Mark Twain, Mary Baker Eddy, and the News

Produced by The Mary Baker Eddy Library, the Seekers and Scholars podcast explores the relevance of Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) to contemporary scholarship in a variety of disciplines and fields.  Guests have frequently conducted research in the Library’s collections, which have contributed to publications with notable academic presses.

Mary Baker Eddy (1886) from the Mary Baker Eddy Library

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was an influential American author, teacher, and religious leader, noted for her groundbreaking ideas about spirituality and health, which she named Christian Science. She articulated those ideas in her major work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875. Four years later she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, which today has branch churches and societies around the world. In 1908 she launched The Christian Science Monitor, a leading international newspaper, the recipient, to date, of seven Pulitzer Prizes.

Dr. L. Ashley Squires, guest speaker for the podcast episode “Mark Twain, Mary Baker Eddy, and the news,” has had two fellowships at the Library. Her archival research provided important information and insights for her book Healing the Nation: Literature, Progress, and Christian Science (Indiana University Press, 2017).  Squires’s thesis seeks to fill what she perceives is a void in understanding Eddy and the impact Christian Science has had on literature and the media in the Progressive Era.   

In this episode Squires explores Twain’s views on Eddy and Christian Science, discussing how we can better discern them.  Twain is a key figure for Squires—a major literary and cultural force whose fixation with Eddy stands out. She notes that, while his critique of Eddy “is still the best known and most frequently studied . . . it is not particularly well understood” (Healing the Nation, 3).

The Library provides public access to original materials and educational experiences about Mary Baker Eddy; the ideas she advanced; her writings; and the institutions she founded and their healing mission.

The podcast can be found by clicking here.

Mark Twain Day By Day Database Now Live!

You may have noticed that things look a little different around here. We are kicking off 2019 with a redesign by Paul Stonier. In addition to our fresh look, the relaunched site has a wider range of functionalities, which will make it possible for us to undertake exciting new projects and introduce valuable new resources in the coming years.

MARK TWAIN DAY BY DAY by David Fears, print volumes

First among these is the digital edition of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day. This exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens 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, and Nathanial Ball, all of whom donated time and labor essential to getting this project online.

Check it out!

2018: The Year In Review

There are big changes coming to in the early months of 2019, but for now we look back on 2018, which was another busy year at the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Here are a few of our most popular posts.


150 Years Ago Mark Twain Celebrated New Years Eve By Debating How Drunk He Had Been During The Preceding Year & Listening To Charles Dickens Read David Copperfield With His Future Wife by Matt Seybold

The sesquicentenniaries are coming in fast, starting with the first meeting between Samuel and Olivia Clemens.


When Will We Listen? Mark Twain Through The Lenses of Generation Z by Jocelyn Chadwick

21st-Century Students Respond To Sensitive Texts by Jocelyn Chadwick & John Grassie

Jocelyn Chadwick, of NCTE and Harvard School of Education, responds to the most recent controversies over Huckleberry Finn in secondary school curriculums and also premieres part of documentary project about how contemporary students respond to reading Mark Twain.

Travelin’ Man by Ron Powers

The award-winning critic, historian, and Twain biographer returned to Elmira to put an exclamation point on our Spring lecture series.


Building A Model of Huck & Jim’s Raft by Peter G. Beidler

A fascinating supplement to Dr. Beidler’s acclaimed new book, Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn (U. Missouri Press).


The Legacy of Lawrence I. Berkove by Joe Csicsila

Following the passing of a beloved Twain scholar, the Mark Twain Journal generously allowed us to reprint this tribute from one of his students and collaborators.


Quarry Farm's new rug

Quarry Farm Carpet Leaves For Thirty Years, Goes To Turkey, & Comes Back Home by Frances Millard

This carpet, older than the State of California, was worn bare by the feet of long-dead literary luminaries, abolitionist ministers, fugitive slaves, and four generations of Langdons, Clemenses, and Cranes, until, in 1988, it was in danger of dissolving underfoot. A tremendous story of restoration and patronage.


The Calculated Incivility of Anson Burlingame, The Only Congressman Mark Twain Could Tolerate by Matt Seybold

One of our most popular posts of the year features a nearly forgotten abolitionist icon who Twain befriended and idolized.


2018 Undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellows Interview Filmmakers Aaron & Adam Nee About Their Adaptation of Tom Sawyer by Mona Beydoun & Samantha DeRosia

Our first class of undergraduate fellows went deep on one of the most entertaining contemporary adaptations of Twain’s work.


A current plaque outside the kitchen at Quarry Farm recognizes the generosity of local donors to our last preservation campaign, in 1983!

150 Years of Mark Twain in Elmira: Dickens Holidays, The Gospel of Revolt, & The Quarry Farm Style by Matt Seybold

At the sesquicentennial celebration of Twain’s first visit to Elmira we also launched the Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign.


Quarry Farm Symposium Poster

2018 Quarry Farm Symposium: American Literary History & Economics In The New Gilded Age

Most of the proceedings from our semi-annual weekend symposium are available to read or listen to in our archives.

Virtual Tour of Quarry Farm, Mark Twain Study, & Woodlawn Gravesite by David Coleman

This year’s updates to our popular virtual tour, created by SmallTown360, include the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery and interactive objects.

Happy Halloween!: Twain’s Favorite Ghost Story & Twain Speaks From The Netherworld by Dwayne Eutsey

A spooky investigation of “The Golden Arm.”


The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians Are Like Diapers.” by Matt Seybold

An Election Day edition of the series which reached over 32,000 readers in 2018 alone.

New Documentary Focuses on Twain’s Time in Buffalo by Thomas Reigstad

Dr. Reigstad shares footage and feedback from a new documentary based on his book.

Look forward to much more in 2019!

2019 Mark Twain Writing Contest & Portraying Mark Twain Art Competition Open To Elmira College Students

Mark Twain portrait

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is sponsoring two competitions: The 26th Annual Mark Twain Writing Contest & The 3rd Annual “Portraying Mark Twain” Art Competition.

Both contests are open to all Elmira College students.

The Mark Twain Writing Contest solicits excellent student writing related to Mark Twain, his life, works, and times. Academic essays and creative writing are both strongly encouraged.

All submissions should be typed, double-spaced, and formatted according to MLA style. A submission length of 1000-1500 words is recommended, but submissions of any length will be considered.

The author of the winning essay will receive a $250 cash prize and have their name engraved on the statuette in the entryway of McGraw Hall. Exceptional essayists may be invited to submit to partner journals or to publish on Additional runners-up may also receive cash prizes.

Please submit your essay via email to Dr. Joe Lemak, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies ([email protected]). All entries will be judge anonymously by Dr. Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies.

The deadline for submissions is February 15, 2019

CMTS also sponsors the “Portraying Mark Twain” Art Competition, open to visual artists in all mediums and genres.

A $350 prize pool will be divided between winning entries, which will also be displayed on campus and/or via

Further guidelines for submissions may be found here. The deadline for entry is March 30, 2019.

Documentary About Mark Twain & Joan of Arc Wins Top Prize at Paris Film Festival

Mark Twain et Jeanne d’Arc: L’hisoire d’une passion, a French-language short documentary about Twain’s lifelong interest in the iconic heroine, Joan of Arc, was recently awarded the top prize in the documentary category at the Anstia Film Festival in Paris.

The film, written by recent Quarry Farm Fellow, Ronald Jenn, and directed by Patrice Thery, uses pictures and documents from French and American archives, including our own, to familiarize its audience with the author, the subject of his passionate interest, and, finally, the novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which he published in 1896.

The film made its US debut in August of 2017 here in Elmira, as part of our 8th Quadrennial Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. It prominently features Elmira College alumna, Olivia Clemens, and discusses the importance of Elmira and Quarry Farm in Twain’s life.

Jenn, who is also a professor at Universite Lille, reports,

“The jury, comprised of an iconic anchorwoman from France 3, a state-owned TV channel, a journalist from the same channel and two photographers/film-makers said that the movie stood out as exceptionally well-written, especially intriguing as to its topics and very well-made thanks to the wealth of quality images provided by the Mark Twain Project. They underlined the way research was made accessible to a large audience and the obvious international scholarly collaboration the film was the fruit of.”

We are so proud to have played our small part in that collaboration and offer a hearty congratulations to Professor Jenn and the other filmmakers. We thank them for promoting this under-appreciated piece of Twain’s legacy. We hope you will take a few moments to watch the film (with English subtitles) embedded below.

New Documentary focuses on Twain’s Time in Buffalo

For over three decades I poked around in the area of Twain’s connection to my hometown, Buffalo, NY.

Mark Twain’s home in Buffalo (472 Delaware Avenue) as pictured in 1947. The home was demolished in 1963.

I spent countless hours in the Grosvenor Room of the Central Library in downtown Buffalo flipping through pages of the over one hundred volumes of the Local History and Local Biographies scrapbooks, taking notes from pasted newspaper clippings that contained relevant information. I read and cross-referenced entries in Buffalo City Directories of the late 1860s and 1870s searching for names and addresses of Twain’s Buffalo Express colleagues, his fellow renters in a boarding house on East Swan Street while he was still a bachelor, various friends and associates that he socialized with, and neighbors in the posh Delaware District community that he moved into once he married Olivia Langdon. A kind and trusting Buffalo History Museum research librarian once even let me borrow an 1869 Buffalo City Directory that had belonged to Millard Fillmore for a weekend so I could study it at home.

I also logged hour after hour hunched over at cumbersome, hand-cranked, dimly-lit microfilm reader machines at public libraries in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Elmira, at the former Buffalo Courier-Express library, at the Niagara Gazette library, at the Elmira College archives, and at SUNY Buffalo State’s E.H. Butler Library, scrutinizing each issue of the Buffalo Express, the Buffalo Daily Courier and the Buffalo Commercial-Advertiser from 1869 to 1871 for any references to items related to Twain and the Buffalo he resided in, worked at and wrote about.

Finally, I spent much of those thirty-plus years exploring leads gleaned from obituaries, tips from human sources and hunches that led me to identify and contact living descendants of Twain’s Buffalo professional and social circle who generously shared nuggets of family lore about their forbearer’s association with Twain. I was extremely fortunate to have mentors, too, like Vic Doyno, Bill Loos, Charles Brady, and Martin Fried, and countless other librarians, scholars, friends and family members, to nudge me in the right direction. The research was never tedious or boring. Rather, the detective work was gratifying, often exhilarating. Along the way, I published bits of my findings in academic journals, magazines and newspapers, delivered presentations at Twain conferences and gave illustrated lectures to many service organizations.

Next, I embarked on a book-length project intended to comprehensively document Twain’s affiliation with Buffalo. The result was the publication of Scribblin’ for a Livin’—Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo in 2013. In the four years after its release I participated in over sixty book talks and signings. Occasionally, I met people who provided new insights into Twain’s relationship with Buffalo, and on my own I continued to make startling discoveries. Frankly, I was surprised to be stumbling across heretofore unknown facts in the aftermath of what I had hoped would become the “seminal” book about Twain’s Buffalo experience.

I decided that I wanted to add these new revelations and discoveries in a second, revised version of the book. Unfortunately, after the initial print run of 1,500 copies was fully distributed and sold, the original publisher insisted on only filling subsequent orders “on demand.” These print-on-demand (POD) products were inferior—smaller than the original book, with virtually photocopied pages, and with a lower quality cover–in short, an embarrassing-looking book. Furthermore, when I inquired, the publisher was not at all interested in sponsoring a revised edition with new, additional insights into Twain and Buffalo.

So, in January of 2018 I hired an attorney to pursue termination of my contract. Within a few weeks a legal agreement was struck terminating the contract and reverting all rights for the book to me. By springtime, I had lined up a new publisher, NFB Publishing, and by the end of June, a new, expanded version of Scribblin’ for a Livin’, with thirty additional pages of text, a couple of new images, an improved index, and a colorful new cover design, was available.

Around that time I had noticed on NFB Publishing’s website that one of their book titles—a biography of hall of fame 1920s-30s boxer Jimmy Slattery—was accompanied by an entertaining 10-minute documentary about Slattery; the film was meant to tie-in to the new Slattery biography. When I asked if something similar could be done in conjunction with my expanded edition of Scribblin’, the publisher, Mark Pogodzinski, put me in touch with videographer Kevin Heffernan of Rise Collaborative. I invited Amy Pickard, curator of Rare Books for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and supervisor of their Mark Twain Room, and Bob Butler, an Emeritus Professor of English at Canisius College, to be interviewed for their thoughts on Twain’s life and times in Buffalo, and I sought permission ffrom various sources to include still images. Kevin Heffernan filmed the interviews with Bob, Amy, and I in late September and early October of 2018 at Canisius and at the Central Library.

In late November, the 10-minute documentary went public, including a sparkling narration by Holly Kirkpatrick, and extra video “bonus commentaries” by Amy and me. The film covers Twain’s Buffalo period and helps to promote the expanded edition of my book. To my knowledge, it represents the first extended documentary ever produced that focuses on Twain in Buffalo.

COMMENTARY: Scribblin’ For a Livin’ – Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period In Buffalo

BONUS COMMENTARY: Mark Twain Used his Bully Pulpit to both Help his Family, Denounce Racism

BONUS COMMENTARY: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library’s Manuscript of Huckleberry Finn

Thanksgiving Steeple-Jumping: The Sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s “Conditional” Engagement

On Thanksgiving Day, 1868, Olivia Langdon “yielded a conditional consent” to Sam Clemens’s third proposal of marriage. They had know each other for less than a year, having been introduced on the occasion of a Charles Dickens reading in New York City the previous New Year’s Eve. Sam had made himself a fixture in Elmira during the Summer and Fall of 1868, going out of his way to visit the Langdons whenever there was an interruption in his American Vandal lecture tour.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, following a sold-out show in Cleveland, Mark Twain scheduled a pro bono performance at the Elmira Opera House, donating the proceeds to a local fire department, and creating a convenient excuse for Livy to see him perform and for Sam to again impose upon her family for the holiday. Clemens told his friend Mary Fairbanks that, though Livy had been slowly falling for him during the preceding weeks, as he bombarded her with love letters, “the lecture Monday night brought the disease to the surface.”

He redoubled his efforts during Thanksgiving week, so frequently seeking time alone with her that her father made a joke of having the drawing-room measured while they were in it, to see if it was big enough to accommodate three people.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Elmira

The day before Sam was required to travel to his next booking, Livy “yielded,” sending the famously mercurial Clemens into fits of manic delight. In reporting their engagement to a few of his closest friends, he repeatedly joked, “If there were a church in town with a steeple high enough to make it an object, I would go out and jump over it!” (For those familiar with Elmira, a town with numerous steeples, this hyperbole was even richer.)

Writing to Livy after his lecture two days later, he said, “Never was a lecture so full of parentheses before. It was Livy, Livy, Livy, Livy, all the way through! It was one sentence of Vandal to ten sentences about you. The insignificant lecture was hidden, lost, overwhelmed, and buried under a boundless universe of Livy!”

But while Sam was driven to distraction by his eagerness to exclaim his love, the marriage was still far from assured. Its “conditions” being foremost the approval of Livy’s parents, Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon. Sam had announced his intentions on Thanksgiving, but they were not immediately agreed to. The Langdons were hesitant, perhaps understandably, to give their daughter away to a self-described vandal, cannibal, and wild man. The Elmira lecture, on this front, may not have worked to his advantage.

The Langdons asked Mr. Clemens to supply references (many of which, infamously, failed to testify on his behalf) and to demonstrate to their satisfaction that he was “a good, steady, reliable character” and “a Christian.” Sam consented to all these terms and, eager to please, volunteered to also quit drinking and only “seek the society of the good,” neither of which were asked of him and neither of which he followed through on, even temporarily.

When Livy’s mother wrote to Mary Fairbanks herself a few days later, asking for advice regarding Mr. Clemens, she admitted to being strongly prejudiced against him. “At first our parental hearts said no,” she wrote, “to the bare thought of such a stranger, mining in our hearts for the possession of one of the few jewels we have.” And the way she frames her request to Mrs. Fairbanks betrays the nature of her concern:

Olivia Lewis Langdon

“What I desire is your opinion of him as a man; what the kind of man he has been, and what the man he now is, or is to become. I have learned…that a great change has taken place in Mr. Clemens, that he seemed to have entered upon a new manner of life, with higher and better purposes actuating his conduct. The question…is – from what standard of conduct – from what habitual life, did this change, or improvement, or reformation commence? Does this change, so desirably commenced make of an immoral man a moral one, as the world looks at men? – or -does this change make of one, who has been entirely a man of the world, different in this regard, than he resolutely aims to enter upon a new, because a Christian life?”

I would be very hesitant to characterize the Langdons as prudish or risk adverse. To their credit, they would come to accept Sam’s proposal, after several months, and, despite his lack of character references, treated themselves as sympathetic witnesses to his mature temperament.

But the question that troubled them, the day after Thanksgiving, 1868, was whether a man who had not only made a habit, over his nearly 33 years, of committing vandalism, profanity, and heresy, but had recently risen, via his ironic promotion of such habits, to the status of “a somewhat celebrated personage,” had any incentive to change. If being the immoral Mark Twain had served him so well, why should anybody trust the sincerity of Sam Clemens’s pledges to be moral?

In the coming months, Sam would grow restless waiting for the Langdons to give their blessing. He would become defensive, presuming that the well-to-do family was shunning him for his humble origins and uncertain prospects. Writing directly to Livy’s mother the following February, he defiantly proclaimed, “I have paddled my own canoe since I was thirteen, wholly without encouragement or assistance from any one, and am fully competent to so paddle it the rest of the voyage, and take a passenger along, beside…we can make the canoe go, and we shall not care a straw for the world’s opinion about it if the world chooses to think otherwise.”

But what Olivia Lewis’s letter to Mary Fairbanks reveals is that the Langdons were not the least bit concerned about their daughter’s financial security. To the contrary, they seemed to take his increasing fame and fortune as a given, worrying rather that the wealth itself might be damaging to his character, reinforcing habits and values of a lower order by proving them profitable.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: I’m Looking Out The Window Again

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.

I’m looking out the window again. It’s one of the best windows in the house even though it doesn’t have the view of the Chemung River Valley that this place is famous for. It’s high, on the second floor, and looks off in into the forest in the direction of where Mark Twain’s study used to be. It’s my bedroom window and it’s what I wake up to every morning.

Whatever the opposite of crippling depression is I may just have it. Crippling beauty? I don’t want to get out of bed because it’s just too damn nice. But I must. There’s a child to feed and water, there are errands to run, and there’s caretaking to do. But I come back here every afternoon for an hour or so. I make myself write and stare out the window and either belittle myself for procrastinating and being the producer of pure garbage or I shower myself in praises for the inspired prose that I exude—certain that this golden bulls**t will pour from me infinitely.  Today’s results are yet to be determined.

A lot of people don’t know this but Twain didn’t start wearing his iconic white suit until very late in life—December 1906. He’d claimed—I’ll paraphrase here—that it looked really clean.  After hearing a story on some NPR program, I can’t remember which one, women who practice Hinduism are expected to wear all white after their husbands pass away. That got me to thinking. Just eighteen months after his wife Olivia died, Twain was first observed publicly, and from then on, in all white—who knows when he started privately?  Is it possible that the famous atheist, wild man of the west, and great observer of world culture was in fact…? I know what you’re thinking. Well the answer is no. Mark Twain was not a Hindu woman. But there is a pretty good chance that he wanted to wear that attention-grabbing white suit much earlier in life, but his wife, tasteful as she was, shut it down. That white suit seems formal to us now, but at the time it was the Adidas jumpsuit of suits. It screamed I don’t give a f#@k. Livy wasn’t havin’ that.

So, just for fun, let’s say that Twain was a Hindu woman. Since Quarry farm was one of his favorite places on earth.  He described it as “a foretaste of heaven.” Well, if he was a Hindu woman, I suppose he’d have called it “a foretaste of Swarga Loka.”  Maybe I can take it a step further, if he was going to be reincarnated—assuming he gets to choose— perhaps he could transmogrify into one of the sentient beings here on the farm?

I’ve considered the fox that I see almost daily from my bedroom window. He or she lives up by the original study site somewhere and is most active early in the morning and I’m assuming, by the terrifying screams that cut through the darkness, late at night. In fact, one scholar and his wife were convinced  that a woman was being murdered in the woods until they googled “woman screaming in the woods” and were relieved to find a cute little fox and not an unflattering picture of a certain caretaker. But there’s nothing really Twain about this fox except that he seems to dislike large school groups—he disappears the moment those big yellow busses pull up to the property for field trips.

I saw the fox just the other day in a standoff with my cat—we’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this story—and the wild little canine slunk off into the forest screaming over his shoulder while Bob stared at him with the classic cat look of belittling indifference. Cats were Twain’s favorite animals. Seems like they’d have been buddies.

The obvious next choice, if Twain were a reincarnated Hindu woman living here at Quarry Farm, is the cat, Bob. From what I gather, if Twain wasn’t writing, he was talking. Well when Bob isn’t writing–which is always–he’s talking too. The problem is that Bob has never said a funny thing ever in any one of his nine lives. Bob is like Twain only if he never had access to a thesaurus and bumped his head as a child. “Meow” over and over will never attain the status of great literature or even prosaic satire.

There are lots of animals around: tons of turkey, deer, the occasional opossum, a red squirrel or fifty, and the endless lurkers of the night that I never even see. None of these creatures jump out at me as Twainesque. This is a man that is still loved and talked about and dissected almost one hundred and twenty years after his death. Maybe reincarnation isn’t necessary.  

I’ll leave you now with a little thing I wrote one morning. It’s the closest example, in my experience, of reincarnation although it may be bigger and further reaching than any one man.

When a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Yes. Yes, it does.

I was in my room sleeping this morning and it was just before dawn. Well, sleeping isn’t quite the right word, I was in that space between awake and asleep—you know it well, you love it there, I love it there too. If I were completely asleep I wouldn’t have noticed that the curtains in my room had just barely, the teeniest tiniest bit, had begun to show the rectangles of light behind them. They’re not so great at hiding something as big as a dawn. I can see right through those curtains.

The birds were not awake yet though—and they get up early. There’s probably only ten seconds time between the appearance of the faint rectangles behind the curtains and the birds starting to sing. It’s possible that the birds were all in the in-between sleep and awake state too, just willing their dreams to see each other. Maybe that’s why they wake up singing.

I heard then, in that ten seconds, an enormous crash through the silent forest outside my window. Branches cracked, more like lightning than thunder, and I could see, in my mind, the enormous being breaking through the arms of the others trying to hold it up and thudding to the earth. It had rained a lot lately. The ground was just too wet and unstable for something so large.

The thing about these trees, the healthy ones, is that when they fall it’s never some sort of sad ending for them. The trunk is now abroad base that, over time, will become anchored to the forest floor, fused by new roots that will appear all along the  brand-new underside. On the now topside, all those branches that didn’t break on the way down, as of today, are officially trees. They, ten or twenty or thirty of them, will reach for a lifetime toward the new opening in the forest canopy. The hole where the old roots used to live, before they were turned up, will become a home. A woodchuck or a chipmunk and then a hungry fox will all probably spend a little time there and let their babies start out sheltered by the ornate and mossy weave overhead. One tree in now practically a forest.

The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians are like diapers.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain did not hold politicians in high esteem. He was particularly spiteful towards the legislative branch in novels like The Gilded Age (1873) and short stories like “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress,” he wrote in Puddn’head Wilson (1894). In “What is Man?” (1906) he speculated that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Given the viciousness of his real attacks on elected officials, spanning across his whole career, it is probably no surprise that the corpus of Twain apocrypha includes many pot-shots at politicians.

On the eve of what is anticipated to be one of the highest-turnout midterm elections in US history, one such aphorism is proving particularly popular:

While he might have appreciated the sentiment, it is pretty easy to determine that this is not something Twain actually said. Not only does the quote fail to appear in his published works, nor in his many accessible private writings, I can’t even find an instance of Twain using the term diaper, except in a joke about the “Royal Diaperer” in The Prince & The Pauper (1891). That he would only invoke the term in a novel which is, in part, a send-up of British aristocracy, is telling. The word diaper was not part of the common parlance of America during most of Twain’s life. As the following Google ngram shows, diaper did not supplant the nappy (or napkin) in American vocabulary until late in the 19th century, and did not achieve anything rivaling its widespread contemporary usage until the second half of the 20th.

Rather than Twain, the man most responsible for the popularity the aphorism now enjoys in probably Robin Williams. In the film Man of the Year (2006), Williams’s character utters the lines, “Remember this ladies and gentleman: It’s an old phrase, basically anonymous, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons. Keep that in mind the next time you vote.”

This speech not only appears near the climax of the film, but also figured prominently in the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release in the Fall of 2006. Predictably, the quote started appearing regularly on social media soon thereafter. However, I can find no instance of its being attributed to Twain until two years later, first in a series of tweets by Dr. Larisa Varenkova. It was retweeted several times, then bounced around social media in relative obscurity until, in September of that year, Mike Hanes, a motivational speaker with tens of thousands of followers, took it upon himself to start tweeting it multiple times every day from two separate accounts. This continued for several months, and probably marks the point after which the misattribution to Twain became widely accepted.

But who is actually responsible for this nugget of bawdy political wit?

It seems likely that Barry Levinson, the screenwriter for Man of the Year, got it from Paul Harvey. Williams’s character is populist political commentator with folksy charm, which is also an accurate description of Harvey, whose syndicated “The Rest of the Story” was a staple of ABC Radio for more than half a century. Obituaries for Harvey in the New York Times and Forbes following his death in 2009 give him credit for a very similar aphorism targeting “occupants of the White House” and it also appears in newspaper accounts of his public appearances from the 1990s.

But Harvey himself, in a syndicated editorial from June 1994, credits the exact quote – “Politicians, like diapers, should be changed often. And for the same reasons.” – to Tom Blair, a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Harvey likely got this attribution from a 1993 issue of Reader’s Digest in which the aphorism was excerpted with Blair’s byline.

But, when one tracks down the article which Reader’s Digest quoted from, one discovers that Blair himself was quoting a local candidate on the Libertarian ticket. John Wallner used the line repeatedly during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1992, and thus it found its way into several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which dubbed it “the best line in a losing cause.”

One can’t help wondering whether Wallner would’ve still endorsed this catchphrase had he won.

Be kind to each other this Election Day…if not to your Congressmen.

Happy Halloween!: Twain’s Favorite Ghost Story and Twain Speaks From The Netherworld

It’s Halloween, the day when, according to legend, the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its most delicate. A fitting time to remember Mark Twain’s love for a good ghost story.

“Witches” from Chapter 34 of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

He was particularly fond of “The Golden Arm”, a folktale that spooked him during childhood visits to his Uncle John Quarles’ farm in the 1840s. He noted decades later in a letter to Joel Chandler Harris that the story was told by “old Uncle Dan’l, a slave of my uncle’s, aged 60, [who] used to tell us children yarns every night by the kitchen fire (no other light).” The story, which Twain referred to as a “negro ghost story,” actually has folkloric roots extending back to Europe long before the Grimm brothers first published it. However, by the time Uncle Dan’l mesmerized Twain with it by the kitchen fire, the story had become part of the oral tradition of Southern black culture.

The creepy story (or “creepypasta” in the parlance of our times) concerns a dead woman’s restless spirit returning from the grave to reclaim her golden arm from her grave-robbing husband. The suspense gradually builds with the ghost’s recurring mournful wail, “W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”, and after a carefully timed pause, climaxes with the storyteller suddenly lunging forward to shout, “You’ve got it!”

Twain recalled to Harris how much he and the other children on the farm loved to listen to Uncle Dan’l retell the story to them every night when “there was but a ghastly blaze or two flickering about the back-log”:

We would huddle close about the old man, and begin to shudder with the first familiar words; and under the spell of his impressive delivery we always fell a prey to that climax at the end when the rigid black shape in the twilight sprang at us with a shout.

This folktale had a lifelong impact on Twain. Not only did memories of Uncle Dan’l inspire his creation of the superstitious-yet-wise Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also relished telling “The Golden Arm” himself from the lecture platform. “Of course I tell it in the negro dialect,” he wrote to Harris. “That is necessary.” And his telling always included all the “weird wailing, the rising and falling cadences of the wind, so easily mimicked with one’s mouth; and the impressive pauses and eloquent silences, and subdued utterances, toward the end of the yarn.”

It was probably these mimetic aspects of the story, along with its shock ending, that so mortified Twain’s daughter Susy when her father regaled her refined classmates at Bryn Mawr with a performance of the ghoulishly garish tale (even after she begged him not to tell it).

Twain’s interest in “The Golden Arm” is well known today, thanks in large part to Hal Holbrooks’ rendition of it in Mark Twain Tonight! and its inclusion in the repertoire of professional storytellers. (For an interesting reflection on problematic aspects of the story by a contemporary storyteller, click here.)

However, there is another strange (but true) ghost story that isn’t as widely known involving Twain, ouija boards, and, of all things, copyright law.

The convoluted saga begins in 1915 when an author named Emily Grant Hutching claimed that Twain, now five years dead, dictated a book to her from beyond the grave via a ouija board. David Thomson has compiled a lot of great information on this incident.

Emily Grant Hutching (Image from

For a simple summary of Twain’s alleged foray into posthumous publishing, I turn to Mary Collins Barile’s Haunted Columbia, Missouri:

Now calling herself a psychic, Hutchings finally revealed…that the book was transmitted to herself, psychic Lola Viola Roddenmayer Hays and psychic researcher James Hervey Hyslop by none other than Mark Twain…Jap Herron (A Novel Written from the Ouija Board) tells the story of a young Missouri man who takes on adversity and becomes a newspaper editor. The book was rejected by publishing houses before Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher with a flair for the odd, released it. The reviews were not kind, including this from the New York Times on September 9, 1917: “If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier (death), the admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”

Not only did Twain’s supposed publishing debut from the spectral realm receive pallid reviews, his daughter Clara and publisher Harper & Brothers sued Hutching and Kennerley for violating the copyright they held on the pen name “Mark Twain”. The suit, as a tongue-in-cheek New York Times article reported in 1918, apparently had far-reaching implications beyond mere copyright infringement:

On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.

Ultimately, the questions related to this cosmic riddle included (again, from the article):

Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?

Regrettably, the suit did not resolve any existential conundrums, and Twain’s spirit gave no ghostly testimony from the netherworld. Instead, the anti-climactic outcome resulted in Hutchings and Kennerley agreeing to withdraw the book from publication and to destroy most copies of it.Yet, Jap Herron lives on. Hard copies of it may be difficult to dig up today, but there are versions of it still haunting the internet. Brave souls willing to venture into Twain’s otherworldly opus, which includes Hutching’s lengthy account of her supposed ouija board collaboration with him, can visit (if they dare).

Happy Halloween from everyone at the Center for Mark Twain Studies!