The Mad Monk & Not-So-Distant Mirror of Mark Twain (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

Though you might not get the message from a campus stroll on a nice day, colleges really are the offspring of monasteries and convents, and profs still have an element of Mad Monk. Something inside us wants, needs, to hole up now and then, to let go of the cadences of ordinary life, to hunker down solo and unrelentingly indulge some vexatious curiosity or creative urge. For humanities types, our lairs and refuges are often makeshift and temporary: bland office unsafe from hallway buzz, a library back-room table where you can spread out for a few hours; or in a coffee-house, a sullen corner as far as possible from the Norah Jones and the Bon Iver. Eventually, however, you’ll get chased out, or spotted by friends who come over and tug you back into the everyday. 

Bruce Michelson is Emeritus Professor at University of Illinois, author of Printer’s Devil (2006) and Mark Twain on The Loose (1995), and winner of the 2018 Charlie Award from the American Humor Studies Association and the 2013 Louis Budd Award from the Mark Twain Circle of America.

For Mark Twain people, what a Quarry Farm residence supplies is better than just about any other sequestered all-out saturation we know how to contrive. Because on this visit I was in the house for only four nights, I can’t report massive progress on current projects, beyond several salutary jolts to my thinking and the heady delight of having, right there, a nearly-exhaustive, wisely-curated collection of published books about Samuel Clemens, his legacy, and his times. In that environment, new twists in your meditations about such matters can be nurtured, and any resource you might have forgotten about or missed completely is right there and ready.

Beyond all that, there’s the welter of important impressions that many residents at Quarry Farm have written about.  These are more diffuse, of course, and harder to summarize without lapsing into sentiment – but wow, do they matter.  One project in the foreground for me is called “Mark Twain Past and Present,” meant to be a book-length inquiry into what “Mark Twain” has signified in American culture through the past hundred years, and also how his story and legacy are transforming now, and likely to molt farther, as we continue to infuse that story with our own blood, to see in it what we need to know, as we try to carry this array of texts and archives and legends and collective memories into a tumultuous future.   

There’s so much underway in our moment for which Mark Twain provides a not-so-distant mirror: the meaning of travel; writing and the illusion of intimacy; the transformation of “writer” into “artist”; the nature of celebrity in America and the erosion or obliteration of private life. Because these are chapters I am soldering together, you can understand readily why these quiet and solitary days at Quarry Farm, where so much happened, where Sam and his family negotiated so many of these enigmas, do so much to bring clarity and exhilaration.

The Quietest Place (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

I had the privilege and honor of serving as a fellow at Quarry Farm last month. As many of you know, there’s nothing else to compare to a stay at Quarry Farm. For most of my stay I was there alone; it’s the quietest place I’ve ever spent time, even in contrast to my relatively quiet house in Berkeley. At home there is always ambient noise in the background, distractions, and tasks needing attention. At Quarry Farm, the quiet is seductive, always inviting one to sit and think, to take a book off the shelf and read, to listen not only to the birds but to one’s own thoughts.

Linda Morris is Professor Emeritus at University of California, Davis and author of GENDER PLAY IN MARK TWAIN (2007) and WOMEN’S HUMOR IN THE AGE OF GENTILITY (1992).

I am working on a new, ambitious essay about Susy Clemens, about whom I have written in the past, but whose essence has always eluded me. There’s so much material to take in and digest, and so many unanswered questions. Surrounded by myth, by a degree of sentimentality because of her untimely death, and by the force of her father’s reminiscences about her, it’s hard sometimes to find Susy in the mix. And there are gaps. Whatever happened to the many letters written by her Bryn Mawr friend, Louise Brownell, whom Susy loved passionately? Louise kept all of Susy’s letters, which are in the archives at Hamilton College, and it clearly was not a one-sided correspondence or relationship, but Louise’s letters are gone. Where are Clara’s letters to Susy, written while the family was on the “Equator” journey and Susy and Jean stayed behind with Aunt Sue at Quarry Farm?  I had the time and the inspiration to contemplate such questions, and to seek answers. 

One full day and a half I did nothing but steep myself in Livy’s letters as presented in Barb Snedecor’s compelling dissertation. Livy’s letters gave me a whole new perspective on Susy; I had read a number of them before, but that was nothing compared with reading letter after letter, with no interruptions except dinner and nightfall. Nothing in my “normal” life as a retired professor offered such luxury, even living within walking distance as I do from the Mark Twain Papers. Because I was returning to the subject of Susy after several years away from it, I brought all my notes and copies of primary material with me in my suitcase, and I spent almost one full day sorting through all the material and re-reading deeply enough to re-kindle my interest in the complexity of Susy. But the riches of the library at Quarry Farm are such that there were ever more avenues to explore, and I did, every day.

I also was fortunate to be there when spring began to break out. The forsythia was in full bloom, but the major trees were just beginning to bud out with their little yellow-green leaves, which each day become more visible and more glorious. Walking up to the site of the study, then on up into the woods beyond drew me almost every day, but I had to remind myself to look up high into the trees to see the springtime unfold. And so I did.

Towards the end of my stay I was scheduled to offer a lecture in “The Trouble Begins” series. I’d done this before, many years ago, but I had forgotten how attentive the audience can be. They stayed focused the whole time, and at the end asked excellent and engaging questions. It’s a very special audience, mostly folks from the town, not academics, but people who seem to have a genuine, perhaps long-standing interest in the Langdons and Sam Clemens and family. It was especially pleasing to me because the lecture was held in the barn, whereas before I had spoken on the campus, which had its own charms. When I had occasion to read from the Autobiography in which Twain said he had written the piece in question one day up in the study when he should have been doing something else, I felt not only my own sense of marvel glancing up toward that familiar hill, but a small thrill in the audience. How were we so lucky to be here, right here, over 120 years later? If you’re ever asked to present a paper in the series, I urge you to do so, and by all means apply for a Quarry Farm fellowship for an opportunity to do serious study and thinking and writing about Mark Twain. The place is magical.  

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting with today’s narrative from Larry Howe, we will occasionally be featuring testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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