2018 Undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellows Interview Filmmakers Aaron & Adam Nee About Their Adaptation of Tom Sawyer
EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first time, in 2018, we welcomed undergraduates interested in American Literature and Mark Twain to apply for a modified Quarry Farm Fellowship, which included a short stay at Quarry Farm to support a research or writing project. Our first recipients were Mona Beydoun and Samantha DeRosia. Samantha graduated from Eastern Michigan University this past year, while Mona will begin her senior year at EMU in the Fall. The project they are collaborating on involves Band of Robbers, a 2015 adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. The Nee Brothers hosted a screening of the film at Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. With a little help from CMTS, Mona and Samantha were able to arrange an interview with the filmmakers. Below you will find a transcript of that conversation, as well as some commentary from Mona and Samantha about their project and, following the interview, about the experience of being an undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellow. Enjoy!
Samantha DeRosia: In the spring of 2017, I took a travel course on Mark Twain with about 15 other students, which brought me to Elmira and Quarry Farm for the first time. The professor of this course was Dr. Joseph Csicsila, who is a Mark Twain scholar and has been to Quarry Farm as a scholar on multiple occasions. It was during this initial trip, because of the materials that we were reading and viewing and the experiences we were having, that my colleague and I came up with the idea for our paper. It was also during this trip that we learned about the fellowship and the opportunity to stay at Quarry Farm and be able to more intimately study Mark Twain and other scholars’ work on him.
Mona Beydoun: Dr. Csicsila showed us the film Band of Robbers, directed by the Nee brothers at the end of the trip. The immersive experience with Twain I had building up to the film helped me appreciate the intelligent and clever way the Nee brothers dealt with the characters of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The film brought the material into the 21st century while maintaining the Twain experience: a blend of humor, cultural commentary, and a sense of adventure. I found Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a sad story with a disturbing ending. The film, however, landed in a very different place. I became interested in the conversation that was happening between novels and film, the conversation about cultural, and perhaps even religious, transcendence. The travel course gave me my first experience with literary analysis outside of the classroom. I was driven to write through my own personal interest, inspired by the experience I had had at Quarry Farm and Elmira College.
Samantha: Being able to speak with the Nee brothers enabled us to ask questions that were specific to their intentions behind the details that we were analyzing in our paper. Getting these answers enabled us to also make more, and deeper, connections within the film and Twain’s work ensuring that our paper was not simply making speculations. Our conversation also helped us focus our paper more because we were able to take into considerations what the Nee brothers’ initial intentions were.
Mona: Our interview with the Nee brothers added depth to our understanding of Mark Twain’s work. It became clear very early in our conversation that Adam and Aaron put an incredible amount of thought into their decisions. They understood how essential it is balance their respect for Twain’s work with the need to explore his themes in a modern setting.
The interview took place on July 7, 2018, 8:30 p.m. EST
Mona: Could you start by telling us about your introduction to Mark Twain’s work? How did you first meet Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer?
Aaron Nee:Through our dad reading it to us. Our earliest memory is as little kids sitting on a shag carpet listening to him read it aloud to us, both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
Adam Nee: We were six and nine.
Samantha: When we were watching Band of Robbers, it seemed to us that it is a mash-up of both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The plot aligns more with Huck Finn. Out of all of Mark Twain’s work, what specifically compelled you guys to make this movie about the two characters?
Mona: What do you feel makes them worthy of study?
Aaron: That’s two good questions. I think there are several different ways to answer that. The first component of your question: the mash-up of the two books was actually a big part of just figuring out how we were going to make this movie. There was a lot of conversation centered around [the question]: “Is this more of a Tom Sawyer story or more of a Huck Finn story?” Is Tom the lead? Is Huck the lead? Who’s driving this? Whose arc is going to be the most pronounced? Which of these books are we going to draw more elements from or draw the basic plot structure from? Early on, the idea was actually to make it into a TV show, which would be much more drawn out. But when we decided to make it into a movie, then we had to make some really tough choices about how to focus it. In terms of the inspiration of making it, maybe Adam should you about what first triggered the idea to him. As we start digging into it we can maybe go into how we made the choices we did.
Adam: I was acting in New York and I had just moved out there. I was 20 and I auditioned for an Adventures of Huckleberry Finn movie and it was very true to the book. Even the action lines of the script were verbatim Mark Twain writing. So it’s like they had just done a really tight edit of the book and made it into a script. I was a huge fan, we grew up on it, like Aaron said, and I’ve always loved Mark Twain so I was really eager to audition for the movie to play Huckleberry Finn. But I was already 20-years-old and so I was way too old to play this 13-year-old boy. But, I still somehow got the audition. So I went into the audition, everyone else in the lobby is five years younger than me, the director’s kind of looking as me like “Why are we seeing this guy?” I’m doing the audition, and I’m doing this terrible accent. I had this moment when I could see myself in that room and how absurd it felt to be this grown man who was sort of trying to be a teenage boy because of how much I love that material. I walked out of that audition just reflecting on it and the insanity and thinking, “Well that would actually be kind of funny if Huckleberry Finn was a grown up, saying the same things, doing the same stuff.” That was just the beginning it. I’m sure I talked to Aaron about it sometime around then. That was 10 years before we made the movie. Like Aaron said, it percolated over the years so much.
At first I was really excited about telling the Huckleberry Finn and Jim story in a modern way. And then, after digging into both books, I got so excited about Tom Sawyer’s voice as a character because he’s this incredible character who is truly the bad guy of the story, but is played as the hero. He’s the lead of the story but he’s really the antagonist. He’s the one inciting all of the problems that happen to these characters. We talked to a producer about doing it as a TV show and we had written a pilot, which is the first episode of a show. We had written an hour-long version that was more dramatic. We had written a half-hour version that had more of the pawn shop robbery kind of humor. As we were getting into it we hit this point in our careers where we had been developing a lot of shows and a lot of different movies that hadn’t gotten made so we were like we just need to go out and make something and this feels like the right thing to do. So that’s where it became a thing of “What version of this story can we tell in 95 minutes?” What things about these characters can we focus on? And to us I think a big thing became the question of: if you read these books and you imagine 10 years later, 15 years later, these guys and this relationship stays the same, what happens? This is not sustainable for a lifetime. You can’t have someone like Tom Sawyer getting someone like Huckleberry Finn in trouble over and over and over again like he does without it leading to a kid in jail. Real problems are going to come from that [relationship]. So we thought “Oh, this would be interesting if it was a breakup story.” Where you have Tom and Huck have to come to terms with the fact that it’s an abusive relationship in a sense. Huckleberry Finn needs to break up with the abusive friend.
Aaron: One of the numerous answers we have to that question of why tell this story (because there were really so many different reasons that fueled and inspired the idea) is…the thing about childhood fantasy is that it becomes difficult as you’re becoming an adult to figure out what of these things do I get to hold onto and what of them do I have to let go? What of these, if I keep holding onto it is just going to destroy things and what of these things are good and should be cherished? This is such a great piece of material to do that because of who the characters are already and because of the nostalgia we already associate with that material and childhood and childhood fantasies. It was a great way to explore that theme, not because it’s already built into those characters when you start moving them toward adulthood, but because it is an iconic picture of childhood for so many of us as we’re crossing into adulthood. You find out you can’t keep being Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It raises a lot of interesting and relevant questions.
There’s the Tom Sawyer that’s in the book, there’s the Tom Sawyer that people think they remember being in the book, and there’s the Tom Sawyer that just kind of pervades culture, that doesn’t have any real attachment to the book, that’s just sort of a cultural idea. In that respect he is such a picture of Americana and Americanism. Also, if you look at Twain and Twain’s own political commentary and social commentary, he uses his protagonist to do a lot of poking fun and criticizing rather than using his bad guys. Rather than “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my bad guys do that,” Twain says, “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my good guys do that.” Tom and Huck are still really relevant commentaries on the things that are great about America and the things that are not great about America. The hubris and adventurism and also the optimism and hopefulness and faith. You can see that Huck of acknowledging the problems with Tom but also romanticizes Tom, even though he can see the problems (more so in Huck Finn than in Tom Sawyer). We took that idea and just kept pushing it further and further, coming to adulthood. Whatever Tom represents, whether that’s Americana or childhood, you can be really attached to that but also realize there are some real problems and you can’t hold on to all of these things. Some of these aspects are really dangerous. That conflict that’s going on with him has a wider relevance.
Mona: What aspects of either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn struck you most when reading about them or watching adaptations of them? I think a piece of that is most people go into the story with preconceived notions of who these characters are and then when you actually meet them, you have to come up with your own understanding of who they are and what they represent.
Adam: That’s one of the great things about Huckleberry Finn in general. He’s presented as the troublemaker. He’s the one that everyone is afraid of. And he’s set up as someone who is to be avoided. And Tom is set up as a good kid. One of the great things about Huck is he is the conscience of the material, especially in his book. His perspective can evolve while Tom Sawyer is more stuck in his ways. That’s what really strikes me with Huckleberry Finn. Aaron was talking about the reception of these characters. Huck is the one that is treated like the outsider troublemaker and he is the one who is the most heroic. He’s also so sensitive. He feels stuff and he wrestles with stuff and his conscience is weighing on him. That make it easy to love him and go on a journey on him.
That’s why we decided to have the story be told from Huckleberry Finn’s perspective. Which makes it feel like it’s more Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than Adventures of Tom. The reason we did that is because Huck is the one who has the heart, truly. He’s the heart of the story.
Samantha: What’s your interpretation of the ending of Mark Twain’s ending to Huckleberry Finn? What statements do you think the novel is making about society or the human condition?
Mona: The last 10 chapters of the novel feel different from the rest of the novel. Your play on that ending is very interesting.
Adam: We thought about it a lot when we were making it. Even as kids we were always frustrated with the fact that Huckleberry Finn learns all of these lessons and then on the Phelps Farm he is just going along with Tom Sawyer again totally at the expense of Jim. It felt like we had to, in making this in current times and making them adults, Huck has to stand up to Tom and say: “No. We have used this guy for our benefit. We have screwed him over. We need to stand up for him and do what’s right.” Even though what’s right in our movie is absurd. They take him out of a police cruiser and hold up police officers. That such an interesting question though. It’s something that we thought about a lot and always bothered me as a kid. You go on this whole journey with Huck and see him learn and change and grow as a person and you get to the end of the book and he just starts doing what Tom tells him to do. Even though you know he knows that this is a bad idea. They could just open the door and let him out and instead they’re doing all this crazy pirate stuff. That’s why in the movie we made it Huck’s idea to rescue Jorge and not Tom’s.
Aaron: Huck wants to rescue him but we do have Tom come up with the crazy plan. We made that decision that we’re taking this approach of bringing characters with these traits up to their tipping point. We knew we wanted to explore the idea of making them adults but then we started thinking about the implications. What we liked about that was that it does bring it to this make or break point where you can get away with a personality flaw as a kid but you can’t as an adult. Things like Tom getting shot, we made it life threatening and maybe even leave it open, maybe Tom didn’t make it. Also, we wanted to acknowledge at the end that Tom was like a religion to Huck. Even if you say, “I’m not so sure I believe in those things I believed in as a kid,” as he’s walking down this road you hear him reflecting on Tom and you realize he still can’t let Tom go. He still needs Tom to be the best. He still needs to believe that Tom is doing great in prison. There’s that side of us, even when you think you’ve broken free, you still need to believe it’s true. You need that Tom Sawyer out there and to think that that guy is always going to be okay.
Mona: Where you trying to make any larger social comments by including the character of Jorge the gardener as an undocumented Mexican immigrant?
Aaron: We went around and around and around about how we were going to handle Jim. One of the things that we were feeling early on was anything we tried to say was a parallel to slavery feels like it’s minimizing slavery and it’s convoluting the message. Trying to make slavery analogies would be really problematic. Jim was a character that everyone could just run all over and sweep him up into the consequences of an adventure and remain ignorant to what this is doing to this person. We also saw that in the fact that we were turning this into a story about becoming adults and coming into manhood, it would service the telling of the story to have someone who is a counterpoint to manhood.
You’ve got Tom’s idea of manhood which is holding a gun and being a cop and being powerful and getting the money. We wanted to turn Jorge into this character who first can be swept up into adventure without them having much regard to the implications of what they were doing to this person. Second, someone who can be a picture of actual manhood. Somebody who is making sacrifices to take care of the people that he loves. Stepping back and looking at society, we thought about who would be that character: a guy who doesn’t speak English. It’s really easy to not even regard that as another person in the room. The guy who is your gardener who you know that he’s around and you know that he’s doing things but you have no idea who his family is or where he lives. When we started writing that script I don’t know that illegal immigration was quite the hot button that it is now.
Adam: He’s treated like a second class citizen and that’s the thing where we could do something. Obviously it’s not the same as being a slave. But our society is okay with disrespecting illegal immigrants. It’s culturally acceptable. We have this true American character in Tom Sawyer who just shits all over Jorge with no concern for the effects of it until Huck learns a lesson. It’s really Huck who learns the lesson.
He wasn’t always an illegal immigrant. We played with different versions of the Jim character and it’s hard when you really start thinking about that character and not telling the story from their perspective. You could make this movie five different ways and I’d definitely want to do a version where Jorge is the lead of the movie and Tom and Huck are the bad dudes. He’s the true hero.
Mona: The character of Jorge is one thing that I thought really brought Twain’s work into our time. We don’t have enslaved people anymore. But illegal immigrants are used.
Aaron: Simultaneously used and abused and then villainized. You get this person to do all of this shit that you don’t want to do and you don’t want to pay them for and you want to call them the villain that’s destroying our country and taking jobs away or whatever.
In addition to thinking about where to put this character in society we also thought that there was enough separation since slavery – we didn’t think audiences would think we were trying to say: “Here’s modern slavery.” I think that would have been a mistake to try and find modern slavery. Instead it’s: “Here’s where society has a marginalized class that we abuse and villainize in the same breath.”
Samantha: We watched the film shortly after reading the novel and we found that the ending was almost the opposite the ending of the novel. Was that intentional on your part?
Adam: Yea, definitely. Going back to what we were saying before about that frustration that Huck doesn’t learn a lesson in Huckleberry Finn. Now as an adult, having been in and out of jail, knowing he has to break up with Tom, he has to learn a lesson in this version of the story. And we had that freedom since it’s not a 100 percent verbatim portrayal. We definitely wanted to have a different ending.
Aaron: We kept Tom open. We weren’t specific in the same way that we feel like Twain isn’t super specific. [Twain doesn’t say] “Tom is an analogy for this thing.” We tried to let him be something that you could plant different ideas in. Whatever those ideas are – whether it’s American humorism and adventurism or rampant masculinity or abusive blowhard or it’s naive fantasies of piracy or egomaniacal everything’s-about-you – that you want to grab and place in Tom, we felt like it was appropriate in retelling the story as adults to take it to that point where it’s time to not be okay with that anymore. Mark Twain had a Huck who was conflicted about it but then went along saying that was the way it is. I think it’s time broadly in society to say we’re not okay with that anymore. We have to make a break from these things. We had to take Huck up to that point as he is becoming a man and an adult. He is faced with the question of “Am I going to keep going along with this?” and he says “No.”
Mona: We were watching the movie and there was the scene in the grass which is really intimate scene. Then there’s the final scene where you have Huck walking away down a winding road toward the mountains. When I saw that final scene that’s when I said we need to write a paper about this.
Aaron: In that final scene in post-production we cleaned up some stuff that was in the background. We wanted it to feel like he’s in the middle of nowhere and that wasn’t actually true. But one of the things that we kept was this little flickering light that becomes apparent as the camera moves. We wanted to end on this image that invokes the idea: he’s setting off now, you can’t see where he’s going, and maybe he’s not going anywhere. Maybe this guy is going to die on the road or he’s going to go back to the way he was. But, leave that little flickering light out there that leaves this picture that shows that we think there’s something out there. We think that if you keep going there is something out there. We’re hopeful that he’s going to reach that light.
Mona: Twain’s ending to the novel: a lot of people say it’s this really beautiful image of white and black coming together. Some scholars say it’s a triumphant story about people coming together and overcoming slavery [and improving] race relations. We read it. We thought it was so negative. It has this pessimistic ending and it doesn’t seem hopeful about humanity. What are your opinions about Huck’s ability to transcend community. When we read the novel it didn’t feel like he was able to transcend community. He’s just sucked right back in. Just for context, by community transcendence we mean going above and beyond the community’s beliefs and ideologies.
Aaron: Our feeling was that there was a more cynical ending. There was more cynicism in Twain than there was hopefulness coming through. We wanted to push it toward this idea that if there is going to be any hope, Huck has to change. He can’t remain this static character. Like you said, he isn’t transcending. You can feel him having this inclinations toward that but his final actions don’t transcend.
Adam: In the book it really feels like it’s a time period thing too. Huck has the best intentions, but is still the product of his time. He can’t overcome the racism of his society. He still goes with the flow, unfortunately. In our movie, our Huck does too. I think that he might realize that he did something horrible to Jorge. but he still did it.
Mona: It’s sad because he connects with Jorge because he speaks Spanish but then he takes advantage of Jorge because he speaks Spanish.
Adam: His redemption is also very American. This could be pointed at as a negative toward us because it’s the way we made the movie. But, his redemption with Jorge is very American because he says, “I’m going to give him a pot of money and that’ll solve the problems I made for him, the horrors I put him through, and also, the fact that he can never go back to America because he commited a crime.”
Aaron: I hope it comes through in the movie that we were feeling in the end that what we’ve got is kind of a naive fantasy. Huck is still being naive in believing that the pot of gold for Jorge is going to fix things. He’s trying to cleanse his conscience. His ongoing fantasies about Tom, that Tom is still going to be okay and Tom is still going to triumph. We made a smaller version of the not quite growing up. We tried to push it past what the book does, but then made a nod toward realizing that it’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to just let that stuff go and change and move forward and go off to an unknown new place.
Adam: We see it in society so much, even with the Civil Rights Movement. You see how long it takes for things to really change. It takes half a century. You say well this is where we are now and I certainly hope we are further a half century from now. Things take so long to change and it would be reductive for Twain or us to have a character who learns a lesson and no longer has any of the same negative instincts.
Samantha: We talked earlier about how in the movie Tom is represented as a toxic villainous character, rather than Huck. We want to know more about your understanding of this character and his connection to and influence on Huck.
Aaron: One thing is that we weren’t necessarily trying to plumb what Mark Twain’s intention with the character was, but instead just look at him. Our opinion is that’s toxic and that’s dangerous. Not 100 percent. We weren’t trying to say Tom is nothing but bad. There’s great things about Tom and one of our goals was to understand why Huck would need Tom. Why would Huck latch onto Tom? What is Tom providing that Huck needs? We wanted to have those good counterpoints present. We didn’t have to search for that. It’s there, it’s in the book. He’s fun, he’s funny, and he’s hopeful. He brings a kind of energy that can be very helpful. But he goes too far and is too detached from consequences. He has this blindness when it comes to what it does to the people around him. He just thinks about how his actions serve him and get him what he needs. Taking those aspects, we found ourselves realizing that this character can’t be anything but the antagonist.
Adam: I think that’s part of the charm of Tom, and perhaps people that you would consider a bad person. They would never imagine that they’d be thought of as the bad guy in the story. Tom believes he’s the hero. I think Twain’s Tom does and I think our Tom does. He thinks he’s the hero of the story and he just doesn’t see the consequences of his actions.
Aaron: With Tom, as a child, you can look at him and imagine a version where as he gets older he’s going to start to mature. We took the character and said, well, imagine he didn’t become more aware of the people around him and see what you end up with. I think you can draw any number of real world parallels between when you have an action that is innocent in one context but then you let it keep going and you can see the ramifications of that.
Mona: Do you think about Tom as a symbol for St. Petersburg and the community?
Aaron: We tried to not get latched into any one thing. I think it’s most effective in Twain’s reading that people can draw so many readings. It’s important to making our work last. If our work is so rigidly about let’s say St. Petersburg, than only people from St. Petersburg will appreciate it. The fact that he allows it to expand out and say that’s about my church or my country or the frat that I’m in. You can plug all sorts of different versions of that into it and you wouldn’t be abusing the material because it’s made itself open to many types of social ills that can arise.
There are things about Tom that we saw as really negative. But we tried with all of the characters, even Injun Joe, not to say this is our evil character. When you do that, your characters real suddenly become two-dimensional. They’re not very interesting or real because that’s not how we encounter these things in life. If you make a story where people have good intentions but they have things they’re blind to and they have their passions that are overriding their good intentions, then you have a really complex story that actually has social relevance because that’s more like the real things we struggle with. We were putting into Huck how easy it is to become that person that realizes, “Oh, I’m the one that’s creating all these troubles.” We wanted people to see in the movie “Oh no, I see myself in that.” Both of us saw the entire project as a little bit of a self-criticism.
Mona: The last thing we wanted to talk about was your interpretation of Huck. He’s so sympathetic and the audience falls in love with him.
Aaron: In one respect, you like him right off the bat because culturally we have an affinity for the underdog. I think I can speak for both Adam and I as storytellers. We became really invested in having a character in the sympathetic situation of realizing something that is meaningful to him is also bad for him. We wanted to show how hard it is to break away, to learn to keep the good things and let go of the bad things. For us that’s such a sympathetic dilemma. He became an easy character to care for and go along on that journey with.
Adam: Like I said before, I’ve always loved Huckleberry Finn. He’s probably my favorite literary character and I think it comes down to the fact that even though he suffers from some unfortunate character flaws, he is also adventurous and funny and kind and reflective and just a good character. He has so many different levels where he can be good and he can be bad. In so many ways Mark Twain started our career because we borrowed his amazing work and his amazing characters to make a movie we call our own. But in so many ways it’s Twain’s. We have an incredible debt to Twain’s character development that we could make our own.
Samantha: This was really insightful. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mona: Your answers were so thoughtful and so detailed.
Samantha: Being awarded with this modified fellowship gave me not only the specific resources that are only available at Quarry Farm, but it also gave me time, which was much needed. I believe that one of the purposes, and advantages, of this stay is to have the opportunity to sit down and write without any distractions. There is a reason why Mark Twain came to Quarry Farm in the summer to write, and that idea is reflected when scholars come to produce research and write about him. The atmosphere of the seclusion and also just taking the time to relax and experience the gorgeous view from the porch and the grounds are an opportunity that was not wasted on me during my time in Elmira. Having this specific time set aside to get work done was also very helpful because of the fact that I am working with another colleague to write this paper. Due to our different availabilities and locations, it is hard to set aside a chunk of time that large that enables us to work cohesively through our ideas.
During my time at Quarry Farm, I chose to stay in the Crane room, which, from one of the windows in the room, happens to have the same view as the one from the porch. It also has wonderful natural lighting, which definitely lends itself to the feeling of Quarry Farm being a summer house. Luckily, when I came in the first week of May, the weather had just begun to reflect spring, and I was told that the previous week it had been snowing. This meant that I was able to take advantage of eating meals and reading, and generally just spending as much time as possible outside on the front porch. I was also able to take walks around the grounds and up to where Twain’s study was originally located. Each of these experiences helped me understand what it might have been like for Mark Twain during his summer trips to the house. Our experience of the house itself was definitely authentic to the time period as well, due to the old fashioned light fixtures, and all of the furniture that was actually from Twain’s time period.
Even though I experienced Elmira in 2017 through my travel course, staying at Quarry Farm itself lends a completely different view of Elmira. This is also due to the fact that previously I was only given information and knowledge based on a classroom setting. Studying Mark Twain on my own terms, and within my own areas of interest, enabled me to provide more enthusiasm, but also a better and more complete understanding of what my time at Quarry Farm will mean, not only in my work but also in myself as a scholar. There are no other experiences quite like Quarry Farm in the fact that it has not been converted into a museum. It is an amazing experience to be able to live in a place that housed an author like Mark Twain and helped him produce work that students are still studying today.
Mona: The Michael J. Kiskis Collection was one of my favorite aspects of Quarry Farm. The all-inclusive nature of the study space allowed for total concentration. Scholars can go into the space and simply work without distractions. The Mark Twain Center has stocked the area with everything a scholar might need, allowing him or her to make the work the focus. Long stretches of reading books and taking notes were broken up by lunches and dinners on the porch, walks through the wooded area behind the house, and visits to campus.
Sitting on the porch and thinking is perhaps just as productive as using the study space upstairs. Twain has described the beauty of the view from the Quarry Farm porch, the winding river and the blue hills. Relaxing on the porch and taking in the scene allowed me to think and contemplate without the pressure of writing. I often spent time sitting in the rocking chairs simpling reflecting on the work I had completed and my next steps. Traveling with my co-author was helpful because the porch gave us perspective as it served as a third space. While the porch is a part of Quarry Farm and the Mark Twain experience, it is outside of the high-stakes space of a designated work area.
I appreciated the amount of care that goes into making Quarry Farm a high-quality spot for scholarship. Steve, the caretaker, met us when we arrived after an eight-hour drive from Michigan. The house was well-maintained, and he was always a text or phone call away when we needed help. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Joseph Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and Dr. Matt Seybold, Elmira’s resident Americanist. Dr. Lemak was kind enough to give us tours of the Mark Twain exhibit in Cowles Hall and the Mark Twain study. My co-author and I had an insightful and fun lunch with Dr. Lemak and Dr. Seybold. We also had the opportunity to see the inside of the barn behind the house. Dr. Lemak and Nathaniel Ball, the Archivist and Curator at Elmira College, showed us around and talked to us about some changes they’d like to make. It is clear that everyone involved with the Center is constantly thinking about how they can improve.
It is this attitude that will keep Quarry Farm and The Center for Mark Twain studies relevant. Twain’s work will continue to be relevant to American culture for the foreseeable future. His themes of race, socioeconomic status, class, and power dynamics continue to be issues we grapple with today. It is up to organizations like the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira to give the public access to Twain’s literature and work. Programs like the “The Trouble Begins” lecture series allows for widespread engagement with the scholarship on Twain’s work. Academia is often kept at a distance from the public. It is clear that The Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Quarry Farm experience is focused on encouraging scholarship that keeps Twain’s work current and relevant to modern lives. Staying at Quarry Farm encouraged me to think about access and social relevance in literature.