“Germ: A Growing Point. A Bud” (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature 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.

Don James McLaughlin is an assistant professor of English at The University of Tulsa specializing in 19th-century and early American literature. He earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania in July 2017. He completed his dissertation “Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature” under the direction of Heather Love, Max Cavitch, Nancy Bentley, and Chi-ming Yang. The dissertation (now first book project) provides an intellectual history of phobia in American print culture as a medical diagnosis, political metaphor, and aesthetic sensation in the 18th and 19th centuries. In January 2016, an essay from the project was published in The New Republic, titled “The Anti-Slavery Roots of Today’s -Phobia Obsession.” Two additional essays from the project are currently forthcoming in Literature and Medicine and J19: The Journal of 19th-Century Americanists. In 2018, Penn English awarded Don James the Diane Hunter Prize for Best Dissertation submitted during the 2017/18 academic year. In the summer of 2018, Don James was awarded the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society to support completion of his first book. His research has also been supported by a Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellowship from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Penn Humanities Forum.  

Professor McLaughlin at Quarry Farm

The Quarry Farm Fellowships, offered annually by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, represent one of the best-kept secrets when it comes to research funding for scholars of nineteenth-century American literature. The luxury, the library, the furniture, the secluded enclaves: all make an indelible impression. It is a rare opportunity to get to live and write, without distraction, in a house of serious significance to one’s specialty. It’s hard not to be charmed by the preserved atmosphere linking Twain’s experience to your own: have coffee on the porch where Twain read work aloud to his family to gauge their reception; watch foxes, fawns, and the beloved Manx “Notaila” scurry across a back lawn overlooking the Appalachian Mountains at sunset; and hike in the woods to the former location of the study (since relocated to the Elmira College campus) where Twain drafted some of his best-known works. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of the paranormal, the ghost of his sister-in-law’s favorite cat Sour Mash will make itself known. If what you need is to unplug, find privacy, and get some writing done with a stellar library at your disposal, you can’t do better than Quarry Farm. The folks who contribute to running and organizing the fellowships, Joseph Lemak, Matt Seybold, and Steve Webb, are also gracious, friendly, and responsive hosts.

My stay at Quarry Farm was memorable for a few reasons. I combined my residence with that of my colleague, Dr. Sunny Yang, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Houston. For scholars who would entertain the idea of combining a fellowship with a reunion, I can confirm that, as long as one maintains a solid work ethic during the day, the Quarry Farm fellowship can accommodate a rewarding shared experience.

Selection of the John S. Tuckey Collection in the Mark Twain Archive on the Elmira College Campus

For my fellowship, I wrote on Twain’s unfinished manuscript “3,000 Years among the Microbes” and presented the work as part of the Park Church lecture series, which was well-attended and met with an enthusiastic Q&A. I took advantage of the collection in the Mark Twain Reading Room at Elmira College, where I explored marginalia in copies he owned of Leaves of Grass and The House of Mirth. I also went through extensive notes on “3,000 Years” donated by John S. Tuckey. Two things deserve to be noted about the collection. Archivist Nathaniel Ball does an excellent job of managing the papers and creates a warm, inviting environment. Furthermore, for folks on the East Coast or the Midwest, if a trip to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley isn’t feasible, it is worth exploring the catalog at Elmira College to see if reproductions of any of those materials may be accessed in collections contributed by Twain scholars. As a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, this year, I found Elmira College to be an ideal, alternative resource.

The fellowship at Quarry Farm was a gift that has kept on giving. I participated in the symposium at Quarry Farm this fall, “Mark Twain and Nature,” where I delivered a paper titled “Microphobias: Microscopy and Medicine after Miasma in ‘3,000 Years among the Microbes.’” At the symposium, I made new friends and had the pleasure of learning from excellent, cutting-edge scholarship. As the symposium segued into after-hours storytelling in the kitchen at Quarry Farm, it dawned on me that the best part of my experience with the Center for Mark Twain Studies was being reminded throughout that vibrant spaces of intellectual camaraderie are thriving in the year 2019. It has been a privilege to become a participant in this community, and it has changed my scholarship for the better.