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.

Teachers Convene At Quarry Farm and Elmira College to Discuss Mark Twain and Generation Z

Thanks to Jan Kather of Elmira College for providing the video and photography from the Summer Teachers Institute.

A group of forty-six K-12 teachers, librarians, and other educators gathered in Elmira this week for the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute to discuss the challenges and opportunities created by using Mark Twain’s life and work with students from “Generation Z.” The Institute was led by Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recent President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and author of numerous books on literature and literacy education.

“We had the opportunity to grapple with ways to integrate Twain in our already full curriculums. Dr. Chadwick was a delight to work with! Clearly a gifted educator herself, she was able to enrich us all with her experience and expertise in a truly accessible way.”

Michelle Halperin, Hendy Elementary (4th Grade)

Dr. Chadwick began the Institute by defining what she means by “Generation Z,” a category loosely describing those born after 9/11 and encompassing all the students currently working their way through the K-12 system. Over the past several years, Dr. Chadwick has been conducting fieldwork for NCTE, NBC Learn, and Pearson Publishing by visiting classrooms across the country and conducting interviews with students and teachers. She shared selections from a couple of those interviews and discussed what she was learning about this generation and their educational environments. She described a young student who proclaimed there was no longer any “American Dream,” and suggested that this was indicative of a broader dissatisfaction among Gen Z students with the idea of education as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Dr. Chadwick assured the audience of teachers that their students will do the work if they are persuaded that the texts and tasks being assigned are directly and immediately relevant to their lives and communities. Furthermore, she insisted, Twain’s enormous body of public and private writings is well-suited to addressing many of Gen Z’s most common concerns, including financial precarity, community service, blended families, and technological change.

A selection of interviews with teachers and students about sensitive texts, produced by Jocelyn Chadwick & John Grassie.

During the second session, Matt Seybold, the resident scholar from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, used the example of social media as something which Gen Z students and their teachers were likely to have strong opinions about. Using demographic tables from the U.S. Census, Dr. Seybold summarized the media environment of Twain’s life, as new printing technology made periodicals less expensive, more accessible, and more diversified. He asked participants to imagine the butterfly effects of changing, over the course of a few decades, from a nation with a few hundred periodicals concentrated on the eastern seaboard to one which published 2.5 billion issues in a single year. Participants speculated that people would be more informed and more inclined to imagine the world beyond their daily experiences, but would also be unprepared to be discerning about what they were reading and might depend primarily upon publications that reinforced their existing beliefs. Dr. Seybold also pointed out that celebrities like Mark Twain (or Taylor Swift) are one manifestation of Americans’ desire for national identity amidst this cultural cacophony.

“The past two days were especially valuable to me as a new teacher preparing for my first year because I was able to glean ideas from local educators and scholars.”

Rebecca Heagy, Campbell-Savona (8th Grade English Language Arts)

During the first breakout session, small groups of teachers discussed how the generic Generation Z student who Dr. Chadwick described resembled students in their classes and how some of the Twain texts they had read could be used to generate or supplement discussion of the topics which resonated with such students. Upon reconvening, one group of primarily elementary instructors reported that unconventional and fractured family structures were common in their districts and that students were likely to empathize with characters and narrators who felt insecure and who struggled to adjust to changing environments. A second group of elementary instructors were drawn to the theme of community-building and also community exclusivity, as in Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” They suggested that these texts could be leveraged to increase student “buy-in” for cross-curricular and blended classrooms. They wanted to look particularly for ways Twain could be paired with historical contexts and visual arts projects. They also expressed a desire for texts which dealt with diversity and human rights, but did so without vulgarity or other potentially incendiary content.

A group of middle school teachers reiterated the desire for pairing and blending fiction with non-fiction, literature with history, literacy with other subject matter instruction. They wanted to know more about how Twain used games to educate his own children. With reference to “disenfranchised students,” they were looking for how Twain represented struggles for self-definition and self-esteem. A group of secondary teachers reiterated the importance of framing texts around the inevitable questions of adolescence and young-adulthood: “What I am doing and why am I doing it?”, “Where am I going and how do I get there?,” and “Who am I?” They also acknowledged the sticky wicket which they need to navigate: they want to engage with topics that are important to their students but they also want to teach texts which create a safe distance between the classroom and the frightful world. They want relevance to Gen Z, but without making students feel “at risk.”

“The teacher conference was an intellectual experience I will not forget for some time…Teachers of all subjects should seek out this professional development opportunity, to experience Elmira, Mark Twain, and to share in the sincere interest of helping teachers be the best for their students.”

Nathan Morrill, Brady High School in Brady, Texas (English)

After lunch, Dr. Seybold gave a brief history of Mark Twain’s connection to Elmira with particular attention to the domestic instability of Samuel Clemens’s youth and the conflict between his habitual itineracy and his desire to provide his wife and daughters with a stable home. Dr. Chadwick proceeded to address some of the cross-curricular opportunities which could be explored using primary sources, including Bills of Sale from slave auctions, selections from African-American Newspapers, artwork by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, and speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first day closed with an open-ended discussion, as Dr. Chadwick called upon individual teachers to articulate what had surprised them about either Generation Z or Mark Twain during the first day of the Institute. Several teachers expressed surprise at the breadth and diversity of Twain’s writing and particularly at the potential to move away from teaching Twain exclusively as a commentator on race in America. Others admitted to being unaware of how influential Twain became in his own lifetime, amassing enough cultural power to influence political campaigns, amplify the voices of younger artists and activists, and bring publicity to colonial atrocities.

On Thursday morning, Institute participants congregated on the porch at Quarry Farm. After breakfast, Dr. Chadwick led a session on one of her favorite subjects: using Twain’s fiction as a model for teaching the formal elements of writing, particularly as they are outline in the education standards of New York State. For more than an hour, the group discussed how a single famous passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be used to teach genre, audience, allusion, symbolism, anaphora, verisimilitude, and many other ELA terms and concepts. During the breakout session, participants analyzed other passages of their choosing from the reader and shared their ideas for using these passages to teach close-reading and writing. Selections discussed came from Twain’s poems, speeches, sketches, and letters, as well as his novels. Several groups recommended pairing with texts by other authors, from Harper Lee and Toni Morrison to Pope Urban II and The Beatles.

The second session of the day began with Dr. Chadwick reading Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It” on the very spot which the story is set. After her reading, Dr. Chadwick led a wide-ranging discussion of the story.

Dr. Chadwick reads Twain’s “A True Story” on the Porch at Quarry Farm, where the story is set

During lunch, teachers toured the grounds at Quarry Farm and mingled with one another, as well as with a few fourth-graders from Michelle Halperin’s class at Hendy Elementary in Elmira. During the Spring term, Dr. Chadwick visited Mrs. Halperin’s class both via video-conferencing and in person to discuss what they had been doing with Twain, including reading “A True Story” and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After lunch, the students joined the teachers on the porch and answered questions about their experiences reading and listening to Twain’s works. These precocious young Elmirans felt that Tom Sawyer, in particular, compelled them and their classmates to be imaginative, even those who weren’t naturally inclined to be. They were able to remember specific details from the story and even half-remember direct quotations. Even under pressure they refused to admit that any of their classmates had not been enthusiastically engaged by the material. If nothing else, this proves they had learned to consider their audience.

The final session of the Institute focused on memory and memorization. Dr. Seybold began by reading a short selection from a work-in-progress about how Twain used specific works of music to memorialize his wife and daughters after they died. He listened to these specific works of music almost daily, using them to stimulate both his memory and his imagination. In other places, like the speech “Memory & Morals,” Twain discusses the importance of converting the vagaries of memory into productive lessons. Dr. Seybold also summarized some of the games and pneumonic devices Twain developed for the purposes of memorizing historical facts and his own lectures. This prefaced a discussion of what we require students to remember and why. What are the justifications for memorization and how can memorization be better integrated with imaginative and creative work?

“Regardless of your role in educating students of any age, like Mark Twain’s writings this seminar was inspirational, motivational, and rewarding.”

Sonia Barchet, Elmira City Schools (EDA Library Media Specialist)

Dr. Chadwick and the Center for Mark Twain Studies left the Institute with promises of updated resources and continued support. In addition to the provided reader, Institute participants have access to a digital archive of primary sources, opportunities for continued engagement with Dr. Chadwick and other Twain scholars, including eligibility for a six-week graduate course at Elmira College during Fall semester.

2019 Summer Teachers Institute Resources

The following is primarily a repository of resources related to the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies on Wednesday, July 16 and Thursday, July 17. While a few of these resources are password-protected for intellectual property reasons, many of them are open access and may be of interest to teachers, students, and scholars, even if they are not attending the STI this year. This page will continue to be updated throughout the duration of the Institute, after which it will stay active.


Mark Twain in Elmira


Teaching With Sensitive Texts


Mark Twain & Sensational Journalism


Twain on Memory & Memorization


Testimonials to Twain’s Influence


Twain on Business & Economics

Archives of Mark Twain Circular Now Online

The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).

Back issues of the long-running newsletter are now available in digital form.

Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.

Check it out!