“And all blood-kin to me”: Familiarity on the Farm (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.

Nicholas Otranto is a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of Dallas, specializing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. His research focuses on the construction and maintenance of boundaries within intimate spaces, such as the home, and how those boundaries communicate complexities associated with social, genealogical, and rhizomatic identities. He is working on a dissertation that, in part, applies the study of belonging to the works of Mark Twain.

Arriving at Quarry Farm, it’s hard not to be drawn first toward the impressive landscape. The rolling hills of the Allegheny Plateau and the winding Chemung River spread out in front of the view, presenting an idyllic scene. The deer that populate the front lawn with the glow of sunset at their backs and the towering evergreens that flank the property only increase the beauty of the rural surroundings. In this image I found a lot of familiarity. I grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, among the Uwharries, and so I recognized much of the geography, as both regions share many of the same characteristics. Through this geographical kinship, I discovered the possible root of a phenomenon I had experienced in my first encounters with Mark Twain.

The view from the Quarry Farm Porch on a early April evening (Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Otranto)

As a child, I remember hearing, reading, and seeing stories like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and unconsciously associating them with my own life. These stories were natural parts of the legends I created in my own outdoor play. It wasn’t until later that I learned of the distance between my home and the Mississippi Valley or even that Mark Twain was a living historical figure. In my initial renderings, Mark Twain was a mythical storyteller who told the tales of children playing in the woods around my neighborhood. Though these assumptions were incorrect, they still capture a sense of Twain’s imaginative excellence; they point to his ability to recreate familiar territory. What I recognize now, however, is that there was indeed a true similarity. While the stories about the fictional St. Petersburg imitate the region around the historical Hannibal, Missouri, there is no doubt that Twain was influenced by the same landscape I overlooked during my stay at Quarry Farm. Even more so, he must have been influenced by watching his own children play in that landscape as he wrote those adventures. The similarities I took for granted as a child now carry much more significance, as they allude to the possibility of a specific kind of imagination tied to Quarry Farm itself.

If I consider that the natural surroundings of Quarry Farm served as the bounds of this imagination, then it seems fitting that the life inside, the life of home and family, produced the raw material. It was these aspects of Twain’s life that I was most interested in, especially because I wanted to make a transition from a mythical understanding of the storyteller to an understanding of the reality of the man and his life. In this sense, I came to Quarry Farm to meet the family; to become familiar with them, just as many of the guests before me had. This familiarity began with the home itself. The Quarry Farm preservation efforts facilitate a unique experience for scholars through the on-going rehabilitation of the property, which relies on the active use of the home to maintain its integrity and authenticity. After overcoming my initial timidity, I found that living in the space as it was intended helped strip away some of the over-reverent layers surrounding my conception of Twain. At the same time, following some of the same steps and routines gave me a glimpse of the contentment that came from waking up on the farm and putting in a good day’s work. This experience of the physical space of the home, of course, is not so different from our own daily lives, although the setting, architecture, and furniture might be. But realizing this familiarity was an essential part of my research, as it highlighted part of the reality that formed the backdrop of Twain’s writing about home, marriage, and family.   

Working on the second floor of Quarry Farm (Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Otranto)

In the second-floor library, surrounded by stacks of books about Quarry Farm, Sam and Livy’s courtship and marriage, and the lives of the Clemens children, I engrossed myself in the history of the family. I quickly discovered that much more compelling than the plain biographical details were the personal feelings that depicted the relationships between various members. These sentiments, which largely come from personal accounts, characterize the reality of their family life. The different reactions to Twain’s response to “What Ought He to Have Done?” reveal how he perceived the relationship between Livy and her children as well as how the children perceived and understood the relationship between their parents. Susy’s remembrance of her father infusing bubbles with his cigar smoke displays the wonder and delight that came from combining adulthood and adolescence in their mutual play. Wandering the rooms of the home also provided me with opportunities to engage with similarly personal information. The tiles around the living room fireplace that illustrate Aesop’s fables relate the intimate routine of a father crafting new characters and plots under the demanding standards of his daughters. The dining table tells the story of ironic family games of solitaire. Even the insects that occasionally enter the home are reminders of the scientific inquiry that took place through Jean’s collection of dead flies. 

Reading these accounts and experiencing the spaces where many of them occurred truly gave me the sense that I was distantly participating in the life of the Clemens family. In the same way, as I poured over the pages of letters, telegrams, and notebook entries regarding the deaths of Susy, Livy, Jean, and Twain himself, I couldn’t help but feel freshly affected each time. Perhaps I was willing to be sentimental, but I’d rather believe that it was borne of the authentic expressions of love and loss that are available to close relations. Regardless, it was true for me that the life of Quarry Farm revealed the commonalities between my own experiences of marriage, family, and home, and those of its original inhabitants. We can only be so fortunate to have and create such sweet memories as those made within Clemens family; memories that are worth recording and transforming into new, yet familiar stories. And it is through our experiential kinship with these stories that we begin to see what Twain saw. Just as Adam remembers Eve—”Wheresoever she was, there was Eden”—Mark Twain reveals a reflective vision that is, in part, captured in the space of Quarry Farm. The freedom, ease, and comfort he always desired, the sense of belonging and the personal Eden, are all reflected there, not only in the reposeful peace of the grounds, but also in his recollections of communal life there. 

Writings from the John Tuckey Papers Collection at the Elmira College Mark Twain Archive (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Otranto)

Although alone for much of my time at Quarry Farm, I felt a distinct sense of kinship with Twain and the Clemens family. It wasn’t simply because I was living in the exact space and reflecting on similar experiences, but because I was also joining a community of scholars who have shared the same recognitions. For example, seeing penciled notes in the Mark Twain Archive from the late Michael J. Kiskis that point to the “idea of at home—of belonging,” further solidified my feeling that I was on the right path and participating in familiar conversations and ideas. Even still, whether I was flipping through the pages of David Fears’s incredibly helpful Mark Twain Day by Day, walking the grounds up to the original location of Twain’s octagonal study, visiting Woodlawn Cemetery, or spending hours looking through notes, scans, and manuscripts in the archive, I was almost always drawn back to my initial realization. The reason why characters like Huck and Tom seem so familiar or why Adam and Eve’s bickering feels humorously nostalgic is because they are products of an imagination informed by the same stuff of our own intimate relationships. These relationships give life to Quarry Farm and make it worth visiting. They certainly made my residency productive, engaging, and fulfilling, and I am genuinely humbled by the familiarity I gained. Thank you to the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College, and all those who made this experience possible.