2018 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira, the town where he would meet his wife, spend many of his summers over the remainder of his life, write several of his most acclaimed books, and finally be laid to rest. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold commemorates the occasion by offering his estimation of what Elmira meant to Mark Twain.
January 26, 1905
It was the 30th birthday of Mark Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. His father, Charley Langdon, had met Samuel Clemens when they were both passengers on the world’s first pleasure cruise in 1867. Little did young Charley know that his new friend was fashioning their voyage into a series of humorous newspaper dispatches which would become the basis for one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, The Innocents Abroad.
By the time that book was published, Sam and Charley would both be engaged. Their marriages would take place within a few blocks of one another, officiated by the same famous minister, Thomas K. Beecher. A decade later, they would have seven children between them, who spent four months every summer frolicking together on the sloping lawns of Quarry Farm with a menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, cows, and goats belonging to their aunt, Susan Crane.
30-year-old Jervis Langdon could remember those carefree summers. Susy Clemens, named for that aunt, showed him how he could send coded messages to his cousins at the hilltop farm from the windows of his family’s mansion in the town below by turning a hand mirror towards the full moon. On many a summer’s eve, he and his cousins sat huddled around Uncle Sam on the farmhouse’s open-air porch as he told fabulous stories or read from manuscripts of his works-in-progress before the ink was even dry.
If 30-year-old Jervis was nostalgic on this January evening in 1905, he could hardly be blamed. It wasn’t just his own milestone birthday. He was expecting the imminent birth of his own first child, a son, who would arrive just two days later. Were this not cause enough for sentiment, he found himself dressed as a character from one of the stories which had been routinely read aloud to him, as well as his sisters and cousins. He was preparing to attend, along with many other prominent residents of Elmira, NY, a “Dickens reception.” Each guest would be costumed as a character from one of the novelist’s works.
Jervis had been cast in the part of Caleb Plummer from The Cricket On The Hearth. His sister, Ida Langdon, who had recently matriculated from Bryn Mawr and would later become a professor of English at Elmira College, chose the part of Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, while friends took auxiliary parts in the story, including Crystal Eastman, Ida’s best friend, as Tilly Slowboy, and Dorothy Mather as Mrs. Fielding. Within a few years all three recent graduates (Eastman from Vassar and Mather from Cornell) would be suffragettes and members of the American Association of University Women, an organization committed to increasing the representation of women in higher education.
Charles Dickens had a special significance for the Langdon siblings. Many years earlier, their father and Aunt Livy had gone to see Mr. Dickens read at sold-out Steinway Hall in New York City on New Years Eve. They were joined that night by Charley’s increasingly infamous new friend, whom they called Sam, but who signed his scathing review of the performance “Mark Twain.” This was Olivia Langdon’s chaperoned first date with the man who would become her husband. Twain was so smitten that in his review he couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it boasting, that he had attended Dickens’s reading with “a highly respectable” and “beautiful young lady.”
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Samuel Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent, writing, over a hundred letters cascading into the Langdon home through the ensuing months, supplemented by occasional visits. The year was 1868.
When Sam visited the Langdons again for Thanksgiving, Livy finally yielded her conditional consent to his proposal. She sent her fiancé off on another leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month joking, smoking, and drinking his way through the Midwest, Olivia faced the reality, alone, that this might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by family she adored. She wrote to Sam, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
Sam contemplated this letter in a Central Michigan boarding house on Christmas Eve, with only the fading fire in an unfamiliar hearth and a series of holiday brandies to keep him warm. He reflected on his fiancé’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly detached, and was inspired to make an extraordinary promise:
I just don’t wonder that it makes you sad to think of leaving such a home, Livy, and such household Gods—for there is no other home in all the world like it—no household gods so lovable as yours, anywhere. And I shall feel like a heartless highway robber when I take you away from there…
I’ll not read that passage again for an hour!—for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me. You shall visit them, Livy—and so often that they cannot well realize that you are absent. You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometimes when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home…a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge from care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, Home—and then, away down in my heart of hearts I yearn for the days that are gone & the phantoms of the olden time!—for the faces that are vanished; for the forms I loved to see; for the voices that were music to my ear; for the restless feet that have gone out into the darkness, to return no more forever!
But you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation. No, I with my experience, should dread to think of your old home growing strange to you.
I have tried several times, and am trying again now, to articulate the consequences of this promise, which I think cannot be overestimated. But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 150 years ago, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist, nor would anybody be obligated to preserve Quarry Farm for posterity. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which ensured the Clemens family’s annual pilgrimage to Elmira.
And it was in Elmira that not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam found, looking out across the Chemung River Valley, a new “symbol of heaven.” The vanished faces, musical voices, and “phantoms of the olden times” came floating through the windows on all sides of the study Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce a series of novels in what I call The Quarry Farm Style: full of whimsical children and nostalgia for an American past, but also politically radical, like the community in which they were written.
As Sam and Livy (as well as Charley and his new wife, Ida Clark) settled into domesticity and child-rearing in the 1870s, they would associate Dickens with that first date at Steinway Hall, that tear-stained letter from Lansing, and, as many do, with the holiday season. They read Dickens’s books aloud to their children, such that his characters intermingled with Twain’s, forming the premise for a range of allusions, inside jokes, and family folklore which passed through the generations. The novella which inspired Jervis and Ida Langdon’s costumes in 1905 was, as Dickens himself described it, a “fairy tale of home” dedicated to his own infant son.
The Quarry Farm Style
The Clemenses did not attend the Dickens reception in 1905, but those who did reflect both how Mark Twain brought out the best in Elmira, and why Elmira brought out the best in Mark Twain. The reception took place at the Elmira Industrial School. The 36-year-old school was one of several educational institutions, including Elmira College and Elmira Free Academy, which had been founded through the financial backing of another Jervis Langdon, grandfather to the Jervis who celebrated his birthday that night. Each of these groundbreaking educational institutions made possible by the Langdon fortune were sustained in the ensuing decades by other local financial benefactors, as well as by many Elmirans who volunteered as teachers, administrators, fundraisers, and advocates.
The mission of Elmira Industrial School was to provide a free trade school education to any young women willing to dedicate herself to establishing financial independence. The students came from “homes of poverty and vice” and were mentored by an entirely female faculty, including many of the affluent young women who were graduating from elite private colleges in the region, like Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Oberlin, and Elmira. Several of ladies who attended the Dickens reception were faculty, volunteers, and/or alumna of the three local institutions all dedicated to counteracting the effects of social and economic oppression.
The elder Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, the original owners of Quarry Farm, were the foundation stones upon which was built a remarkable tradition of generosity and community service which survived them and their famous son-in-law. In his eulogy for the first Jervis Langdon, Thomas K. Beecher made the outrageous claim that “Envy’s self was silenced at sight of his prosperity, so many were sharing in it.”
Beecher had learned repeatedly that the Langdons considered their millions only as valuable as the causes for which they could be put to work. When, in 1846, their church refused to condemn slavery, the started a new one, joined the Underground Railroad, and told the abolitionists who passed through their enormous mansion – including the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – that “the family house and purse were at the service of fugitives from slavery.”
Eight years later, when they asked the most controversial memberof the most famous family of theologians in America to come lead their renegade church, he laid out terms which he though no congregation would accept, largely because of his exceptional emphasis on community service. The Langdons accepted his terms without negotiation. The progressive, inclusive congregation he imagined grew so large it could only meet in an opera house, drawing the ire of rival churches and the regional Ministerial Union.
Mark Twain responded to their condemnation of Beecher as one might expect, joking in a local newspaper that “a little group of congregationless clergymen, of whom I have never heard before, have crushed the famous Beecher and reduced his audiences from 1500 to 1475.” The Langdons came to Beecher’s defense much more quietly and effectively, buying up shares in the opera house so that no amount of social pressure could compel the proprietors to bar the doors, then beginning the process of building Beecher a church as big as an opera house, one that would look like nothing else in the nation, complete with a maze of apartments and a billiard room where one could occasionally find one of the nation’s most recognizable preachers drinking beer with the nation’s most recognizable infidel.
The still youthful Mark Twain who came to Elmira in 1868 had argued across a series of burlesque tales, stand-up routines, and travelogues that mankind in general, and Americans in particular, were natural hypocrites, charlatans, and misers, and that those who dared to believe otherwise were doomed to continual poverty and despair. Then he met the Langdons and this airtight thesis got shot all to hell.
Young Twain believed that all his countrymen had been converted to the “Revised Catechism” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.” But, as Twain put it, “Mr. Langdon was a man whose character and nature were made up exclusively of excellencies,” who could easily have gone “to Wall Street to become a Jay Gould and slaughter the innocents,” but instead endowed schools for girls, bought farms for fugitive slaves, and emboldened both his children and the people in his employ to test their most far-fetched idealisms on his dime. This confused Mark Twain.
Out of his confusion emerged the Quarry Farm Style, with its children who are not innocent, its cynics who are not hopeless, its free-thinking slaves and scientific magicians and heroes who decide to go to hell. It is a style which never lets you lose sight of your romantic idols, though whenever you reach for them it suffocates you under piles upon piles of corpses. So many corpses.
Those “Up-State” towns…
The Dickens reception in 1905 was hosted by Clara Spaulding Stanchfield, dressed as Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. Clara was Livy Clemens’s lifelong friend and fellow Elmira College alumna, after whom she named her second daughter. Clara’s husband, John B. Stanchfield, came as Mr. Dombey. He could call himself “Mark Twain’s lawyer” and only be mildly stretching the truth. The world-famous author retained counsel on a wide variety of matters in numerous jurisdictions, but he had been regularly consulting Stanchfield, both officially and unofficially, for decades, and their friendship reached back even further. Before the Stanchfields married, John and Sam had frequented the same billiard parlors, both using aliases. It is, indeed, reasonable to suspect that Sam may have played some role in matchmaking his amiable drinking buddy with his wife’s best friend.
John rose rapidly in the ensuing years. He became a partner in the firm which is now Sayles & Evans, was a Democratic candidate for both Senator and Governor, and tried a series of prominent cases. He was also one of several Elmirans who aided the Clemenses during their time of greatest need, when Twain’s publishing house was plunged into bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893. With much of the nation descending into a credit crisis, the most affluent families in Elmira offered free consulting, low-interest loans, and other aid to their neighbors.
The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak House, another Elmira College graduate, suffragette, and member of the American Association of University Women, belonged to a family that purchased what they knew were likely worthless shares in the Paige Typesetter, thus helping increase the Clemens liquidity during a period of desperation: a charity made all the more charitable because it protected Sam and Livy’s pride by pretending it was not simply charity.
This generation of Elmira women – Ida Langdon, Dorothy Mather, Flora Shoemaker, and Ruth Pickering among them – would be remarkably successful in promoting women’s rights both within the city and region, and throughout the nation. While all were devoted activists, their ringleader was clearly Crystal Eastman, who by this time had already discovered her talent for political organizing by leading a protest against rules requiring women wear skirts and stockings while swimming. Within a decade Crystal would become one of the most prominent and effective advocates for women’s suffrage, and this was hardly her most revolutionary position. Looking back upon the community in which she was raised, she wrote, “In this environment I grew up confidently expecting to have a profession and earn my own living, and also confidently expecting to be married and have children.”
Crystal’s younger brother, Max Eastman, who would graduate from Williams College later in 1905, was not as cripplingly shy as he had been a few years earlier, but still struggled to converse with his sister’s outgoing friends, several for whom he would harbor lifelong crushes. It was hard to imagine that this skinny young man would, in ten years time, be one of the most controversial political voices in the country, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and editor of censored antiwar publications.
Max and Crystal would live for much of the teens and twenties in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Max would make an extended visit to the Soviet Union to study with Leon Trotsky, and yet, he would always characterize Elmira as the most radical community in which he had ever lived. Many years later, in an essay titled “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” he would chastise a famous literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, who ignorantly described Elmira as one of “those ‘up-State’ towns…without the traditions of moral freedom and intellectual culture.” Eastman argued convincingly that the “social and political attitudes” which prevailed in Elmira “were far more radical than Mark Twain was when he arrived here.” Mark Twain and Elmira worked upon one another in “general rebellion” such that by the time Max came of age in the 1890s, he found himself “in the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced or found room to contain.”
Adolescent Max met Mark Twain during the installation of an organ at Park Church. Max and Crystal’s mother, Annis Ford Eastman, who disguised herself as Mrs. Blimber from Dombey & Son for the Dickens gala in 1905,was the first women ordained in the state of New York. Beecher called her the best preacher he’d ever heard and, befitting both Beecher’s rebellious nature and Elmira’s emerging feminist culture, he chose her as his successor at the vaunted Park Church. His friend Mark Twain must have shared his high estimation of her character and talents, directing that she should handle his funeral rites.
Like Beecher, Annis Eastman’s unconventional approach to the pastorate went far beyond the happenstance of her gender. Max fondly remembers his mother reading the risqué Calamus poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud to her friend Julia Beecher and setting the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier” to the ragtime tune “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” The esteemed place of the Eastmans seems evidence enough that Elmira was not, as that literary critic had guessed, a “symbol…of all that vast and intricate system of privilege and convention.”
Max Eastman wrote of Twain, “My admiration for the man was and still is as firm and emotional as though he were the saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This from a man whose parents were both pastors and who lived much of his youth in the apartments within the Park Church. The “gospel” written in Elmira, Max claims, “was one of self-reliant revolt against forms and conventions,” and it was authored not only by Mark Twain, but by the Langdons, Clemenses, Beechers, Stanchfields, Shoemakers, and Eastmans, by the students and faculty of the first degree-granting college for women and the secondary and trade schools those students helped to charter, by the thousands of parishioners who attended the largest and most progressive non-denominational church in 19th-century America, by the members of the city’s flourishing women’s rights organizations, and by the stalwart station-masters of the Underground Railroad, who not only sheltered fugitive slaves but persuaded former slaves, like Mary Ann Cord, the beloved cook at Quarry Farm, to settle here. It is no wonder, with such collaborators, Twain was able, in that octagonal study overlooking it all, to give birth to the Quarry Farm Style from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all modern literature descends.
Max and Crystal Eastman were both at Sam’s funeral in 1910, as were the Stanchfields, his only surviving daughter, Clara, his nieces, Ida and Julia, and the brother-in-law, Charley, who first brought Sam Clemens into the circle of Elmira 43 years earlier. Mark Twain’s nephew, now 35 years of age, rode with the coffin from New York City, along the same rails which had taken his father to see Charles Dickens speak on New Years Eve in 1867, rails which had been laid when his grandfather was, at least according to Twain, the country’s only respectable railroad magnate.
Jervis Langdon Jr., born two days after the Dickens ball, would also, like his great-grandfather, become a successful railroad executive. He likewise inherited that radical generosity which mesmerized Sam Clemens and inspired him to pay yearly homage to his wife’s “household Gods.” On December 31st, 1982, 115 years to the day after Charles Dickens read to Charley and Olivia Langdon (and a dumbstruck and unappreciative Mark Twain), Jervis Jr. signed the agreement which bequeathed Quarry Farm to Elmira College and founded the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Perhaps, though he was just five years old at the time, Jervis Jr. remembered something of what Annis Eastman had written in her eulogy for Samuel Clemens:
We are not here at this time to speak of the great man whose going hence the whole world mourns, nor to claim for him that place in the halls of fame which time can give him. We are not here to try to estimate his worth to the world, the service he has rendered to civilization and the moral progress of mankind, nor yet to eulogize him for the integrity, justice and magnanimity of his character. There will be time enough for all this in the days to come and many a voice more competent than mine to set forth the lessons of his life.
Though I suspect none of us would dare to claim more competence than Annis Eastman, Jervis Jr. has bequeathed to us the task which she deferred. The mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, made possible by the gift of Quarry Farm, is to create that “time enough” to “set forth the lessons of Twain’s life.” And the scholars who reside here “estimate the worth to the world” not only of Mark Twain, but of the too often forgotten and misremembered Elmira which made Mark Twain possible.
There are many ways you can help sustain the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. You can become a Friend of CMTS by making a donation here or learn more by emailing us at [email protected]. As part of our celebration of sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira we are also launching a Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. If you or your organization would like to participate, please contact Director Joe Lemak (information provided in link).