EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.
Ed Shannon is Professor of Literature and former Literature Convener at Ramapo College of NJ; he teaches courses in Humanities, American Studies, and American literature, including Author Studies: Mark Twain. His “’Our clothes are a lie’: Disguise and Christian Typology in Pudd’nhead Wilson” appeared in the 2009 Mark Twain Annual. He also writes and teaches about comics and graphic novels. He’s written about cartoonists Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Charles Schulz, George Herriman, and Winsor McCay. He most frequently writes about Woody Guthrie. His most recent work on Guthrie includes “Illegal, Not Wanted, Unnamed: Woody Guthrie’s Exploration of Media, Immigration, and Identity in ‘Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)’” (forthcoming, Theory in Action) and “‘Good Grief, Comrade Brown! Woody Guthrie, Charles Schulz and the Little Cartoon Book that was a Big Lie’” (Studies in Comics, 2019). He was named a 2005 Woody Guthrie Fellow by the Woody Guthrie Foundation.
In August 2020, eight months into a year of uncertainty, I pulled into the yard at Quarry Farm to begin work on a project about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Realizing you’ve committed to a writing project in the space where Mark Twain did his writing, well, a little uncertainty is healthy. Also, you don’t want to tear up Mark Twain’s lawn.
And if Twain’s boots were not big enough to intimidate, once you find yourself in the library at Quarry Farm, you are not only surrounded by a wealth of scholarship on Twain’s life and works, but also the books formerly owned by the very scholars who produced those books. Picking up a copy of a book only to learn it’s from the late Michael Kiskis’ personal library is humbling enough. But then to read its inscription from the author to Kiskis and Kiskis’ notes…. you find there are always more boots to fill. A secret history of Twain scholarship hides in the marginalia of those books.
But Quarry Farm is, as Twain said, “reposeful & bewitching.” Soon you find that the place offers unique qualities, allowing you to leave yourself behind and spend the days reading and writing. In a way, the sheer quantity of literature, criticism, and biography there is as liberating as it is daunting. With so many voices and so many observations already in the world, there’s surely room for one more.
I came to writing about Twain circuitously. While I have published on Pudd’nhead Wilson (Mark Twain Annual 2009), most of my previous scholarly work has focused on popular writers (like Woody Guthrie and Robert Crumb) who worked similar imaginative veins to Twain. Social satirists looking for justice, their own lives and stories carried contradictions and subterfuges Twain would have recognized. And like Twain, they produced work eminently quotable, complex, and not without controversy.
My current project on Huck Finn grew from my teaching the novel for the past decade or so. He is a kid my students all recognize, whether they identify with him or have met someone like him. One of the questions we end up asking is why fourteen-year-old Huck, unlike his friend Tom, has no “best girl” of his own. Looking into this seemingly simple question opened up issues of class, race, gender, and details of the life Twain led and the world in which he lived it. But that kind of complexity is what makes Twain’s works so rewarding and surprising, though they masquerade as tales of adventure for young readers.
One effect of the lack of a love interest for Huck, of course, is Tom Sawyer’s evasion. Had Huck been set on a path toward romance, the conclusion would need to mirror Tom’s story: acceptance into society and recommendations to law school or the United States Military Academy. There are further effects, including subtle shifts in Huck’s relationships with all of the young girls he meets, especially the Wilks sisters. And Twain was very deliberate about distancing Huck from relationships with girls, as we see not just in the novel and its sequels but in his revisions to the Huck Finn manuscript. Access to the resources at Quarry Farm was incredibly helpful here. Books and resources that would take weeks to arrive through interlibrary loan were lined up along the wall behind my desk.
Why does a career, a family, a future for Huck seem so odd? These are some of the questions I am writing about. As Nancy Isenberg writes in White Trash, nineteenth century attitudes toward poor whites reduced them to“a ‘dangerous class’”1 prone to spawning a generations of “bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals.” 2 Thinking about the class and racial identities bound up in a “white trash” boy like Huck Finn while staying in the beautiful Gilded Age home where he was “born” can be jarring. Sam Clemens once was a poor kid like Huck, but at Quarry Farm he was much more an adult Tom, married to “the judge’s” daughter, surrounded by his own daughters, and thinking about their futures.
If the Quarry Farm library is filled with wisdom, the Farm itself offers a solution in which that knowledge can dissolve, catalyze and crystalize. It is little wonder that this is the space that gave the world Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and the Connecticut Yankee. Evenings on the porch marveling at the quality of the view, the breeze, and the sense of love, pain, and wisdom that saturates the house bring a special kind of peace. Safely away from pandemics and politics, like Huck, “I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds.” Overlooking the Chemung River that inspired the house’s onetime occupant, “You feel mighty free and easy.” It didn’t hurt that I was visited more than once by the wonderful menagerie of cats and dogs provided by caretaker Steve Webb. A Quarry Farm Fellowship is a fine thing, but “without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat . . . how can it prove title?”
If I arrived at Quarry Farm uncertain, the space allowed for a special kind of peace and offered a restorative elixir. After two weeks, stepping back into pandemics, virtual teaching, masks, and feuds was less overwhelming to be sure. I suspect though, as the contagious year presses on, memories of Quarry Farm and Twain’s books will remain essential workers in my imagination.
1. Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Penguin Books, 2017. pp 180.
2. Isenberg, pp 180.