Twain Biographer, Ron Powers, Gives Commencement Address, Receives Honorary Doctorate From Elmira College

Mark Twain in Oxford Regalia

In 1907 Oxford University deigned to give Mark Twain an honorary degree. Twain had received such plaudits before, including from esteemed American institutions such as Yale University, but the 71-year-old product of Hannibal, Missouri, who had no formal education past grammar school, was particularly flattered by the attentions of the oldest collegiate institution in the Anglophone world. As Ron Powers puts it, “[Twain] cherished the red Oxford gown he was given, and wore it whenever he felt like it, which was often.”

I like to think that on a patio, somewhere in Vermont, Dr. Powers is enjoying this early summer evening decked out in his own cherished gown, this one two shades of purple with some gold trim. Perhaps he has worn it to the grocery, or the nursery, or the bank this past week.

A hair older than Twain was when he matriculated from Oxford, Powers is, likewise, a product of Hannibal, Missouri who found a way to make his living first as a journalist and thereafter as a professional writer across genres and mediums. He spent more years in school than Twain did, but judging by his own account of his time at University of Missouri, he accumulated roughly as many honors.

Ron Powers poses in Elmira College Regalia with EC President, Chuck Lindsay.

Twain scholars and friends of CMTS know Powers best as a biographer and memoirist, who both explored Twain’s life as a scholar and kept the mythical figure with whom he shared some autobiographical affinities constantly on his shoulder while he was writing about television, mental illness, sports, small towns, Americana, and more. Twain is primogenitor of the idiosyncratic lineage of reporters and chroniclers to whom Powers repeatedly turns for words of wisdom, sure, but also as models for a brand of American writing which for most of his career Powers has worried is endangered. As early as 1988, long before #FakeNews, alternative facts, or filter bubbles, he wrote,

“Propelled by mass media, the tendency to frame everyday issues in the rhetoric of life and death has inflated the commonplace and deflated the significant. A saturation of cheap public rhetoric has numbed us both to the authentically spiritual and the authentically profane. Truth and falsehood have been mostly relieved of their oppositional qualities.”

from “Don’t Think of It As Art” (1988), collected in The Cruel Radiance (1994)

Ron Powers’s commencement address to the Elmira College class of 2019 was certainly foremost about their moment of “lift off,” but it also draws attention to the divisive political climate and volatile media environment which make those 1988 words seem familiar and prophetic.

Kudos, congratulations, and also gratitude to Ron. We hope you enjoy listening to a few more of his words.

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.  

Twain For Teachers: “The N-Word In The Classroom” (C19 Podcast)

Teachers at all levels may be intrigued by this recent episode of the C19 podcast featuring (and produced by) Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University. The episode is not exclusively about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mitchell considers a range of texts by authors from various historical periods and with various racial identities. But Twain’s novel is prominent and she also alludes to the NewSouth edition of the novel which replaced the n-word with slave. Mitchell says, “The Huck Finn example is important because C19 scholars likely believe its more directly related to their work than the aforementioned books by [Randall] Kennedy and [Jabari] Asim. But what makes it even more important is that people working on the 19th century also seem to view the debate in terms of whether Twain is being censored, rather than considering how they might hold themselves to a higher standard as teachers and scholars.”

Central to Dr. Mitchell’s pedagogical perspective is her classroom covenant, portions of which she discusses in detail. This document, along with further commentary, can be viewed in full at her website: KorithaMitchell.com

You can subscribe to the C19 podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other popular platforms. Check out other projects from C19: The Society of 19th-Century Americanists at their website: C19Society.org

Interactive Map of 1901 Elmira Now Available

In collaboration with SmallTown 360, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has created an interactive map of 1901 Elmira. The map highlights the important people and places that shaped Mark Twain and the Langdon family during his summers in Elmira. Key points include Quarry Farm, the Langdon Mansion, and the Park Church. The map also points out lesser known places like the home of Darius Ford, friend of Twain and Elmira College professor who was offered to accompany Charley Langdon as a companion and tutor on a round the world tour; the home of John Slee, associate of Twain during his Buffalo days and the eventual manager of J. Langdon & Co.; the Lyceum Theater, where in 1868 Twain first performed in public in Elmira, with a young Olivia Langdon in the audience; and the Elmira Reformatory, a prison in which Twain performed for the “captivated” audience – Twain later wrote that he found the group extremely satisfactory.

The map is located under CMTS “Online Resources” and can be accessed HERE.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies hopes that this map is used by all teachers, students, and Twain enthusiasts with the goal of promoting Mark Twain’s important legacy in Elmira. At the same time, CMTS endeavors to celebrate its own local history as a vibrant, cosmopolitan upstate New York town in the latter half of the19th and early 20th century.

CMTS would like to thank the following people with their help on this project:

Mark Twain’s Portfolio, Part 1: Existential Hedging & The United Fruit Company

Among the most common and resilient myths in Mark Twain Studies is that Samuel Clemens was economically illiterate and financially incompetent. This myth was born during his lifetime, specifically during the widely publicized bankruptcy of his publishing house following the Panic of 1893. Clemens made little effort to defend his reputation as a businessman, even as he became, by his own accounting, wealthier in the final decade of his life than he had been at any time before. Though the exact size of Clemens’s estate was disputed following his death in 1910, all agreed that it was enviably large. Still, the first several generations of Twain scholars placed far more emphasis on the fortune Twain lost than upon the fact that he made that fortune in the first place, or that he remade it. A few scholars have attempted to complicate the standard account of Twain’s fiscal foolishness, but many more treat it as established fact.

In “Mark Twain’s Portfolio,” I am going to take a closer look at Clemens’s investments. While I am, as I expect readers to be, curious as to whether these investments were profitable, in most cases I will not be able to reduce their returns to a reliable dollar figure because the exact dates of purchase and sale by Clemens or his heirs are rarely part of the public record. But we do have a fairly comprehensive record of what Clemens’s portfolio looked like at the time of his death, as well as discussions of investing in public and private writings during his life. Beyond evaluating whether these specific investments were “good” or “bad,” I will be attentive to whether and how they reflected the worldview expressed in Twain’s published works and public discourse.

Clemens’s investing practices intersect with his politics in complicated and sometimes conflicting ways. This is probably nowhere more evident than in his ownership, at the time of his death, of at least 165 shares of United Fruit Company. This was, in purely pecuniary terms, a great investment. Two weeks before Clemens’s death, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit was trading at $174 per share, making Clemens’s block worth, adjusted for inflation, more than $740,000. The share price was up over 40% in the preceding year and United Fruit was reliably paying a 2% quarterly dividend to shareholders. Clemens’s United Fruit stock was generating passive income as well as appreciating exchange value.

United Fruit stock had by no means peaked by the time of Clemens’s death. Indeed, the share price would rise 12% in the next four months alone and the company would pay an additional 10% dividend before the end of the calendar year. The Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit’s capitalization had increased by more than 400% in less than a decade. A market reporter for the Boston Globe wrote in September that “holders of United Fruit will not sell the stock at any reasonable price.” By 1920, United Fruit would report $44.6 million in earnings ($569.9 million in 2019 dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, that was at least ten times the profits the company made in the final year of Clemens’s life. Presuming the administrators of Twain’s estate held on to his shares, they would’ve contributed to rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, and United Fruit would remain a reliable asset through most of the 20th century.

Of course, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. United Fruit was and would remain one of the most notorious corporations of the 20th century. Their commercial and political machination in Guatemala, Honduras, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean are presumed to have inspired O. Henry to coin the term “banana republic” in 1904 and to be the basis for the rapacious corporate monster in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. United Fruit’s sordid history includes too many violent labor disputes, political scandals, and cruel exploitations for me to catalog here, but numerous books have been written on the subject, notably Bitter Fruit (1982) by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bananas (2008) by Peter Chapman, and Banana Cowboys (2018) by James W. Martin.

In his contribution to Banana Wars (2003), Philippe Bourgois describes United Fruit as “the quintessential model for the institutional form of the multinational corporation that changed the face of the world during the twentieth century.” It was a “government sponsored international trade monopoly” which “was buttressed by the political, military, and economic might of the U.S. government.” In other words, United Fruit’s spectacular performance as an investment was subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through the intermediary of the proudly imperialist Republican administrations of the early 20th century.

Mark Twain was an outspoken and aggressive critic of U.S. imperialist adventuring throughout the final decade of his life. In 1900 he famously stated “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land.” By his own account, he came to this position by observing U.S. actions in the Philippines, which he wrote about at length. He would also publicly critique imperialism in Cuba, China, and the Belgian Congo, explicitly attacking how the moral, religious, and democratic justifications for American and European interventions in sovereign states were always masks for programmatic economic exploitation. “There must be two Americas,” he wrote, “one that sets the captive free, and one that takes that once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” As these words were being written, United Fruit was in the early stages of becoming one of the largest landholders in the world, eventually amassing 3.5 million acres of real estate across a dozen countries. These annexations and appropriations frequently met with resistance and resulted in violence.

So far as I surmised, Twain never spoke publicly of the United Fruit Company and made only passing comments about U.S. involvement in the countries where United Fruit’s operations were already becoming notorious. However, Sam Clemens and his close friend, Henry H. Rogers, who also happened to be his primary financial advisor from 1893 forward, did visit and tour a United Fruit Company outpost in Portland, Jamaica in March of 1902. The visit does not seem to have been planned. Rather, as the log of Rogers’s yacht (quoted in this section of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day) reports, the pleasure cruisers “took refuge” from a “wild and tumbly” sea in the harbor at Port Antonio, described as “a deep & smooth little blue-water bay whose hilly shores were densely clothed in cocoa-palms.” Clemens, Rogers, and their fellow yachters visited what they called the “company’s hotel,” which was located on Titchfield Hill, a cliff with ocean views on all sides. There they met “some Bostonians” and became “guests of the company,” enjoying a rail tour of the plantations, including a ruined sugar mill at Golden Grove. This rail system had only recently been installed and helped to make Port Antonio “one of the wealthiest communities on the island” according to the 1903 “Handbook of Jamaica” produced by the British consul.

While Sam makes no mention of the fruit company in his letters to Livy during the cruise, he does corroborate some of these events. From the yacht on March 29 he wrote:

“We got no further than this place (40 miles [from Kingston]) when the barometer presaged a storm and we came in and anchored. It is a deep and sheltered bay, and the water is delicate green in color and limpid and brilliant. The shores and hills and mountain sides are solid with coca-groves. We spent the whole afternoon until after dark in a drive behind fast mules, through the great hills, the most prodigal and marvelous exhibition of tropical vegetation imaginable. It realized the most frantic dreams of the travel-books. The mere multitudinous names of the rare plants and trees was enough to bewilder the mind…It was a grand day, and makes all the other days of the trip poor and commonplace by comparison.”

Letter to Olivia Clemens, 29 March 1902, part of the Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley

Clearly, the excursion through United Fruit Company real estate in Portland, Jamaica left an impression upon Mr. Clemens, yet he does not allude to the company, its properties, or its influence over the region, even to his wife. If it was soon after this chance encounter with the operations of United Fruit that Clemens and Rogers chose to invest in the company, that investment surely paid off, but so far as I can tell, they never discussed it, as they did many of their other mutual ventures.

The ethics of the banana and sugar trades, and of the government intervention on behalf of U.S.-based corporations, were heartily debated in many of the publications Clemens regularly read, including the North American Review, where several of his anti-imperialist polemics were published. Given the consistency and vehemence of Twain’s anti-imperialism, I feel safe speculating that he knew United Fruit’s dividend payments were tainted and that he did not receive them with unalloyed delight, even though they may have reminded him of a happy day in the tropics.

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist or an old optimist.” – Mark Twain

Twain’s increasing cynicism about mankind generally, and 20th-century America in particular, is reflected in his portfolio. As I will discuss in future installments, there were investments which Twain was enthusiastic about because he believed the business would prove a boon to society. But he also practiced what we might call “existential hedging,” taking a personal stake in companies he likely believed were complicit in making the world a worse place, but which he nevertheless expected to flourish, expressly because they adopted a business model he found morally reprehensible. By owning a piece of publicly-traded corporations like United Fruit, he could, at least, reap monetary reward from the geopolitical agenda which enraged him.

One can see Twain’s investment in United Fruit as both an acknowledgment of his own futility – an admission that his anti-imperialist writings weren’t making a damn bit of difference – and a clever way of contriving to make his political enemies subsidize his dissent. Perhaps in part because he could count on the equivalent of $50,000-$60,000 a year from his United Fruit shares (among many other investments), Twain was finally free, in the final decade of his life, from having to publish and lecture in order to sustain himself and his household. This meant that he lectured and published less frequently. It also meant he was more overtly political and polemical. He could afford to be booed, as he was in 1901 after saying that U.S. soldiers defending economic exploitation abroad were dying under a “polluted flag.”

Closely examining Mark Twain’s portfolio forces one to consider more carefully what makes an investment “good.” If returns are the only metric, than shares in United Fruit were among the best assets an investor could hold in the early decades of the 20th century. From another perspective, Twain’s sizable stake in United Fruit reveals the utmost hypocrisy, as he privately profits from Roosevelt-ian imperialism even as he berates it in public. This contradiction is characteristically Twainian.

This piece of Twain’s portfolio also leaves open a third interpretation of good investing practice. “Activist investing” has become something of a misnomer, as contemporary “activist investors” frequently use their shareholding simply to lobby for better returns. But the original ideal of “activist investing,” as articulated in the The Ethical Investor (1972), was to use shareholding to pressure publicly-traded corporations to adopt more progressive policies, including improving labor conditions, increasing employee profit-sharing, and embracing consumer protections. Was Clemens’s block of United Fruit stock part of an attempt to circumvent the government entirely and exert direct influence on a company whose interests were increasingly intertwined with U.S. foreign policy? Perhaps Clemens simply saw every share he held as one which would not fall into the hands of the war hawks he hated.

In a dialogue he wrote in 1902, “The Dervish & The Offensive Stranger,” which touches on both the history of colonialism and the contemporaneous Boer Wars, Twain demonstrates the difficulty of judging goodness. The stranger says, “England has succeeded in her good purpose of lifting up the unwilling Boers and making them better and purer and happier than they could have become by their own devices…But there are only eleven Boers left, now.” He uses this to ironically support his thesis that, “Half of the results of good intention are evil; half the results of evil intention are good.” This is about as compelling a rationalization as I can come up with for owning United Fruit Company stock.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post did not include discussion of Clemens and Rogers visiting the United Fruit Company outpost in Jamaica. Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com drew my attention to the passage in Mark Twain Day By Day which referenced the trip.

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. 

2019 Summer Institute For Teachers: Mark Twain & Generation Z

The Center for Mark Twain Studies, in association with the Elmira College Office of Continuing Education & Graduate Studies and the Greater Souther Tier Teacher Center, will once again host a two-day institute for primary and secondary school educators this July. As in the past, participants will, for a relatively small fee, subsidized by our partner organizations, get to spend time intensively studying the life and works of Mark Twain in the historic environs of Elmira College and Quarry Farm.

Jocelyn Chadwick

This year, in addition to myself (Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies), the institute will be led by Jocelyn Chadwick. Dr. Chadwick recently finished a term as President of the National Council For Teachers of English, during which she paid particular attention to how 21st-century students responded to sensitive texts, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to her many years as a secondary-school teacher and an education professor, currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Chadwick has a lengthy track record of scholarship on Mark Twain’s works in U.S. classrooms, notably her book, The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, as well as numerous articles (for instance, in this special section of English Journal from 2017) and presentations.

In March of 2018, Dr. Chadwick used MarkTwainStudies.com as a vehicle for her response to a decision by Duluth Public Schools to drop Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculums. This remains one of the most popular pages on our site, as is the follow-up, in which she shared excerpts from interviews with teachers and students which she had conducted during her nationwide travels for NCTE. In these posts and her ongoing work, Dr. Chadwick focuses on the importance of reframing these texts for this generation of readers, as well as putting Mark Twain into conversation with other writers and utilizing additional primary sources which both situate students in the historical contexts of the novels and put those novels in conversation with contemporary culture.

During this year’s institute, “Mark Twain & Generation Z,” Dr. Chadwick is eager to both share the perspective she has gained from visiting classrooms around the country and engage with the unique perspectives of faculty from our region.

As has always been the case, participants in the Summer Institute will receive a certificate, but for the first time in 2019, Institute attendees will also have the option of enrolling in an abbreviated course, offered during the Fall 2019 term, at Elmira College. The course will meet once a week, on Wednesday evenings, for six weeks. Teachers who attend both the Summer Institute and take the course will earn 3.0 credits towards their Masters in Education at Elmira College.

This course will include more sustained discussions of texts introduced during the institute and pedagogical approaches to them. Participants will also have the opportunity to follow-up with Dr. Chadwick via video-conferencing and engage with other Twain scholars in residence at the Center for Mark Twain Studies during the Fall of 2019.

For more information and registration information, please check out this page and feel free to contact the Center for Mark Twain Studies or the Elmira College Office of Continuing & Graduate Studies.

The Apocryphal Twain: Ron Chernow’s Encomium to The American Press At White House Correspondents Dinner Ends On A False Note

On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:

Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.

Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of MarkTwainStudies.org, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.

It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”

I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.

Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.

This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.

Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.

Twain offered his own panegyric to the press in response to Matthew Arnold’s attacks on American journalism in 1888:

“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888

I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.

On April 21st, Easter Sunday…

Easter Sunday fell on April 21st in 1867. It seems likely that Samuel Clemens observed the holiday largely alone at the Westminster Hotel. He stood on the precipice of lasting fame. His “Jumping Frog” story had been a viral sensation. A collection with it at the center was scheduled to be published at the end of the month. It would sell 5,000 copies in less than a week. He had just spent a considerable portion of his savings to book the lecture hall at the Cooper Union. It would be prove an early example of the wisdom of investing in himself.

Eleven years later, Easter Sunday again fell on April 21. The Clemens family – Sam, Livy, and two daughters, Susy and Clara – celebrated the holiday aboard the steamship Holsatia bound for Hamburg. It was the ship’s final voyage and it was a rocky one. Sam reported that neither Livy nor the girls could bear to eat because they were “worn out with the rolling and tumbling of the ship.” “I have had inexhaustible appetite,” Sam assured Livy’s mother, “and have tried to make up for them.”

The Steamship Holsatia, Docked in Hamburg

Again in 1889 Easter Sunday fell on April 21. The Clemenses now had three daughters, all of whom celebrate the holiday at their resplendent home in Hartford. Sam was confident that the Paige Compositor Company he had recently invested in would secure their future and free him of the pressures of the lecture circuit and writing under deadlines. It was 22 years to the day since he has spent Easter as a bachelor in New York and 21 years to the day before his death.

Happy Easter from The Center For Mark Twain Studies!

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Sympathetic Funk

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Mark Twain

If a skunk walks into your house at 2:30 in the morning you may not notice. You might, and will most likely, sleep right through the visit. It is, if fact, in your best interest to sleep through the visit; startling any creature at such an ungodly hour—especially a loaded one—is risky behavior. 

Knowing this—at least on a subconscious level—was why I kept my eyes shut. If I pretended to be asleep maybe would it just go away? I had to try. Please, I begged my own brain as my trachea constricted in self-defense, this has to be a weird dream.  Little paws, soft leather steps, on the wooden floor around my bed in the dark. The math. The odds of a skunk finding the secret cat door under the house and entering and climbing the stairs and pushing my door open and strolling right past the dog and jumping on my bed: slim. 

Mark Twain’s pet cats “Awake”

I sprang up, startling the animal (the damage had already been done,) and flailed around for the light by my bed. It was hard to function through the gagging; it was hard to see through the invisible-green sulfur cloud in the dark; I could only hear the quick, scratching claws on the door as the animal deftly pulled it open enough to slip out. My Olfactory senses were desperately trying to outsource and my stomach was refusing the work. 

I stumbled across the room blinded by the light and the stench and followed the trail. I thought about how much better it is to be sleeping at 2:30 in the morning. I wondered why humans feel it’s so fun to have pets. I wondered if a tomato juice bath is just an urban legend? 

In the adjoining room on the desk where I write massively important stories about cats, dogs, my kid and Mark Twain sat a soggy, disheveled animal hacking up the remnants of a confrontation—perhaps a date gone really wrong—on all the notes and papers in my disorganized, organized piles.

Everyone’s favorite Quarry Farm cat, Mr. Cat felt that it was ok to take a direct hit in the face from a skunk and then stroll into my room in the middle of the night and tell me all about it. Well, he’s actually a very literary animal; he showed me as opposed to telling me. He showed me how repugnant the nightlife can be by filling our entire home with a cloud of his bad decisions. 

With gentle hatred I grabbed the animal by the back of the neck and carried him as far away from my body as I could—there are no arms long enough—to the bathtub where I threw him, ever so delicately, in and slammed the shower door shut. 

A tomato juice bath isn’t a thing, which is good, because I didn’t have any tomato juice. Google was quick to find me the solution: hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap which is bad because I didn’t have any of that either—except for the dish soap. All the articles stressed the importance of working quickly before the oils in the spray “set”—A very inconvenient fact at that time of night. Once they do set it takes about six to eight weeks for the smell to dissipate. 

Caretaker Webb’s feline charge at Quarry Farm

A dish-soap bath for a cat in full protest while the glass, shower doors rattled in their tracks and I flailed with the howling, clawing animal is not a quiet affair. Yet, all the while, my son—one of those humans that thinks it’s fun to have pets—slept peacefully in the next room as I wrestled the soppy, raging pin-bag. It did cross my mind that he should share the joy pet ownership with me but I resisted the urge to wake him and did my best to quiet the beast. I considered some extended time under water to quiet him down but I also considered that the inclinations of the disturbed mind at 2:30 in the morning shouldn’t always be trusted. 

The dish-soap bath did almost nothing and I was not relieved as I wrapped the somewhat defeated creature in a couple of old towels and carried him to the basement where he would be quarantined until the Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide Store opened. 

Unable to fall back asleep with all the gagging I stripped my bed and tried to wipe down all the things I think he may have touched or rubbed up against before I woke up. This was a task of blind guessing and seemed pointlessly impossible. I felt that I was getting used to the smell and at the same time smelling it absolutely everywhere. 

I put some new sheets on my bed and lay down and stared into the darkness. It was almost four in the morning and the sky outside my window was black. The old iron radiators hissed and clinked, tired from the long winter. The neurotic little footsteps of a squirrel in the attic came and went it short bursts. The dog snored softly in the corner. The window lightened shade by minute shade until the trees outside became clear and towering into view. The alarm chirped from my phone—bird sounds—and I clicked it off almost before it started, only six weeks to eight weeks, I thought. 

I woke the small person with an apologetic look on my face as I could see the toxic air sink into his. “What the…?” (At eleven he’s not quite into his free-use-of-expletives-in-front-of-dad phase but I could tell what he wanted to say and I wouldn’t have punished him for it.) 

“Yeah, your friend, Cat, got into some serious business with a skunk last night. Not good.” Our furrowed expressions of funky disgust mirrored each other’s, although I was almost used to it by then he was experiencing it for the first time, so my expression was that of sympathetic funk. 

And getting used to it did not ease my mind; personally, that’s great, but publically it’s a real problem. I noticed at the gym later, after I dropped the boy off at school, that the woman on the treadmill next to me wilted like a water deprived seedling and flung off the back of the motorized track with a zing and a thud. I wanted to believe it was just a simple heart attack—she was well into her golden age—but deep down I knew and let the commotion of rubberneckers and EMTs be a distraction for my slinky disappearance.

And when I went to pick the boy up from school he had a very strange look on his face. “Today was a weird day.” He said with a ghostly expression. “I’ll tell ya in the car.” 

Apparently our hero, Mr. Cat, had rubbed all up on his backpack after the incident because when he arrived at school the entire class groaned in disapproval and he experienced his first taste of social ostracization. The teacher procured a trash bag and his backpack was sentenced to solitary confinement for the day; tied up tight in that bag and shoved deep into the closet. “It was really embarrassing, dad.”

“Well, at least you didn’t kill somebody.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” 

The boy went on to say that a couple of his friends were extra nice to him because they could tell he was super embarrassed and we had an at-least-you-know-who-your-real-friends-are Hallmark kind of moment; it was touching and profound and by no means worth it. At the same time, even though I didn’t wake him during the incident, he still got to experience the joy of pet ownership and I can’t say that was worth it but there is some relief in a deeply rooted, involuntarily blossoming, smirk.