to report he was delighted.

Alan Gribben’s Landmark Work to Be Updated in March 2019

Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading. By Alan Gribben. NewSouth Books, 2019. Pp.400. Hardcover $45.00. ISBN 978-1-5883-8343-3

Volume One of Dr. Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading will be published in March 2019. Two additional volumes will follow this year. Much of Dr. Gribben’s research was conducted in the Mark Twain Archive during the summer he taught a seminar on the front porch at Quarry Farm, and several sections of his book were written during a Henry Nash Smith Award residency awarded by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.

Alan Gribben (left) and Nathaniel Ball, CMTS Archivist (right),
in the Reading Room of the Mark Twain Archive in 2016.

The first volume of Mark Twain’s Literary Resources consists of twenty-five chapters explaining the fate of the Clemens family’s book collection, chronicling Dr. Gribben’s fifty-year search for information about Samuel Clemens’s library and reading, and assessing the patterns and depths of the author’s literary resources. Volume One concludes with a detailed Critical Bibliography listing and describing previous work by other scholars. Dr. Gribben, a co-founder of the Mark Twain Circle of America and an early advisor to the Directors of the Center for Mark Twain Studies concerning the creation of Quarry Farm as a scholarly retreat and the quadrennial State of Mark Twain Studies conferences, is a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery. In 1993 he was instrumental in obtaining the Antenne Collection, most of whose volumes contain Clemens’s signature and many with his marginalia, for the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College.

“One of the foundational sources of Mark Twain studies for nearly forty years, Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction has long been a scholarly treasure. Gribben’s revised and much expanded compendium, Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading, will prove to be the standard reference guide on the topic for the next many decades. These volumes belong in all research libraries and on the shelves of all nineteenth-century Americanists.” ― Gary Scharnhorst, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English, University of New Mexico

“Alan Gribben’s critical masterpiece, Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading, asserts itself as one of a handful of truly invaluable resources in Mark Twain Studies. A heroic compendium of analytical essays, annotated catalogs, critical bibliographies, and index guides, this work is the definitive study of the literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts that shaped Mark Twain’s mind and art.” ― Joseph Csicsila, Professor, Eastern Michigan University, and coauthor of Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain

“Dr. Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Literary Resources offers a fascinating peek into the mind of an American literary genius. The book’s mind-boggling wealth of information could only have been gathered using extraordinary research skills and dogged determination. The work is an invaluable tool for Mark Twain scholars and sets a new standard for generations of scholars to come.” ― Laura Skandera Trombley, President, University of Bridgeport

“The Texan Steer”: A Rediscovered Sketch by Mark Twain?

On August 27, 1870, a sketch appeared in the Leavenworth Daily Commercial with Mark Twain’s byline. So far as I can tell, this sketch, “The Texan Steer,” has never appeared in any collection of Twain’s work or been discussed by scholars or biographers. There are several potential explanations for this oversight, including the inaccessibility of the archives of small-town and rural newspapers prior to recent digitization efforts. There is also the possibility that, despite the byline, this sketch was not written by Mark Twain at all.


Leavenworth is a town in the Missouri River Valley, a part of the country in which Mark Twain was very popular. Gossipy reports about Twain’s travels and performances appeared regularly in the Commercial, as well as excerpts from his published works. Reporting upon an appearance in Chicago (a city of 300,000) the correspondent from Leavenworth (a town of 18,000) speculated that Twain “would attract a large, first-class audience here.”

Nineteenth-Century American newspapers, particularly those in small markets, depended upon each other for content to fill their columns. Twain’s meteoric rise to fame during the late 1860s is actually closely associated with the practice (which would be prosecutable plagiarism by today’s standards). The humorous stories he wrote for papers in New York and California found their way to every corner of the interior. Twain’s stories proliferated like social media memes, although much slower, as each newspaper that “shared” them increased the likelihood that another from a neighboring city would do the same.

“The Texan Steer” did not appear only or originally in the Commercial. Between August and October of 1870 it showed up in at least a dozen papers hailing from Florida, Indiana, Kansas, New York, and Ohio. It was usually, though not always, attributed to Mark Twain. When Twain was not named, the Buffalo Express was, and Mark Twain was well known to be not only a contributor, but a partial owner of the Express.

“The Texan Steer” is inspired by events which had recently transpired in Buffalo. On August 8th, two bulls had escaped near the New York Central Depot and stampeded through the streets of Buffalo, killing at least one person and injuring several more, causing an uproar that was widely publicized even beyond the city. The tragic-comical nature of this incident does make it seem a likely target for Twain’s often twisted sense of humor.

The sketch appeared in the Express on August 18th with no byline, but this is not necessarily proof that the editors at the Commercial and elsewhere were mistaken. Twain, like other correspondents throughout the nation, frequently published unsigned articles, including several for the Express during this period (as can be found in Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg’s collection Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express). Fellow editors at the Commercial, the Junction City Weekly Union, Florida Peninsular, and elsewhere may have had inside knowledge of the article’s true authorship, or they may have simply presumed, correctly or incorrectly, that it was the work of the Express‘s famous humorist.

Slightly complicating matters is the fact that we don’t know exactly where Samuel Clemens was on the date the article was published. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, died in Elmira early in August and the Clemenses attended the funeral on the 8th. It is unclear when they returned to Buffalo, though they were certainly back by the 30th (when he postmarked a letter from there).

Considering that wiring “dispatches” from great distances was part of what had made Twain famous during the preceding years, the 150 miles from Elmira to Buffalo was hardly an impediment to publication. Not including “The Texan Steer,” Twain published at least two articles in the Express, both unsigned, during this period, including his obituary for Jervis Langdon (the other was “Domestic Missionaries Wanted”). Nor would Twain’s failure to observe the stampede have prevented him from burlesquing it. He frequently drew inspiration from newspaper reports and the Langdon family, with their multitude of business interests throughout New York State, subscribed to several of the Buffalo papers.

One also might speculate that writing such an article would be in particularly bad taste during a time when Sam Clemens was supposed to be mourning the father-in-law for whom he held great esteem. But, as Joseph Csicsila has shown, Clemens consistently dealt with grief by throwing himself into his work, even at the expense of seeming callous to family and friends. Jerome Loving marvels that during this period

“Sam kept right on working on promised projects…he suffered along with the rest of the family…but he nevertheless managed to write. It is hard to imagine, even today, how he functioned as a humorist, but the Galaxy [a monthly humor column Twain wrote for the magazine headquartered in Buffalo] is hard evidence of his success.”

from The Adventures of Samuel Clemens (2010)

Barring the discovery of relevant records or correspondence, we may never be able to definitively support or debunk the attribution of the “The Texan Steer.” However, there are some clues within the text which explain why it was reasonable to connect it to Twain. Perhaps most evidently there is the narrator, whose affectation is that he is a naturalist scientifically observing and recording the behaviors of the Texan steer when readers, especially those familiar with the recent events in Buffalo, know he is just cowering in a tree to avoid being gored. What we might characterize as the “pretentious idiot” is a persona which Twain took on frequently in his burlesque sketches and, perhaps most famously, in episodes from The Innocents Abroad.

Also, Twain was not above reusing material with minor variations. The use of “corned” as a synonym for drunkenness (and a culinary pun) would reappear, complete with quotation marks, in his 1872 speech, “The Union, Right or Wrong.” His fondness for the word cussed and all its derivations is evident throughout his career. My personal favorite invocation, from an 1868 letter sent from Washington DC: “Cuss this cussed place.”

As that letter, with its berating of “stupid old muffs of Generals & Senators,” suggests, Twain never tired of inventing creative invectives for politicians. Aldermen were not spared. In fact, they may have been fresh in his mind, as Twain had corresponded on his father-in-law’s behalf in a dispute with a municipal board in Memphis the preceding year. Among the many places where he wreaked his vengeance upon alderman, regardless of municipality, is in Life on the Mississippi, when he says of Dominique You, a hero of the War of 1812, “He was a pirate with a tremendous and sanguinary history; and as long as he preserved unspotted the dignity of his ancient calling, homage and reverence were his from high and low; but when at last he descended into politics and became a paltry alderman, the public ‘shook’ him, and turned aside and wept.”

It is my own “expert opinion” that this is either a sketch written by Mark Twain or an excellent counterfeit. It is, undeniably, evidence of how much of a celebrity Twain had become, even as early as 1870. The extensive network of US newspapers, nearly 6,000 of them in 1870, stretching from coast to coast, was primed to disseminate anything and everything associated with him. Even when he chose not to put his famous nome de plume in the byline, they did it for him.

*****

UPDATE: Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com offers another plausible possibility, that “The Texan Steer” may have actually been the work of Frank Manly Thorn, another regular contributor to the Express who usually signed his work “Hy Slocum” or “Carl Byng.” Twain accused Thorn of being a “habitual plagiarist” and tried to have him banned from the Express when he became part owner, but Twain himself believed that some of Thorn’s work was still being published in his paper at least as late as January of 1871. Schmidt has written an informative profile of Thorn which I recommend. While I feel no more confident attributing “The Texan Steer” to Thorn than I do to Twain, the conflict between them shows that Twain believed there were writers imitating his style well enough to fool the public.

The Park Church Culture Into Which Mark Twain Married: An Introduction to “Mark Twain’s Music Box”

EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.

117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”

Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.

The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”

Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”

This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,

“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”

from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)

The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!

Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.

As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:

“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”

from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)

This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.

Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.

Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”

“Mark Twain’s Music Box” & Cosmopolitan Twain

Tomorrow night – Friday, February 8th – at the Park Church in Elmira the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes will be performing “Mark Twain’s Music Box,” a program loosely based upon the music which Samuel Clemens chose to have programmed into the expensive customized music box his wife gave him as a birthday present during their extended visit to Europe in 1878. “Mark Twain’s Music Box” was originally performed in 2008 and is based upon an essay with the same title published by Kerry Driscoll that same year.

2008 essay which inspired music program.

Dr. Driscoll is currently a Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph in Hartford, CT. She has also been a professor at Elmira College, a Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and consultant for both the Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Mark Twain House & Museum. Her most recent book, Mark Twain Among The Indians, was published last year.

Mark Twain Across the Indians

“Mark Twain’s Music Box” was part of a volume of essays, Cosmopolitan Twain, which focused on rescuing Twain from being merely “the American,” and instead presented him, as editor Ann Ryan puts it, as “competitive, skeptical, necessarily tolerant, multilingual and multicultural, frankly materialistic and acquisitive.”

Naturally, Twain’s cosmopolitan-ness was increased by the globetrotting he did during his maturity. The premise of Driscoll’s essay is that the music box purchased in Geneva for $400 ($9,500 today) is representative both of Twain’s absorption in cosmopolitan aesthetics and his anxiety about that absorption. Crucially, Driscoll argues that Sam and Livy’s European travels were, paradoxically, about the return home, when they could furnish their home with expensive and exotic purchases which would impress their Hartford neighbors, who the Clemenses, in typically nouveau riche fashion, were intimidated by and eager to please.

Sam’s concern with how the Hartford home and all within it would be judged by visitors explains why choosing what melodies would be programmed into his music box proved a difficult and lengthy task, one which he did not complete for four months. He feared that poor choices would reveal his uncultivated tastes. Moreover, Driscoll argues, these anxieties caused him to be disappointed by the finished product, even to the point of claiming he had been delivered the wrong music box.

Dr. Driscoll’s essay is based upon original research and explores many aspects of the Clemenses life in Hartford and Europe beyond the acquisition of the music box. Check out Cosmopolitan Twain from a bookseller or library near you! And come see the OSFL, in collaboration with the Center for Mark Twain Studies, perform “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church.