On Top of the Hill: Losing and Living at Quarry Farm

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.

Sarah Nance is an Assistant Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy. Her work examines late 19th, 20th, and 21st-century literature and art through the lens of the medical humanities, and her current scholarly book project explores the intersections of illness, violence, and scale in contemporary literature. She is also at work on a collection of poems about the strange temporality of grief and the physical locations associated with loss. Her critical and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Literature and MedicineArizona QuarterlyThe Los Angeles Review of BooksASAP/J, BelletristParenthesesMuse/A, and elsewhere.

Professor Nance at Quarry Farm

There’s an old, rectangular magnet on the fridge door at Quarry Farm, in a small room off the kitchen that’s still lined on one wall with the original ice box and its small silver nameplate (“McCray Refrigerator & Cold Storage Co.”, 1882). Pictured there is a black-and-white image of the valley below the East Hill, and an excerpt from a letter from Samuel Clemens to William Dean Howells on June 14, 1877: “But we are housed here on top of the hill, now, where it is always cool, & still, & reposeful & bewitching.” 

To live at Quarry Farm—even if just for a few weeks—is to live enchanted, experiencing the same bewitching draw of the house that Clemens describes to Howell as I open the front door onto the porch and vast green lawn every morning, feeling the cool June air fill the foyer along with the smell of coffee. The first day I walk the house’s hallways and rooms, marveling at each desk and lamp and book and painting on the wall. By the second, the two-floor expanse feels homier: my toothbrush in the bathroom, my own books left on the library table for the next day’s reading, my evening visits on the porch with a bobbed-tail tuxedo cat who meows loudly for scratches behind the ears.

Polyphemus Moth on the Quarry Farm Porch

I came to Quarry Farm to work on a poetry manuscript about loss, orientated around the changing spaces and altered temporalities we find in grief. It feels strange, in a way, to be working on this project in a house that was—and remains—so much alive: the whir of a lawnmower or the slam of a screen door as my partner comes inside; the deer we see race across the lawn midday; the birds swooping from one large treetop to another, the little barks of a chipmunk standing on a stone step; the humanlike shriek of a red fox in the woods late at night. One morning there’s a giant moth resting on the porch, the largest insect I’ve ever seen: a Polyphemus moth, I learn, who beats his wings for hours to warm himself before taking off into the safety of a nearby tree. 

And yet loss is pressed into all the corners of Twain’s biography, and thus into the house as well: there is something haunting about the photographs of Twain seated on the steps to his study during his last visit to Quarry Farm, years after the family quit summering there, several years after his daughter Susy’s death. Twain, who produced so prolifically throughout his life, acknowledged the difficulty of facing loss through language, writing the following to William Bowen in 1873 after Bowen also lost a child: “[F]or words are empty at such times; they are but the shadow of consolation without the substance; they bring no relief, they can suggest no comfort.” How, then, does language attempt to describe the grief of loss? Twain seems to have attempted it, in the brief account of his daughter Jean’s death on Christmas Eve—titled “The Death of Jean”—which he wrote shortly before his own death, and he finds some hope in the words of others. As he wrote to his wife after Susy’s death, “Livy darling, it broke my heart – what you wrote to Sue about immortality. Let us believe in it! I will believe in it with you.” 

Professor Nance’s Workspace at Quarry Farm

As I read through accounts of Twain’s losses in the upstairs library, window open facing the barn, the house itself takes on a slightly different tenor, a crystallization of the center of Twain’s life with grief blurring the boundaries on either end but never quite intruding. There is space here, too, for the whirling mind of Twain: Twain the charmer, the inventor, the center spoke of so many networks. This is, after all, how my manuscript first intersected with Twain. I thought I was writing in part about people local to my current home state of Colorado: Margaret Brown, Denver socialite saved from the Titanic; Nikola Tesla, who set up a laboratory in Colorado Springs to harness electricity through elevation. And yet Twain appeared where I went, rumored to have saved the unsinkable Molly Brown from drowning as a baby when they both lived in Hannibal, preserved in a photo with his iconic dark mustache and long gray hair, holding a ball of light in Tesla’s laboratory in New York. And yet from our vantage point, to see the house, the study, the cemetery—the photos of his daughters on the walls, the name of his son Langdon carved into a watering trough in front of the house as a monument—is to always also see the preservation of a great grief, a specimen of sorts. My manuscript is interested in 18th and 19th century practices of mourning, particularly in their overlap with collecting more generally. In the same way a locket of hair or faded photograph remind us of loss, so too do specimens mounted on a pin: these are the objects that outlive us.  

I came to Quarry Farm looking for ghosts and found something different: a way to inhabit a space of joy that is also a space of sorrow. And yet, what joy: the bats swooping low through the sky on our last night there as the sun began to set, the mosquitos held off by the dampness of a late-afternoon rain earlier that day. At the bottom of the rolling field-of-a-yard, a meadow filled with lightning bugs, glistening like fairy lights in the trees, deer grazing along the edge of the road as the light dimmed. Looking back up the hill, the house, with all of its lights ablaze, looked like its own perfect specimen, that which has housed and harbored so many and will, with any luck, outlive all of us as well.

Steps leading up to the original site of the Study

Quarry Farm Redux (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

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.

Laura Skandera-Trombley

Laura Skandera Trombley, in addition to being the forthcoming president of Southwestern University, is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award from the Mark Tewain Circle of America for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

President Trombley has given a number of lectures for CMTS in the past, including:

President Trombley wrote this personal reflection at Quarry Farm in early June 2020 when the United States was experiencing much civil unrest and protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd.

This week has been one of those very rare times when I have had the opportunity to exclusively think and write about my scholarly subject of study, Mark Twain. When I have visited in the past, as a scholar-in-residence, I would meet with various groups interested in Twain and his contribution to American literature and give a public lecture. Not this time. New York is still in the grips of COVID-19, and so my lecture is a podcast and I am here alone. It is peaceful on Water Cure Hill in this old house filled with books written by and about Twain. When sitting on the veranda, where Clemens and his family would take in the fresh air and breezes making their way up the valley, are a stunning panorama of the town and the Chemung River snaking its way between rolling hills. 

I am here to work on a project, now approximately six years in the making. All of my book length projects always take an inordinate amount of time, in part because I write slowly with lots of multiple drafts and because as an administrator most of my writing is done on the weekends and very early in the morning. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Clemens’ relationships with women as well as the last decade or so of his life, up until now I haven’t really spent much time studying his earlier years. Due to a series of unexpected events, I’ve become consumed with trying to figure out what transpired that made possible Clemens’ transition from a newspaper journalist and stand up comedian into an author of books and beloved public intellectual. I expect to be working on this manuscript for the next few years.

My first visit to Quarry Farm was in the spring of 1989, approximately eighty-five years after Clemens’ last, and I believe that I may have been the first doctoral fellow to be invited. I arrived after a long flight from California carrying my thirty pound “portable” computer from Radio Shack with the goal of beginning my dissertation. It was at Quarry Farm, sitting in the same room where I am today, where I had a panicked vision of what I was about to attempt. I felt like an ant whose assignment was to remove every grain of sand from an enormous beach. The task felt insurmountable; however, for the next two months, I began removing the sand grain by grain and wrote page after page. Other than occasional trips to the market, driven by the caretaker since I had no car, I was alone in this rambling farmhouse with one rotary phone and quaint, tiny Victorian furniture all too small to fit my 5’10 frame. I listened to the sudden rainstorms that would sweep across the valley and sat outside at night staring at the stars while the mosquitos feasted on my bare legs. This was the first time in my graduate school life, thanks to the generosity of The Center, that I was afforded the opportunity to take a break from my part-time jobs as a house cleaner and cocktail waitress, and to write, listen to the quiet, and think deeply.

The Kitchen at Quarry Farm

There was one tiny black and white television on the kitchen counter and if I arranged the rabbit ears just right, I could watch a blurry CNN broadcast. This was the spring of discontent, of revolution, of Tiananmen Square. I watched the student leaders breathlessly tell reporters that they were there to demand democracy, better education, more jobs, and political empowerment. I watched for hours sitting on that hard-wooden chair. I saw the bravery of the lone protester who would not allow the tank to pass, and I wept when the protestors were massacred.

This week, thirty-one years later, I am watching CNN again, this time on my laptop computer, while I sit on the veranda in the evening light swatting bugs. I watch while a video is endlessly replayed of a policeman slowly squeezing the life out of George Floyd while three other policemen stand back and stare. In city after city there are protests and violence and fires. Black lives matter. I listen to anguished and angry Americans demanding an end to systematized racism. I think about my students I taught this spring, first in person and then online, young people of color who have worked so hard to be college, who want to earn their degree, to have a career, to take care of their families, to be safe. I am too angry to weep.

I stay awake at night listening to the creaks and shudders of the house as the spring winds blow, thinking about the juxtaposition of the privilege of reflection and quiet, lifeblood to a scholar, and the chaos of the world beyond. Samuel Clemens relished the calm of Quarry Farm, but he didn’t live there. He grew up in a very different place as the son of slaveholding parents in Missouri. He was raised, as he put it, to have “no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” Let me be clear, Clemens was no secular saint, yet he called out America’s racism and mourned the tragedy of the failure of Reconstruction in his writing. In addition to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he published “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” about an enslaved woman’s loss of her family, and The Tragedy of Pudd’head Wilson, again about the loss of family due to slavery. In 1901, nine years before his death, he wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom” in reaction to a lynching in Missouri.

Perhaps the pundits are right, and nothing will ever be the same again. I hope so. I am desperately tired of the past and the denials and the rationalizations. America has been harboring the vicious virus of racism since our founding. Our country is crying out for change now and we all must listen, acknowledge, empathize, and respect the voices that have been trying to tell us the truth for centuries. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Enough of the rhyming. The poem I hear is Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”

The Crane House Speaks (A Quarry Farm 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.

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novel Flood, winner of the Literary Fiction Category for the 2017 Best Book Award. Her writing has appeared in the AtlanticWashington PostHuffington PostNarrativePloughsharesPoet Lore, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of Grace in Darkness: D.C. Women Writers. She’s an Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Young gave a lecture for CMTS’ 2018 Fall “Trouble Begins” lecture series. Her talk, “Writing from Roots in ‘America’s Hometown’: FLOOD, a Novel”, can be found here.

The main house at Quarry Farm speaks. It sighs in the morning when I sit with my journal and tea overlooking Elmira in the valley below. When I switch from page to screen, the radiators hiss and pop. Their clatter and the calling geese are the only sounds in my silence. The squeaky kitchen door greets me from my afternoon woods walk. I leave my boots at the door and settle into the study for reading and one warmer whistles a welcome. This is my second stay at Quarry Farm and I’ve learned the way of the house by its hum. It’s helped me find my own writing rhythm too. It’s November and I’m tucked away on East Hill for a two-week fellowship.

My writing process has always been to binge. In Washington, DC my days are filled with teaching, attending department meetings, writing letters of recommendation, serving on committees: the labor of university that fuels and delays my creative work, but none of that reaches me at Quarry Farm. As a fellow, my job is to write or as I call it, to make. On the first day I manage only three pages but they are a pivotal scene in my novel-in-progress. When I’m stuck, I read from the books I’ve brought or wander through the house for a volume I didn’t know I needed. Since my first stay at Quarry Farm, the internet speed and capacity has vastly improved so I keep my laptop offline to counter the ambitious improvements from the Center for Mark Twain Studies. If I’m researching detail, the study is stocked with resources, including a capable computer with a lightning connection to the outside world I’m keeping out.

Much of my work is rooted in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, which I share with Samuel Clemens. In my debut novel, Flood, set during and after the 500-year flood of 1993, I reimagine Becky Thatcher through a female friendship more akin to Tom and Huck’s famous mischief. Flood is a story of identity and how we construct narratives, especially those based on false assumptions. I wanted to avoid the familiar “Can you go home again?” in favor of the more ambivalent “What happens if you have to?” Like the Mississippi River that once ran backwards, Laura Brooks, Flood’s protagonist, flows in a dangerous direction through her past as she seeks to recalibrate her future. Like Mark Twain’s work and social criticism, I examine race, class, and ideologies of rural communities. I’ve come to Quarry Farm to work on Flood’s sequel and see how a modern Becky emerges on the page. I can’t help but find the view of Elmira in the valley below and the Chemung River matching the riverbanks and bluffs I was born and raised admiring in Hannibal. Sam and I are in on a secret.

By my third day, I have a plot map for a short story and a newly drafted sample chapter which I will take apart and rewrite four more times in the coming week. The ability to stay in work and to hold the pieces in my head as I move from study to kitchen to fields allows ideas and words to percolate until the steam from the boil must meet my page. The time, space, and place at Quarry Farm is ideal for the deep work necessary for scholars and creatives alike.

When the house can hold me no longer and I’m out of groceries, I drive to Elmira for provisions, art, and research. I explore “Mark Twain’s Elmira” at the Chemung County Historical Society and spend hours learning about Women’s Suffrage and the NAACP’s presence in the community. The generous docent at the Arnot Art Museum teaches me about the ties between the Arnot and Langdon family and she is patient with my many questions. I bring my journal so I can scribble on a bench in the gallery in the beauty of this collection. 

On the last day of my two-week residency, I send the sample chapters to my agent and the revised manuscript proposal to my editor—it’s the amount I’ve been trying to juggle in my academic days for an entire year—and it’s done. I’ve begun three new projects and they must now marinate until I can clear my calendar again for the gift of time.

Susan Crane understood that a writer needs solitude and support. She had dinner ready and a community to bolster Sam’s spirits when he returned from a day writing up the hill in his studio. As an artist informed by scholarship, Quarry Farm inspires me and I listen. The rabbit holes of research I fall into become a phrase for a future poem, a line of dialogue I hear imagining a hallway conversation between Sam and Livy, or a scene that might make its way into my next novel. I like to think that the Langdon-Crane crew might be pleased that a fellow girl from Hannibal made her way up to East Hill to write in Mark Twain’s footsteps.

Melissa Scholes Young is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of the award-winning Flood (2017).

“Germ: A Growing Point. A Bud” (A Quarry Farm 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.

Don James McLaughlin is an assistant professor of English at The University of Tulsa specializing in 19th-century and early American literature. He earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania in July 2017. He completed his dissertation “Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature” under the direction of Heather Love, Max Cavitch, Nancy Bentley, and Chi-ming Yang. The dissertation (now first book project) provides an intellectual history of phobia in American print culture as a medical diagnosis, political metaphor, and aesthetic sensation in the 18th and 19th centuries. In January 2016, an essay from the project was published in The New Republic, titled “The Anti-Slavery Roots of Today’s -Phobia Obsession.” Two additional essays from the project are currently forthcoming in Literature and Medicine and J19: The Journal of 19th-Century Americanists. In 2018, Penn English awarded Don James the Diane Hunter Prize for Best Dissertation submitted during the 2017/18 academic year. In the summer of 2018, Don James was awarded the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society to support completion of his first book. His research has also been supported by a Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellowship from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Penn Humanities Forum.  

Professor McLaughlin gave a paper for the the 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium “Mark Twain and Nature.” His talk, “Microphobias: Medicine after Miasma in Twain’s 3,000 Years among the Microbes” can be found here.

Professor McLaughlin at Quarry Farm

The Quarry Farm Fellowships, offered annually by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, represent one of the best-kept secrets when it comes to research funding for scholars of nineteenth-century American literature. The luxury, the library, the furniture, the secluded enclaves: all make an indelible impression. It is a rare opportunity to get to live and write, without distraction, in a house of serious significance to one’s specialty. It’s hard not to be charmed by the preserved atmosphere linking Twain’s experience to your own: have coffee on the porch where Twain read work aloud to his family to gauge their reception; watch foxes, fawns, and the beloved Manx “Notaila” scurry across a back lawn overlooking the Appalachian Mountains at sunset; and hike in the woods to the former location of the study (since relocated to the Elmira College campus) where Twain drafted some of his best-known works. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of the paranormal, the ghost of his sister-in-law’s favorite cat Sour Mash will make itself known. If what you need is to unplug, find privacy, and get some writing done with a stellar library at your disposal, you can’t do better than Quarry Farm. The folks who contribute to running and organizing the fellowships, Joseph Lemak, Matt Seybold, and Steve Webb, are also gracious, friendly, and responsive hosts.

My stay at Quarry Farm was memorable for a few reasons. I combined my residence with that of my colleague, Dr. Sunny Yang, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Houston. For scholars who would entertain the idea of combining a fellowship with a reunion, I can confirm that, as long as one maintains a solid work ethic during the day, the Quarry Farm fellowship can accommodate a rewarding shared experience.

Selection of the John S. Tuckey Collection in the Mark Twain Archive on the Elmira College Campus

For my fellowship, I wrote on Twain’s unfinished manuscript “3,000 Years among the Microbes” and presented the work as part of the Park Church lecture series, which was well-attended and met with an enthusiastic Q&A. I took advantage of the collection in the Mark Twain Reading Room at Elmira College, where I explored marginalia in copies he owned of Leaves of Grass and The House of Mirth. I also went through extensive notes on “3,000 Years” donated by John S. Tuckey. Two things deserve to be noted about the collection. Archivist Nathaniel Ball does an excellent job of managing the papers and creates a warm, inviting environment. Furthermore, for folks on the East Coast or the Midwest, if a trip to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley isn’t feasible, it is worth exploring the catalog at Elmira College to see if reproductions of any of those materials may be accessed in collections contributed by Twain scholars. As a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, this year, I found Elmira College to be an ideal, alternative resource.

The fellowship at Quarry Farm was a gift that has kept on giving. I participated in the symposium at Quarry Farm this fall, “Mark Twain and Nature,” where I delivered a paper titled “Microphobias: Microscopy and Medicine after Miasma in ‘3,000 Years among the Microbes.’” At the symposium, I made new friends and had the pleasure of learning from excellent, cutting-edge scholarship. As the symposium segued into after-hours storytelling in the kitchen at Quarry Farm, it dawned on me that the best part of my experience with the Center for Mark Twain Studies was being reminded throughout that vibrant spaces of intellectual camaraderie are thriving in the year 2019. It has been a privilege to become a participant in this community, and it has changed my scholarship for the better.

Contemplating Nineteenth-Century Print Culture (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.

Nathaniel Cadle is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University.  He is the author of The Mediating Nation:  Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State, winner of the 2015 SAMLA Studies Book Award, as well as essays on subjects ranging from the anti-imperial politics of W.E.B. Du Bois to the teaching of American literary realism.  In addition to a 2019 Quarry Farm Fellowship, his current research project is supported by a 2019-20 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Professor Cadle gave a talk in 2019 for the Chemung County Historical Society’s “Mark Twain Series.” His talk, “Mark Twain’s Historical Fiction; or, Why Would A Realist Write So Many Romances,” can be found here.

Dr. Nathaniel Cadle,
Associate Professor of English at
Florida International University

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.

Jervis Langdon’s Set of The English Cyclopædia (1866) in the Quarry Farm Library

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 Prince of India (1896) in the Quarry Farm Library

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.

Writing, Roosting, Roistering: Two Weeks at Quarry Farm (A Quarry Farm 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.

Todd Nathan Thompson is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Assistant Chair of the English Department. He is also Treasurer-Secretary of the American Humor Studies Association. Todd is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in Scholarly EditingEarly American LiteratureESQNineteenth-Century ProseJournal of American CultureTeaching American Literature, and elsewhere. He currently is at work on a book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880.

Professor Thompson has given two lectures for CMTS, including:

I had been fortunate enough to stay at Quarry Farm before, but only for two days when I was in town to give a “Trouble Begins” lecture in May 2018. So I was delighted to be granted a two-week Quarry Farm Fellowship from late July to early August 2019; knowing the place just a little bit, I looked forward to it all spring and summer. Because I work in a graduate program that offers a summers-only option, I have taught a five-week-long graduate course each of the last ten summers, which means that I tend to get very little of the uninterrupted summer research time that academics find so precious. So I set up my Quarry Farm Fellowship as a two-week writing workshop for myself in which I could finally think about and write for my book project—tentatively titled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880—all day long instead of the usual 15-minute snippets of stolen time here and there. During my time at Quarry Farm, set in the woods atop the hill overlooking Elmira, I was finally able to see the forest from the trees in my book project. Up until now I have been writing small sections to present as conference papers (or “Trouble Begins” lectures). During my residency I was able to take stock of what I had already done and make plans for tying it all together.

Professor Thompson’s work space on the Quarry Farm Porch

I did have a job to do while I was in Elmira: a “Trouble Begins” lecture about Twain’s 1873 letters to the New York Tribune about Hawai’i. If I’m honest, I spent more time working on the lecture than on the book as a whole. It’s an honor to be asked, and I didn’t want to disappoint the healthy crowd that came to Park Church in Elmira, where I had the privilege to lecture on the spot where Thomas K. Beecher delivered his sermons from 1854 to 1900. Afterwards, Jenny Monroe gave us a tour of the building, including the billiards parlor that Sam Clemens attended more faithfully than he did chapel services.

Aside from preparing the lecture, my two weeks at Quarry Farm felt like two separate, but equally productive and meaningful, one-week stays: the first alone and the second with my wife Sara Stewart, who joined me for the second week to work on her own book project. During that first week alone on the farm—though I did make pilgrimages to see friends in Corning and Dansville and went to see Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb play jazz bass at a local watering hole—I enjoyed the quiet and the plugging away at my project, rediscovering the joy in research and writing, and doing it all on my own schedule and at my own rhythm.

Professor Thompson’s wife, Sara

The second week brought new delights, sharing with Sara the loveliness of Quarry Farm and the awe of writing where Clemens wrote, looking at photos of him in posed the same rooms we were in, superimposing our times and lives onto his own as a kind of palimpsest. I had expected that kind of wonder. What I didn’t count on was the joy of spending a week together as writers. Sara is a film critic, so she’s always writing. But even when we get to work together at home, we’re usually just sprinting towards her deadline that day or my advisee’s dissertation defense or a stack of papers to grade. At Quarry Farm, on the other hand, Sara worked not on a story for a newspaper or magazine but her own book project while, only a few feet away, I was reading not a student’s dissertation proposal or next week’s readings for class but Twain scholarship from the upstairs library. We enjoyed being writers together, typing away on separate tables on the porch, or one on the porch and one in the library, checking in with each other, talking things through, reading each other’s work. A year ago Sara was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent colon resection surgery, followed closely by a tough six months of chemotherapy. We spent loads of time together, of course, at home during her treatments and afterwards, during the slow way back. But writing together—she on a fierce and funny book about her experiences during treatment that would do Twain and Fanny Fern (our other comic talis-woman) proud—on the Quarry Farm porch felt like the co-authoring of a new, brighter chapter.

Sometimes we would knock off and go take a hike at a nearby gorge, declare a happy hour on the porch and fix gin and tonics, or fumble our way through folk songs on our ukuleles in the parlor. When we did that I imagined all the faces in the family photographs on the walls frowning imperceptibly. We made a pilgrimage to Twain’s study at Elmira College and his (and Susan Crane’s) gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery. Sara wandered through the house and barn, studying up on Crane and Twain lore. One night I read “Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn” out loud to Sara as we lay in bed; I like to think the Quarry Farm ghosts approved the selection, and I know that “Cat,” Quarry Farm’s gregarious resident feline, would countenance it, in appropriately salty language.

Professor Thompson and “Cat”

Like Jim Baker, Sara and I studied the vocabularies of the various creatures at Quarry Farm. “Cat” greeted us each morning as we emerged to the porch with my morning coffee, and often plopped down on a chair next to us as we wrote, read, and organized. A red fox commuted back and forth between the woods and a neighboring farm, gorgeous and up to no good. One night, as I sat on the porch listening to a light rain, the fox scampered onto the porch, a couple feet away from me. We were very surprised to see each other, and it scampered off again just as quickly. I decided that “Cat” carries the spirit of Mark Twain and the fox the spirit of Sam Clemens. Near dusk, young deer frolicked in the hollow below, and then exited stage right when it was time for the bats to begin their aerial routine. After dark, we heard various unfamiliar but certainly ungrammatical vocabularies in the nearby woods as the stars emerged for their evening constitutional. On our last night at Quarry Farm, we hauled camp chairs down the hill and took in the Perseid Meteor Shower. I heartily congratulate Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb on his curation of this daily show. I’d see it again.

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.

Bruce Michelson is the author of Mark Twain on the Loose and Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution, as well as many articles and book chapters about Mark Twain and other writers.  He is Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of Illinois, and a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and The American Humor Studies Association.  A Contributing Editor at Studies in American Humor, he is also a Fulbright Ambassador, having received two fellowships from the Fulbright Program.  His most recent work includes a translation of George Clemenceau’s writing on Claude Monet and the fine arts and a one-act comedy about Sam Clemens, his daughter Susy, and a Mysterious Stranger in France.

Professor Michelson has given a number of lectures at CMTS events, including:

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.

Linda A. Morris is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis.  She has written extensively about women’s humor in the 19th and 20th century America, including a book-length study on the writer Miriam Whitcher (“The Widow Bedott”), and essays on Mary Lasswell and Roz Chast.  Her work on Mark Twain includes her book Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing and Transgressions, and essays on Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and “Gender Bending as Child’s Play, Aunt Susy Phelps in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and “Hellfire Hotchkiss.”  She was the 2017 recipient of “The Olivia Langdon Clemens Award” by the Mark Twain Circle of America, and the 2018 recipient of “The Charlie Award” by the American Humor Studies Association.

Professor Morris gave a lecture for the 2019 Spring “Trouble Begins” lecture series. Her talk, “Writing About Sexuality: Mark Twain’s Private Work Made Public,” can be found 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 president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, Professor of English and Film Studies at Roosevelt University, and editor of Studies in American Humor.  He is the author of Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority and co-editor with Harry Wonham of Mark Twain and Money: Language, Capital, and Culture.

Professor Howe has given a number of lectures at CMTS events, including:

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.