April in Elmira & Redding (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting with today’s narrative from Larry Howe, we will occasionally be featuring testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, 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.

Larry Howe is Professor of English at Roosevelt University, author of MARK TWAIN & THE NOVEL (1998), and co-editor of MARK TWAIN & MONEY (2017).

I came to Quarry Farm on April 1st for a stay of about 3 weeks. This is my second Quarry Farm fellowship, and I have had the pleasure of a couple of other short stays, so the house, grounds, and the city in the valley below are quite familiar to me. I didn’t need a getting-acquainted period as I settled in.  

My other visits to Quarry Farm were in the Summer and Fall. So I wasn’t sure what to expect in April. Despite the fact that Spring was several weeks underway, there were days when a Winter chill still lingeredFortunately, sunshine made intermittent appearances frequently enough to allow a cup of coffee on the front porch. Given the general weather, instead of taking long walks over the hills and in the woods, I fell quickly into a work routine.

I’m in the midst of a project on Mark Twain and property, and my fellowship period is dedicated to revising earlier work on the real estate chapter and developing aspects of Clemens’s time in Hartford and Stormfield. I spent long hours at the kitchen table, drafting and revising. For me, the latter is the most time consuming part of the process because I will revisit a paragraph numerous times: reshaping, cutting, adding, and recasting sentences. As a result, my production is never what I hope it will be, but I’ve come to expect that.  

Anyone who has had the pleasure of working here knows that having the wealth of scholarly resources readily available on the study shelves make this an ideal setting. If there’s a downside, it’s that there is so much material close at hand; hours can go by dipping into one volume or another. Having the collective wisdom of so many dedicated scholars close at hand leaves one no choice but to dive in to answer any question that arises, and to locate one’s own interpretive position within the wide range of critical opinions. 

Some of my research of property records is available online. And for this work, the upgraded internet access at Quarry Farm was indispensible. For example, I was able to track down the deed records of Livy’s purchase of the estate in Tarrytown, NY, in 1902 and Sam’s sale of that property in 1904, after Livy’s death. Still, a lot of older records have not been digitized.

Elmira is also the seat of Chemung County, so it was very easy to drive down the hill and drop into the Registry of Deeds on Lake Street to compare Quarry Farm property to others in which Livy and Sam Clemens had a personal stake. It was somewhat suprising to see that Sam Clemens was among the executors of Jervis Langdon’s estate, recorded in sales of Langdon town lots to a variety of buyers. 

Records for Stormfield in Redding, CT, are also only available in bound form. Because it’s a shorter journey there from Elmira than it is from my home in Chicago, I took the opportunity on one day to drive to Redding to consult the town clerk’s records. Along the way, I was also delighted to stumble onto Mark Twain Lane—which ends at the gated entrance to the Stormfield property. 

Just across the from the gate is the site of Isabel Lyon’s Lobster Pot, which has been replaced by a different building (though still called the Lobster Pot), now an art studio and gallery of a local painter. Her portraits of Sam and Jean Clemens hang in the Mark Twain Library not more than a mile away on Redding Road. As I took photos of the stone pillars that frame the entrance to Stormfield, I was approached by a local who tipped me off to walking trails on a part of Clemens’s property that had been acquired by the Redding Land Trust. He also gave me directions to the property that Clemens acquired for Jean. The stone walls at the head of that driveway bear a sign that reads “Jean’s Farm.” Her original house still stands on what continues to be a working farm.  

Back at Quarry Farm the next day, I organized the photos of the documents that I reviewed at the Town Clerk’s office, including Clemens’s acquisitions of various parcels that comprised the Redding property, the deed of twenty acres to Isabel Lyon, the Power of Attorney that Clemens executed to void the notorious POA document that he accused Ralph Ashcroft of tricking him into signing, and the transfer of the twenty acres of Lyon’s property back to Clemens. As I pored over the “Ashcroft–Lyon Manuscript” for the conclusion of my real estate chapter, the formal language of property records, written in impeccable cursive hand and signed by the parties involved lent an authenticity to the story that I was tracking.   

Scholarly work is often described as a solitary enterprise, and my experience was no different. There were quite a few days when I saw no one. This was my own doing. Steve Webb, the friendly and knowledgeable Quarry Farm caretaker is on site and available. Joe Lemak, Matt Seybold, and Nathaniel Ball are close by (I bumped into Matt at Wegman’s one evening, and I met with Joe and Matt for lunch on another day) and are more than willing to help out with anything one may need. But the steady rhythm of work would allow whole days to go by without interruption. One evening, my wife called to see how things were going. When I tried to speak, a hoarse whisper was all I could muster. I realized that this was the first time I had used my voice since the day before when I had made a run for provisions.  It was disconcerting to find myself temporarily mute. The trade-off for this weird experience was well worth it. A temporary loss of speech was a small price to pay for a concentrated period of luxuriating in the world of Mark Twain, in a site that remains as it was when he occupied it.

Even for scholars, a Quarry Farm fellowship is a rare opportunity.  The Mark Twain community is fortunate that the Langdon family made this available to us and that its stewardship has been so responsibly maintained by the Center for Mark Twain Studies. My advice to Twain scholars who’ve yet to enjoy a residency at Quarry Farm: plan on it. The memories of your visit will stay with you.