Silent Work in Elmira: Letters from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection


Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.

Susan Crane

Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to reproduced these letters with permission from the Ohio History Connection, where they are part of the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection. This resource is also made possible by the Chemung County Historical Society, especially archivist Rachel Dworkin, and local historian J. D. Iles, host of Hidden Landmarks on WETM.

I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.


Wilbur H. Siebert

In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.

As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.

That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.

Jervis Langdon
Jervis Langdon

A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.

As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.

If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.

Rachel & Silas Gleasons

Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.

William Still

These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”

Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.

Our most comprehensive telling of this story, so far, is the “Gospel of Revolt” episode of the C19: American In The Nineteenth Century podcast, which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Selection from a map of Underground Railroad networks in New York State, created by Wilbur H. Siebert for his book. The full map available here, courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

The following letters are reproduced with the permission of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (August 27, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 14, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 23, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 26, 1896)

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See the two photographs of John W. Jones to which Crane refers beneath the letters, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.


John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (December 17, 1896)

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John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (January 16, 1897)

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John W. Jones, circa 1850 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)
John W. Jones, 1896 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)

The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert (Macmillan Company, 1898)

The Underground Railroad: A Record, Revised Edition by William Still (People’s Publishing Co., 1878)

A Loving & Clairvoyant Parasite: George Steiner in "The Archives of Eden"

It would be grossly inaccurate to call George Steiner, who passed away earlier this week, an Americanist. His reading was cosmopolitan, certainly, and though it included the literature of the nation where he spent the plurality of his life, he was also famously dismissive of that tradition. Nearly every obituary published this week has mentioned that he once characterized Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, possibly the most revered novel in the U.S. canon, as “trivial.”

It can thus justly be characterized as a “stretch” for me to eulogize him on a site dedicated to Mark Twain Studies. Steiner made occasional, passing references to Twain’s works, enough to make evident he had read them (what hadn’t he read?), but he would have no doubt bristled at the very phrase “Twain Scholar,” not applied it to himself.

But I am taking the occasion of Steiner’s death to revisit one of the rare essays in which he not only glances at U.S. authors and artists, but searches for a definition of American culture. “The Archives of Eden” was published in Salmagundi in 1980 and later collected in Steiner’s No Passion Spent (1996). 

While he does not mention them all by name, Steiner’s most transparent objective in the essay is to discredit and replace the “Adamic” definition of American culture developed by the midcentury Americanist critics R.W.B. Lewis, Leo Marx, Perry Miller, and Henry Nash Smith. Far from being an organic, virgin, youthful, or Arcadian culture (all tropes of the “Adamic” school), Steiner insists, “American culture has stood, from its outset, on giant shoulders” and “is ‘very old’ precisely because it has been heir to so much.” 

The word heir is important here, for it acknowledges that American Adam did not spring, unprecedented, from the Virgin Land, but inheritance also denotes the passing of property. American culture specializes, Steiner argues, in the accumulation of cultural properties, whether those be the Strativarian instruments in the vaults of the Library of Congress or the fruits of intellect which Diasporic physicists traded to the Manhattan Project for visas. 

“The dominant apparatus of American high culture is that of custody,” Steiner writes. Superior museums, superior libraries, superior concert halls, and superior universities comprise the “rummage-room of western civilization.” The British have to visit Washington D.C. to study Shakespeare. Russians come to New York City to study their revolution. The French journey to the Bay Area to study theirs. But, according to Steiner, our capacity for appropriating, cataloguing, curating, and, most importantly, arbitraging, the cultural artifacts of Europe masks the poverty of Americans own cultural productivity.

Summarized as such, Steiner’s argument may appear, up to this point, to be stereotypically Eurocentric, equal parts envy and elitism – the longform version of calling Moby-Dick “trivial.” I assure you, couched as it is in Steiner’s humility and dialectical reasoning, it does not read so dismissively. That said, it is really the second half of the essay which keeps me up at night. Steiner posits that by treating world culture with the same reverence as a pawnbroker and our own culture as purely disposable, Americans actually approach something virtuous. 

“The correlations between classic literacy and political justice, between the civic institutionalization of intellectual excellence and the general tenor of social decency, between a meritocracy of the mind and the overall chances for common progress, are indirect and, it may well be, negative.

Not even Americans orchestras want to play Aaron Copland. Our major metropolitan museums hang their Hudson River School paintings in the galleries furthest from the entrance. One suspect Emerson’s inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Western Philosophy is primarily an act of pity which only service to make the paucity of U.S. philosophers more apparent. But, Steiner’s comforting question to his U.S. colleagues: “Who cares?” Who needs to pursue the sensual transcendence of the arts and humanities when they are free to pursue happiness? “High culture, far from arresting barbarism, can give to barbarism a peculiar zest and veneer,” Steiner writes, “If a choice is to be made, let humane mediocrity prevail.”

Is “humane mediocrity” what we get when accept that the proper measures of culture are the the auction block, the domestic gross, the bestseller list, and the tuition price? 

Standing beside the fiction produced under Stalinism, Steiner says, “this month’s ‘great American novel’ is merely embarrassing,” but “Who cares?” Neither its author nor its readers were, as Joyce put it, “squeezed like olives” in the vice grip of a totalitarian regime. 

“The fundamental, if subconscious strategy of American culture is that of an immaculate astrodome enveloping, making transparent to a mass audience, preserving from corruption and misuse, the cancerous and daemonic pressures of antique, of European, of Russian invention.”

To choose Judd Apatow over Samuel Beckett – that is, to choose the “general dignity” of mass culture over the exclusive status of high culture – is, as Steiner puts it, “a thoroughly justifiable choice,” though not one he is constitutionally able to make for himself. Nor, and this is the rhetorical cruelty of his argument, are we. On the penultimate page of his essay, he points out, for those who have gotten so far, “by virtue of the simple fact that you are reading this essay, that you possess the vocabulary, codes of reference, leisure and interest needed to read it” you have already marked yourself as elite, as Eurocentric, as resistant to “the American way of life,” as potentially containing within your person and your tastes “the motor forces of social crisis.”

What I find haunting about this essay is not the trivialization of U.S. literature. (As Twain says, “My book are like water. Everybody drinks water.”) Nor is it Steiner’s characterization of the institutions of my profession (the university, library, and archive) as implicitly at odds with my person. What I really find haunting is that it was written four decades ago. It describes a “contagion of history” that Americans still carry with them, yet offers no account of what to do when the “immaculate astrodome” is no longer so immaculate. What happens when authoritarianism succeeds in raiding the archives of Eden? It is an essay in desperate need of a sequel. One which now we’ll never get.  

An Interview With Virgie Hoban About Six Degrees of Mark Twain

Virgie Hoban, in collaboration with the Mark Twain Project and it’s General Editor and Curator, Robert H. Hirst, has created a unique introduction to Twain’s social network. 6 Degrees of Mark Twain combines images and primary sources from the Mark Twain Papers with video interviews with Dr. Hirst and Hoban’s explanatory narrative to explore Twain’s relationships with a diverse sextet of his contemporaries, all of whom were celebrities in their own right. In addition to being a welcome resource for Twainiacs of all stripes, this interactive, multimedia experience would make a great resource for classrooms.

Virgie Hoban is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley (where the Mark Twain Project resides) and now works as a writer for the communications office at the Berkeley library, covering exhibits, collections, events, and the library’s digitization and open access initiatives. She kindly took time to answer a few questions about how 6 Degrees of Mark Twain came together.

1.) How did you become interested in Twain? Have you worked with the Mark Twain Project before?

My father gave me Tom Sawyer to read as a kid, and I loved it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, studying English, I read Huck Finn for a class and was blown away by its heart and humor. At some point, I took a tour of the Library for an English class and saw treasures from the Mark Twain Project. This “6 degrees” project was my first time working with or writing about the Mark Twain Project — a dream of mine since I applied for this position. 

2.) What surprised you most as you pursued this research? Was there a particular relationship that you found most intriguing? Why?

I have been endlessly amazed at how infinite Twain seems, in his relationships with people and in his opinions on everything in the world. He speaks in such great hyperbole, too, with so much conviction that it feels almost impossible. I loved exploring those sides of him with this very tangible guide: the people he called friends.

There were a couple favorite moments. P.T. Barnum was a quirky one that was weirdly enlightening. I loved the bit about Twain collecting strange letters from Barnum just to learn more about humankind. That was a sort of light-bulb moment that made me feel like I was starting to get to know Twain a bit more. I was also intrigued by Twain’s fascination with Barnum. The guy is this shameless showman — I read articles comparing Barnum to Trump — and yet Twain can’t help but admire him, because he’s got that love for theatrics too. But Twain does sort of keep Barnum at a distance, declining to write ads for the circus, etc. As Bob Hirst told me, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on between them.

I think my favorite relationship was probably Twain and Helen Keller. It was astounding to see this larger-than-life person shrink in comparison to this woman, in the way Twain praises her. Like I said, I think Twain likes to exaggerate, but when he calls Keller the “8th wonder of the world,” you believe it. Also, I was floored by the way Keller sees right through Twain’s cynicism and old-man griping. There was love and understanding and encouragement in that friendship, which was very sweet to witness.

3.) As you point out, Twain’s life intersected with lots of public figures. How did you narrow it down to this particular half dozen? Were there particular demographics, issues, events, etc. that you wanted to highlight?

Haha, well I joke with my colleagues that I will do a sequel featuring Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and hopefully more women. I picked these people with the guidance of Bob Hirst, who brainstormed with me about all the possible candidates. I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe over Dickens because I wanted another woman. Tesla seemed a little wonkier than Edison, and Twain was closer to Grant than Roosevelt. The other relationships were just who I found most interesting, I suppose. 


Please check out 6 Degrees of Mark Twain, as well as all the great digital resources available from the Mark Twain Project.

You Could Get Bookings: A Review of Holbrook/Twain

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.

The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.

But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.

Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.

View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.

Drinking With Twain: A Rare Manuscript

In her recent salute to Mad Magazine, Barbara Schmidt alluded to the rare pamphlet, Drinking With Twain, self-published by Frank E. Kelsey. The Center for Mark Twain Studies is in possession of one of the five hundred copies which Kelsey printed in 1936. As the copyright has not been renewed, we are pleased to make it available to the public. You may read the complete text, embedded below.

Beneath the digital edition of Drinking With Twain, I have provided some commentary about Kelsey and his co-author, Laurel O’Connor. Whether or not you are inclined to read such commentary, I warn you that this pamphlet, though certainly worthy of the curiosity of Twainiacs and local historians, should not be regarded as an especially reliable source of biographical information about Samuel Clemens or his associates. There are a few outright falsities, as well as numerous claims which are difficult, if not impossible, to corroborate. This does not prevent Kelsey’s memoir from being entertaining, or relevant to scholars. But it should be treated with healthy skepticism. It is one resident’s reflection, after a span of nearly forty years, upon the social climate of Elmira in the later stages of Clemen’s residency here.


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EDITOR’S NOTE: For best reading, launch full-screen mode from the toolbar at the bottom of the reader. This reader only allows for documents of up to 30 pages. The final four pages of the manuscript can be found in another reader at the bottom of this post.


Frank Edward Kelsey was, much like Samuel Clemens, endowed with the entrepreneurial energy of the Gilded Age. He moved freely between trades and across territories, seemingly motivated as much by cosmopolitan curiosity as by fortune-seeking. He died not far from where he had been born, in Battle Creek, Michigan, but in the interim he resided for extended periods in at least four other states and periodically worked as a salesman and promotor, exploring the entirety of the U.S. by train and later by car.

Kelsey moved to Elmira from Goshen, Indiana sometime between early 1890 and the middle of 1892. He was still a young man, not yet 30. His furniture factory, The Elmira Table Company, was incorporated on November 15, 1892, but he had clearly been in town for some time prior making preparations and overseeing construction. The Elmira Table Company remained in continuous operation until 1913, when it was purchased by a rival. The factory shuttered soon thereafter. Kelsey had presumably sold his position many years earlier. His family left the Elmira area sometime between 1898 and 1900. During his relatively brief residency, he managed to get himself elected, in 1896, as the first mayor of the village of Elmira Heights, a hard-fought election that was decided by only ten votes. Clearly an active member of the New York Republican Party, that same year he was sent as a delegate to the RNC convention in St. Louis.

Kelsey’s residency in Elmira had only minimal overlap with Clemens’s. In 1890, for the first time since 1873, the Clemenes did not spend the whole summer at Quarry Farm. They did not arrive until mid-August and then only because Olivia Lewis Langdon had fallen ill. They returned in November, and Livy remainder until after her mother’s death, but Sam spent only a few days before returning to Hartford. The Clemenses did not return for another visit to Elmira until the Summer of 1892, and even then, Sam was only in residence at Quarry Farm for a couple weeks before embarking to Europe. The following Summer they planned to resume their usual long residency. Livy and the girls arrived in late March or early April, and Sam followed them at the beginning of May, but business, namely the Panic of 1893, again interfered with his plans. Sam left for New York City after only a week at the Farm and did not return until October, and then for only a weekend. Sam made two more weekend trips to Elmira, mainly on business, in 1894.

For the first time in six years, Sam Clemens and his family did have an extended residency at Quarry Farm from mid-May to mid-July 1895, though this was still nothing like the six or seven month stretches they routinely stayed during the 1870s and 1880s. As Clemens would not return until after Kelsey moved away, this seems to be the last time he could have spent any considerable amount of time “drinking with Twain.”

Given these dates, Kelsey may have met Samuel Clemens on no more than a small handful of occasions. His pamphlet is likely far more dependent upon the second-hand stories he heard from those who frequented places like Klapproth’s tavern when Clemens was really a “regular” during the preceding decades. There are several places in the narrative where Kelsey reveals his ignorance about the man he claims to know well. Perhaps most glaringly, he claims that Clemens brought “colored servants” with him from Missouri. It is a ridiculous claim. Clemens had not lived in Missouri for well over a decade before he set foot in Elmira. The idea that he was followed around by doting African-Americans, presumably former slaves, is part of a broader pattern of casual racist fantasy in Drinking With Twain.

But while I think we should have grave doubts about Kelsey’s personal relationship to Clemens, his contention that aspects of the social culture in Elmira reflected the enduring influence of Clemens and his circle is easier to swallow. Most of the people and places Kelsey describes are part of the historical record. In some cases, like Lew Shilden’s, Kelsey provides a more detailed account which usefully supplements other sources, like the Elmira Star-Gazette, which, in 1902, wrote the following:

Kelsey’s reflections also provide a tentative answer to a minor mystery of Samuel Clemens’s biography. There is strong evidence that well into his thirties, Clemens had a drinking problem. He was arrested for public drunkenness at least once and many of his Western friends and acquaintances testified that he “got drunk oftener than was necessary.” He never succeeded in getting himself fully “on the wagon,” but after his engagement to Livy, there is sparse evidence that his drinking interfered with his domestic or professional life. It seems reasonable to speculate that something changed in Sam Clemens’s relationship to liquor after 1867. Kelsey’s outline of Twain’s supposed “philosophy of drinking,” as well as the expectations for behavior at Klapproth’s and other Elmira establishments, is a substantive and persuasive explanation of this change. The rules Kelsey alleges Clemens and his associates followed are in keeping with many of Twain’s public and private writings on drinking, including humorous aphorisms, like, “Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance.”

The co-author and so-called “raconteuse” (gifted female storyteller) of Drinking With Twain, the pseudonymous Laurel O’Connor, is, according to Barbara Schmidt, an actress and writer from Battle Creek, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones.

Mrs. Stones became familiar with Mr. Kelsey when she was still Mrs. Connor, specifically during her brother, Jimmy Reed’s, prolonged battle with tuberculosis, which he succumbed to in March 1935. O’Connor reports that both she and her brother, each of whom also worked for local newspapers, took “little odd jobs of writing for [Kelsey].” It’s unclear why exactly Kelsey was employing freelance writers, aside from the composition of Drinking With Twain, which did not begin until after Reed’s death. Kelsey was the business manager of both the Battle Creek Journal and Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press from 1911 to 1915, but his direct involvement in the newspaper business seems to have ended long before his friendship with the Reeds began.

It seems possible that some of the awkward Confederate romanticism, including overt racism, which runs through Drinking With Twain could have come from O’Connor/Stones. In her introduction, she alludes with pride to a great-grandfather, who was an “admirable drinker” and “the first Attorney General from the State of Mississippi.” She is referring, presumably, to Thomas Buck Reed, who was actually the third Attorney General from Mississippi, from 1821 to 1826, as well as a U.S. Senator from 1826 to 1829.

O’Connor also mentions another great grandfather, who she describes as “a glorious rogue who rode a white charger with magnificent dignity and doffed his tall black hat to every pretty petticoat.” This is probably Thomas Hurst, the Virginian plantation owner whose daughter, Elizabeth Lee Hurst, married John Hampton Reed. Their son (and Laurabell’s father) James Hall Reed migrated to Battle Creek after serving as a doctor for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. There he met and married Josephine Norton. O’Connor shows much more pride in the Southern side of her family than in the Nortons, who could trace their ancestry back to the original settlement of Battle Creek. At the time of her mother’s death, in 1962, Laurabell Stones was reported living with her second husband, Frank Stones, in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Frank Kelsey with his great-grandchildren, from Battle Creek Enquirer, in 1952, the year of his death.

There are two more things worth mentioning about Frank Kelsey’s career, which had many twists and turns. In the early years of the 20th century, Kelsey left the furniture business and became a full-time promoter, first for the Battle Creek Breakfast Food Co., which would produce several of the most popular cereal brands of the era and eventually be acquired by Kellogg’s. Battle Creek Breakfast Food had facilities in Buffalo (NY), Chicago (IL), Dayton (OH), and Quincy (IL), in addition to Battle Creek, and Kelsey was a frequent visitor to these cities.

He claimed to have invented Battle Creek Breakfast Food’s signature product, Egg-o-See, the most popular cereal of the first decade of the 20th century and the brandname which became Kellogg’s Eggo‘s toaster pastries. His foundational role in the company was reported in, among other papers, the Elmira Star-Gazette.

Over the next several decades, Kelsey would work as a promotor for several more companies, both large and small, including the Royal Fireless Cooker Co., Chevrolet, and, as he acknowledges in Drinking With Twain, Paris, Allen, & Co., the distributors of Old Crow Bourbon Whiskey. Kelsey’s professional relationship with Paris, Allen, & Co. throws into question his claim that Old Crow was Mark Twain’s preferred American whiskey, a claim which has not been corroborated elsewhere.

Kelsey clearly went through periods of boom and bust. Like Clemens, his fortunes were once swept away by a financial crisis. In 1929, he declared bankruptcy in Detroit. During the same year, the Star-Gazette wrongly reported that he had died. However, Kelsey recovered, living another 20+ years, and building a successful tax consulting firm in Battle Creek.

If you have more information about Frank E. Kelsey, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones, or Drinking With Twain, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would love to hear from you ([email protected]).

Thanks are due to both Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com and Nathaniel Ball, Elmira College archivist, for their help in researching and preparing this manuscript.

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CFP: Panel on “Afterlives of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” at NeMLA 2020 in Boston, MA (March 5-8, 2020)

Michael Torregrossa will chair a panel on the “Afterlives of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” at the 51st Annual Convention of the Northeast Modern Language Association in Boston from March 5-8, 2020.

Writer Mark Twain and illustrator Daniel Carter Beard’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) has had a long history of adaptation in popular culture, but the full scope of its reception remains untold. There are, of course, the obvious texts, both in print and on film, that merely retell the story. Of these, more work is needed on the illustrative tradition. Along with retellings, there are also a small number of works that continue Connecticut Yankee. These appear entirely unknown to Twainians but offer a unique approach to the author’s legacy. More importantly, Connecticut Yankee itself or its story as mediated through one of its many retellings has also stimulated new narratives detached from Twain and Beard’s telling that recast characters and restage events. Also relatively unknown by scholars of the novel, these materials can be found throughout modern popular culture, and, although Elizabeth S. Sklar somewhat derisibly labels these as “spinoffs and ripoffs” of the novel, they are of value (as she suggests) and perhaps more so than the retellings because such items serve as the base for an extensive corpus of transformations of the novel that send various protagonists, all characters more familiar to contemporary readers and viewers than Twain’s Hank Morgan, into the medieval past and set a common pattern for time travel stories. In the end, this session will offer a broad view of adaptations of the Connecticut Yankee story to situate both retellings and the lesser known and/or hitherto unknown continuations and recastings into a new continuum to offer a more complete picture of the novel’s effect on popular culture and provide fresh insight into the various ways that the producers responsible for these re-imaginings have appropriated the story and its time-travel motif for their own purposes.

This session will offer a broad view of adaptations of the Connecticut Yankee story to situate both retellings and the lesser known and/or hitherto unknown continuations and recastings of the story into a new continuum to offer a more complete picture of the novel’s effect on popular culture.

More information about NeMLA and the convention can be found here. Abstracts should be submitted here.

“Buy It, Laugh, & Grow Fat”: The 1869 Reviews of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

At the Center for Mark Twain Studies we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book. Sales of The Innocents Abroad began on August 10, 1869 and soon thereafter reviews started appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Twain was already a well-known writer and lecturer who many journalists regarded as one of their own. This affinity, as well as the aggressive and innovative marketing strategies of the American Publishing Company, may have help secure good press for the book. Many editors expressed their appreciation at being sent gratis copies and many of the same papers which reviewed it also had advertising contracts with the publisher and/or local book agents. That said, the work was clearly capable of living up to the effusion. Many editors chose simply to reprint excerpts from the text.

Below I have collected a series of blurbs from the first wave of reviews which appeared during the remaining months of 1869. This is not a comprehensive collection, but the selections I have made, I hope, demonstrate something of the critical consensus that developed around what many characterized as a groundbreaking travel narrative. I have tried to include excerpts from both metropolitan and small-town papers, and from various regions of the country.

“The propriety of filling a book of six hundred odd pages with mere jokes may be questioned. But it is not questionable that, if this be granted, ‘Mark Twain’ has produced a very laughable and enterprising book. No American book of travels, except Ross Browne’s ‘Yusef,’ is written with the same humorous spirit, and certainly none contains so much genuine fun…The book does not profess to instruct, and it does not. It aims to entertain, and it does. There is a genuine American tone about it which is refreshing to see after the snobberies of some other American travellers.” – Buffalo Morning Express (August 18, 1869)

“Certainly, Mark Twain succeeds is dispelling many of the old traditions which travelers have so long inflicted upon a confiding and long-suffering public. He has gone over the ground with a genuine Yankee spirit; determining to see everything that is to be seen, to see it thoroughly and like a man of sense. To go into ecstasies over but few things, and to speak the plain, unvarnished truth under all circumstances. And this truth is told to us in such a winsome form that we cannot but listen to it with agreeable sensations. Throughout runs an undercurrent of genuine native humor. Not what we are so apt to accept as such, and which is principally remarkable for its vulgarity and insipidity, but a real, crisp, tangible wit, that speaks in every line of the vitality, the vigorous honesty of the man, and of how fully he is imbued with all the better of the national characteristics.” – New York Express (August 20, 1869)

“If any one, troubled with hifaluten notions, contemplates a trip to the old world, he had better read this book before he makes the trip. It will greatly improve his self-respect and make him appear better than if he went and put on the unnecessary airs that many do.” – Rutland Daily Herald (August 23, 1869)

“Mr. Clemens has an abominable irreverence for tradition and authority, – which sometimes unfortunately degenerates into an offensive irreverence for things which other men hold sacred, – and makes not the slightest hesitation at expressing his opinions in the very plainest possible language, no matter how unorthodox they may be. There is nothing he fears to laugh at, and though some people may wish that he had been a little more tender of the romance of travel, it is certainly refreshing to find a tourist who does not care what other tourists have said before him.” – The New York Tribune (August 27, 1869)

“Unlike the majority of American humorists, Mark Twain never indulges in bad spelling and worse grammar, which vulgarities most frequently comprise the joke. He uses nothing but good Anglo-Saxon, and when the readers laugh, as they will many time over and over, merriment arises solely from the subject written of, not from the manner in which it is written, and is therefore all the more enjoyable. ‘The Innocents Abroad’ is undoubtedly an oasis in the desert of works on foreign travel with which we are deluged at the present day. We have read it throughout with great pleasure, and if Mark Twain will do no worse in future efforts at bookmaking we’ll always heartily welcome him to our desk.” – New York Herald (August 31, 1869)

“The volume abounds in pleasant incident, racy description, and incongruous scenes, which, depicted by the pen of one who has so keen a perception of the ridiculous and so bold a purpose to expose it, gives a book unusually readable, and with burlesque enough in it to satisfy the veriest lover of the grotesque in Christendom.” – St. Louis Globe Democrat (September 6, 1869)

“Mark Twain always interesting, in this book has outrivaled himself. It is instructive, humorous, racy, full of quaint expressions that make you laugh unexpectedly, and before you are quite ready; critical, sometimes caustic, but always good natured; never prosy or wearisome. You begin the book and do not want to leave it till the last line is reached. Mark never describes a place or sees a sight as others do. His is intensely original; and for us there is where the charm lies.” – New Jersey Standard (September 24, 1869)

“There is no writer of the present day who can begin with Mark Twain in weaving into a story fact and fiction, philosophy and humor, so as to excite the risibles beyond control, and at the same time without violating the rules of good taste, in either the orthography or syntax of our language. Mark is a trump, and his book is a gem of the first water. – Buy it – laugh and grow fat.” – Wyndette Commercial Gazette (September 25, 1869)

“We must truthfully say that we had no idea so much humor, wit, geniality, fine description and good sense, could be contained within the covers of any one book…Our sides ache, and we lay aside the book to rest, and to advise our friends and readers, one and all, to buy the book at the first opportunity, and read it through.” – Monmouth Inquirer (September 30, 1869)

“Criticism of the work is almost impossible; as sufficient gravity of countenance for the purpose can hardly be maintained over the volume. To think of, or look at it, is to smile, but to read it is to overwhelm all criticism with uncontrollable laughter.” – Public Weekly Opinion (October 5, 1869)

“The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and on readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonym of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of the humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.” – William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly (December, 1869)

150 Years of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

On August 11, 1869, Samuel Clemens received his first copy of Innocents Abroad while visiting the Langdon home in Elmira. He signed it and presented it to Olivia Langdon, his fiance. The book described the inaugural cruise of the Quaker City steamer, aboard which Sam had met Charley Langdon, Olivia’s brother, as well as first laid eyes upon her visage, in a photo Charley carried with him.

Livy’s approval of this book would signal that Sam had succeeded in making himself respectable, or respectable enough. During the composition, he had been determined to create from the trip something more than the humorous sketches which he had published as newspaper dispatches. Something less vulgar and cynical, but also something which would demonstrate his ability to use his literary talent and celebrity to provide a stable, comfortable lifestyle for his new wife, as she was accustomed to.

Clemens wrote to his publisher, Elisha Bliss, the next day: “I was at Elmira yesterday and saw the book, and my faith in it has all come back again. It is the very handsomest book of the season and you ought to be very proud of your work. It will sell. Between us we will make it sell.”

Sell it did. More than 70,000 copies in the first year. Though Twain would write a series of bestsellers, none would surpass the total sales of Innocents, which remained a reliable money-maker for the remainder of his life.

Over the next several weeks, we will continue celebrating the anniversary of this work.

Put The Reader Through Hell: In Memory of Toni Morrison, Twain Scholar

Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.

In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Review that “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)

Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.

Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?

“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”

Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)

The 3rd Quadrennial Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri

On the final weekend in July, a dedicated contingent of Twain Studies scholars gathered in Hannibal, Missouri for the third quadrennial Clemens Conference, sponsored by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The weather was surprisingly agreeable for midsummer in the Mississippi River Valley and the conference organizers made sure there was plenty of time for adventuring between panels and plenary sessions.

Kerry Driscoll Delivers Keynote Address, “Historicizing Injun Joe”

The keynote address was delivered by Kerry Driscoll, author of Mark Twain Among the Indians. She explored the apocryphal association between “Injun Joe,” the antagonist of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “Indian Joe,” a longtime resident of Hannibal. Dr. Driscoll’s compelling argument includes analysis of an essay on Native American and mixed race populations in and around Hannibal written by Sam’s brother, Orion Clemens.

Thomas A. Tenney Award Winner, Henry Sweets, Holds Up Commemorative Plate While Larry Howe Looks On

After the keynote address, the Mark Twain Circle and Center for Mark Twain Studies surprised the conference host, Henry Sweets, by awarding him with the Thomas A. Tenney Award for service to Mark Twain Studies. The award was not scheduled to be presented again until 2021, but in recognition of Sweets’s 42 years as Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, a position which he is relinquishing later this year, it seemed appropriate to deliver the award on his home turf. Noted collector of Twain-related artifacts, Kevin Mac Donnell, sweetened the ceremonial plaque with a collectible plate designed and sold in Hannibal during Twain’s lifetime.

Past & Present Presidents of the Mark Twain Circle of America: Alan Gribben, Bruce Michelson, Ann Ryan, John Bird, Kerry Driscoll, & Larry Howe.
Conference Organizer, Ann Ryan, Summarizes Melissa Scholes Young’s Argument in “Reimagining Becky Thatcher”
Alan Gribben on “Surprises Abound in Mark Twain’s Library”
The Devil’s Backbone in Mark Twain Cave

Friday’s plenaries featured a preview of the forthcoming and much-anticipated volumes of Mark Twain’s Literary Resources by Alan Gribben and an exploration of intimacy, celebrity, and literary wit by Bruce Michelson. After an afternoon exploring the museums and attractions of downtown Hannibal, conference participants were treated to a guided tour of the cave where crucial scenes in Tom Sawyer are set.

On Saturday, John Bird discussed the lessons of his years editing the Twain section in American Literary Scholarship and editors of various Twain-related publications answered questions from the audience. Another panel focused on the influence of Twain’s authorized biography, Albert Bigelow Paine.

John Bird’s “Reflections on Writing the Mark Twain Chapter for American Literary Scholarship”

The weekend climaxed with a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi River. Henry Sweets arranged for two of the conference organizers, John Bird and Ann Ryan, to take turns in the pilot house.

Ann Ryan Takes Her Turn At the Wheel of Mark Twain Riverboat
John Bird Seems Fairly At Ease In The Pilot House
Drs. Joe Csicsila and Ben Click Discuss Bromance of the Mississippi While Hiding Their Cocktails from Intrusive Cameras

The Center for Mark Twain Studies would like to heartily thank our hosts from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, the Mark Twain Cave, Mark Twain Riverboat, Mark Twain Brewery, and Finn’s Food & Spirits.