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.
If you’ve read the other testimonials posted by Quarry Farm Fellows in the past few months, you’ve probably noticed a recurring theme: that the quietude of the place and the uninterrupted time to enjoy it are incredibly conducive to writing and thinking. It’s an appropriate point to make, of course, because the comparative solitude and the opportunity for the unstructured play of his imagination are what led Twain back summer after summer. Freed from his everyday routines at Hartford, Twain could write uninterruptedly at Quarry Farm. According to the author himself, he sometimes managed to compose as many as 4,000 words a day in his octagonal study—a truly prodigious output!
When I arrived in Elmira at the beginning of September, my expectations for my own writing were considerably more modest. As a scholar who relies heavily on research, my writing process is very back-and-forth; even when I’m experiencing what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” I find myself spending as much time reading or referring to what I have previously notated as typing new words. The satisfying thing about research—at least for a scholar in a Humanities discipline—is that reading constitutes real work, too, especially if that reading uncovers new information or helps tie disparate ideas together. Fortunately, the peace and quiet of Quarry Farm are just as conducive to deep, contemplative reading as to uninterrupted writing. After spending my mornings typing in the research library upstairs, I invariably ate lunch out on the porch, where I stayed throughout the afternoons to read and take notes. Then, after dinner and fading daylight chased me back indoors, I was often able to finish an entire book each evening, usually in the sleeping porch just above.
Coincidentally, the research and writing I undertook at Quarry Farm caused me to think a great deal about the reading habits of Twain and his contemporaries. Nineteenth-century Americans were as completely immersed in print culture (the world of books, magazines, and newspapers) as we are in digital technologies of communication (such as the device you’re using to read this blog post right now). Despite Twain’s frequent protestations that he was not particularly bookish, Alan Gribben and other scholars have demonstrated just how widely and deeply read he was. Somehow, in between those days of churning out 4,000 words of his own, Twain found time and energy to read in Elmira. In an interview conducted by Rudyard Kipling at Quarry Farm in August 1890, Twain “pointed to an encyclopædia on the shelves—‘I was reading an article about “Mathematics.” Perfectly pure mathematics.’” Jervis Langdon’s set of The English Cyclopædia (1866) still sits on a shelf at Quarry Farm. (And yes, I skimmed the article on Mathematics.) During my stay, I still had good reception on my cell phone and reliable access to WiFi, and thus I occasionally had to respond to urgent text messages and emails. Nevertheless, spending two weeks away from my own daily routines and surrounded by books that Twain had access to nearly 150 years ago reminded me what pleasure nineteenth-century readers took in concentrating intently on the written word—and how little time most of us make for that kind of concentration today.
It’s easy to romanticize the slower pace of nineteenth-century life, and when we do, we risk forgetting that Twain and his contemporaries were often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that print culture threw at them and by the emerging technologies that were making that print culture possible. These technologies fascinated Twain, as his ill-fated involvement with James W. Paige and Paige’s typesetting machine illustrates. Indeed, the financial pressures Twain faced in the wake of that venture played a significant role in his decision to relocate to Europe, his regular summer retreats to Quarry Farm becoming a casualty of the fast pace and unpredictable currents of nineteenth-century life. Similarly, as an author who wished to remain relevant to his readers, Twain had to keep up with literary trends and changing tastes. Here, in the question of Twain’s own familiarity with and attitude toward the literature of his day, is where my musings about his reading habits at Quarry Farm intersected most meaningfully with my scholarship.
My current book project examines the relationship between the canonical authors of the 1890s and 1900s, such as Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and a largely forgotten group of popular authors who briefly revived interest in historical, Gothic, and other romantic forms of fiction. Critics generally label Twain and other major authors of the period “realists,” yet virtually all these realists tried to cash in on the success of the Romantic Revival by writing at least one historical, Gothic, or utopian novel—forms of fiction far removed from the mundane, plausible, character-driven works for which they are best known. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is obviously the most famous of Twain’s novels in this vein, but he wrote several others, including the extremely odd Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), which Twain published anonymously. One of my contentions is that these seeming oddities by individual authors make far more sense when we realize that, collectively, they constitute the realists’ response to the enormous popularity of the Romantic Revival. To be sure, one can read Joan of Arc as Twain’s tribute to his daughter Susy, who died the year the book was published, but Twain was also savvy about the literary marketplace. Would he have undertaken such a straight-faced, meticulously researched historical novel if it weren’t for the fact that other such novels, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1895), were reaching appreciative readers?
The greatest uncertainty I’ve had about my line of argument is the degree to which Twain and his fellow realists actually followed or even cared about the Romantic Revival. I knew that Twain loved the writings of Rudyard Kipling, who along with Robert Louis Stevenson was probably the most famous exponent of the Romantic Revival, but a chance find at Quarry Farm made the Romantic Revival’s material presence in Twain’s life compellingly real. For, lo and behold (to adopt the idiom of historical romance), what did I find on shelves near The English Cyclopædia but copies of Lew Wallace’s The Prince of India (1893) and S. Weir Mitchell’s Hugh Wynne (1896), two historical novels of the Romantic Revival. It turns out that both novels belonged to Charles and Ida Langdon and thus originally would have sat on shelves at the Langdon Mansion in downtown Elmira. Twain was by no means a stranger to the Langdon Mansion, and he almost certainly perused its library, too. More to the point, the fact that these novels circulated among Twain’s extended family, who cared enough about them to inscribe dates and notes in them, means that they formed a vital part of the print culture that surrounded Twain.