Dispatches From Quarry Farm: The Cat, Plays Bass.


A train rumbles through the city of Elmira. The tracks are at least three miles away, and I can hear it as a distant echo. I think of the past and the future here at Quarry Farm. It’s 4:00 A.M. and a cat, the cat, of the house has developed a habit of strolling through my room in the middle of the night like a young man entering a party just a little too full of himself. The distant ghost of a train is like the booming bass in a dance club in the city of Los Angeles. With at least forty-six elongated meows he not only wakes me up, but my eyes are bright white circles in the black room. My heart jumps to a pace that’ll be impossible to relax before the birds begin to sing, and I’m wishing this creature—my good friend in the daytime—was tied to the tracks in front of that train.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain wrote that “A home without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?” Twain said this about cats but he never said what to do with a cat that talks too much. I guess it’s possible that around Twain no cat ever had a chance to get a word in. When all the Twain scholars are here on the lawn or in the house or on the porch I don’t get word in. So I guess that puts me in the league of most cats; except this particular one that has rousted me in the middle of the night, which leads me to believe this cat may be a scholar. Maybe I’ll sign him up to do a talk at the upcoming quadrennial conference? It’s possible that after fifteen lectures on Twain the cat will be as sensible and inspiring as anyone. Maybe he could do the keynote? He’s cheap too—a can of tuna and a little nip would cover his fee.

Twain and his family traveled almost yearly in the 1870s and 1880s from Hartford, CT to Elmira, NY. The trip was about five hours by train from Hartford to New York City then, after an overnight, a ten-hour trip from the city up to Elmira. Often, as was a habit of his since boyhood, Twain traveled with his favorite cat—Sour Mash being his most prized feline of this time period. Although the trip, for most, is much shorter these days I would encourage you to not bring your favorite cat to the conference. The Assault of Laughter is the theme and in my current experience, though assaulting, cats are not that funny.

I will, however, encourage you to bring some earplugs. Three reasons: 1. ) the cat will need some time in the spotlight—most likely at 4:00 A.M.—so all those staying at the farm be advised, 2.) the snoring from the attendees—most often occurring in late afternoon sessions—can be distracting, and 3.) there will be a Jazz trio playing at the Quarry Farm picnic from 6-8 p.m. Since Jazz was not invented in Twain’s lifetime we can only speculate (and I’m sure we will) on his opinions of the music. But since it is a truly American art form, born on the Mississippi. I like to imagine that our favorite riverboat pilot would have approved. Another reason for the earplugs is that the bass player in this particular jazz trio is an incompetent faker and simply used his connections to the Center for Mark Twain Studies to get the gig. So unless you can shut off one-third of your hearing—for the other two musicians do possess great talent—wear your earplugs!

As Caretaker of the majestic, Quarry Farm, I want to assure the scholarly community that the lawn and house will be pristine, the flowers will be brilliant, the weather ideal, I will actually practice my jazz bass skills and all the stories will be riveting. I will however assure you of none of these things. I am a moody, procrastinating, recluse. It’s important to manage your expectations.

I do look forward to this weekend though! The conference will be great. Scholars from around the world will arrive and talk. And talk. And talk…And talk. The American icon, Mark Twain, will be honored for what he did best. There will be food and music and jokes and probably some cigars. Then, everyone will leave. I’ll clean up and settle back into the creepy caretaker role that I so adore and before I know it the next weekend will arrive. I look forward to that weekend too.

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