A Writer’s Table (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information HERE.

Jillian Spivey Caddell is lecturer in nineteenth-century American literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. Dr Caddell joined Kent in 2019 after teaching at George Mason University and American University in the US. Her current work centers on literature of the American Civil War and its intersections with questions of history and memory. She has published her work in The New England Quarterly, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Apollo: the International Art Magazine, as well as two edited collections: Literary Cultures of the Civil War (ed. Timothy Sweet) and Visions of Glory: The Civil War in Word and Image (eds. Kathleen Diffley and Benjamin Fagan).

Professor Caddell has recently contributed to CMTS is a number of different ways:

  • Her CMTS Resource Page on “John W. Jones” can be found HERE.
  • Her 2021 Park Church Summer Lecture ““Memory-Building and Memorializing in Elmira: Mark Twain and John W. Jones in Relation” can be found HERE.
  • Her contribution to the American Vandal Podcast “The Invisible Home of Frederick Douglass, John W. Jones, and Mark Twain” can be found HERE.

The writing table in the parlor at Quarry Farm

The surface upon which a writer works is surely one of the most talismanic and magnetic of her material remains. I admit that on a tour of Chawton Cottage, I once placed my hand on Jane Austen’s 12-sided, spindly, and impossibly small writing table when everyone else left the room, as if it were a medieval shrine. (Perhaps I’m the reason the table and its chair are now surrounded by a Perspex screen.) The desk or table is a portal into the writer’s mind, a physical relic of the metaphysical genius that once pressed against it. The furniture acquires meaning through its association with creative greatness; you would think nothing of the Chawton table if it were crammed into a corner of the room with flowers on it, but when we’re told it was Jane’s, we create a mise-en-scène: everything about it, from the rickety nature of the table to the smallness of its surface, becomes meaningful. (That we have no definitive proof that Austen actually wrote anything at the table is another matter altogether, and one that isn’t loudly declared within the venerable walls of Chawton.)

Perhaps I’m flirting with danger by bringing up Jane Austen to launch into a reflection on Mark Twain, but throwing caution to the wind, I confess I was immediately reminded of my transgression at Chawton when Steve Webb, the Quarry Farm caretaker, gave us an initial tour of the farmhouse. In the parlour, he gestured toward a small table of dark wood placed rather haphazardly, given the room’s Victorian ornate orderliness, in a corner between the couch and a bookcase. Steve told us (and I apologize in advance if I’ve garbled any of the details) that the table had been sent up the hill about a month before from the collections of the Chemung County Historical Society. The wonderful historians and archivists there knew that the table had an association with Twain and Quarry Farm. What was realized once the table had appeared on site was that it was the writing desk from Twain’s famous octagonal study. A quick Google search on my phone for pictures of Twain in the study easily confirmed the provenance: this table was The Table in the photos.

Mark Twain sitting at the dropleaf table in the Study at Quarry Farm. Picture is taken in the 1880’s most likely when Twain was working on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I don’t know the full story of how Twain’s writing table came to be located in the historical society, or what will happen to it now that it’s back at Quarry Farm, or whether it might end up back down the hill in the relocated study at Elmira College, but every time I walked past it I marveled at it. When he first told us about the table, Steve noted the reverence with which my husband and I regarded it, and he encouraged us to touch it and open the drawer and not treat it like a museum piece behind Perspex. This encouragement seemed like the Quarry Farm approach in microcosm: it’s not a museum; it’s a home.

The “table, used as a writing desk by Mark Twain, 1830-1860” found in the Henry Ford Museum.

When I searched on Google for more images of Twain at the Quarry Farm desk, I discovered images of another desk associated with him. This one is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum, and it was given to Ford by Clara Clemens along with a portrait of her father. Like the Quarry Farm desk, this table is a dropleaf, American-made piece, but whereas the Quarry Farm table looks like an everyday useful item, the Ford Museum desk is made of mahogany and iron, with ornately carved clawed feet. This desk is the desk of a titan; the Quarry Farm table is of a man from humble beginnings. I’m sure you can guess which desk I prefer.

My encounter with the humble table at Quarry Farm has led me down a number of fruitful and fruitless tangents on the writer’s encounter with furniture. For instance, when I began writing these thoughts down, I found myself referring to Twain’s “writing desk,” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t a desk (nor was Austen’s)—it was a table! In my mind, “desk” seemed to require a sense of purpose as well as drawers and shelves that could help one fulfill that purpose. A table seemed a humbler thing, just a surface with legs, that could be requisitioned for the task of writing. The Oxford English Dictionary informs me that this differentiation is purely in my mind, and that desks and tables (both words coming to English from Latin, discus and tabula) can both be written on (though I wager you’d only set dinner on one of them). For what it’s worth, it seems Twain also preferred to think of the object as a table: “It is a cozy nest,” he wrote to Joseph Twichell of his octagonal study, “with just room in it for a sofa and a table and three or four chairs.”

In my two weeks at Quarry Farm, I was richly supplied with both tables and desks, humble and grand, for my writing—not to mention chairs and sofas to my heart’s content. Immersed in the abundant materialism of Susan Crane’s home, I felt myself a small part of the continual accrual of meaning that accompanies its many surfaces and spaces.

A slightly grander writing table,
in the Quarry Farm library.