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.

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.

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.

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.