Put The Reader Through Hell: In Memory of Toni Morrison, Twain Scholar

Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.

In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Review that “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)

Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.

Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?

“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”

Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)

The Park Church to Host Play about the Underground Railroad

The Park Church (208 W. Church Street, Elmira, NY) will be the venue for “Yours, for the Oppressed” on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm. Admission is free; donations are appreciated.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is a historically based play detailing an episode in the lives of an educated, middle class black family living in Albany and the Albany Vigilance Committee. Set in the 1850s, the play explores different perspectives on the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad within the community and among the family members.

The play is a project of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, the Siena College Creative Arts Department, and the Underground Railroad History Project. It is touring various historic sites in New York State this summer. The tour is produced by John Ruquet. The Elmira performance is presented by The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery and The Park Church.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is written by Siena College students Hunter Frederick, Heather Frederick, Olivia Waldron and Philip Kilian under the supervision of Dr. Krysta Dennis. The director is Jean-Remy Monnay, founder and artistic director of the Black Theatre Troupe. Members of the Troupe comprise the cast.

Past advertisement for “Yours, for the Oppressed.” This play will be performed on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm at The Park Church.

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York was originally founded as Soul Rebel Performance Troupe in 2009 by veteran actor Jean-Remy Monnay as a not-for-profit organization to foster understanding, appreciation and participation of the performing arts among communities of color. Headquartered in New York State’s Capital Region, Black Theatre Troupe promotes performance and theatrical pieces by, and about, artists of color.

The Siena College Creative Arts Department strives to develop within students an aesthetic appreciation of the world in which they live, enabling students to understand the arts as they reflect the cultural spirit of various epochs in human experience, and encourage the unlocking of students’ creative potential and skill.

The Park Church was incorporated in 1846. The original bylaws state: “That the using , holding, or trading in men as slaves is a sin in the sight of God…inconsistent with Christian profession.” Members of the church were active in both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Its first and most notable Minister was The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, step-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The current building was designed to be “the first institutional church in America,” and housed a library, a gymnasium, health clinic, kitchen and parlors that were open to all of Elmira, not just church members.

The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery was founded in 2006 to preserve and conserve the historic cemetery (1856) and educate the larger community about Woodlawn’s rich heritage. Many notable abolitionists and participants in the Underground Railroad are buried there, including John W. Jones, a one-time slave, who shepherded hundreds of escaped slaves to safety: Jervis Langdon, a founder of The Park Church, who aided Jones and helped Frederick Douglas escape from slavery: and Mary Ann Cord, whose experiences as a slave were recorded by Mark Twain. Woodlawn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Host of Hannibal: A Tribute To Henry Sweets

[Editor’s Note: Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down at the end of 2019.] 

Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed path with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets. His steadfast presence at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum has provided a hospitable welcome for any and all seeking information about Samuel Clemens. Henry did not come to Mark Twain in the traditional way, but then, who has?

Henry Sweets (right) with Jacques Cousteau

His initial academic endeavors offered no hint of his subsequent 42-year career at the boyhood home. Henry grew up in Hannibal and graduated from Hannibal High School before earning a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1971 and a master’s degree in education in 1973. Henry taught high school science for two years in New Jersey and another two years in Illinois before taking an M.A. in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware in 1978, leading to his appointment at the boyhood home in January 1978. 

In the course of the next 42 years, Henry personally welcomed station wagons full of families, at least three generations of schoolteachers, hopeful “descendants” of Sam Clemens, innumerable Twain scholars, hundreds of journalists, and a respectable number of celebrities and politicians. In addition to hosting President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and their daughter Amy, Henry welcomed the Prince of Monaco, a few U.S. Senators, and the occasional Governor of Missouri. Hal Holbrook, Jacques Cousteau, and Brad Paisley are just a handful of names Henry can drop as having welcomed to Hannibal. Perhaps one of his most memorable visitors was Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine writer. Borges’s wish was to touch the Mississippi River in Hannibal. Henry assisted and would later recount the grateful writer shed tears in that moment.

 

Henry Sweets helps 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges touch Mark Twain’s Mississippi River

In the four decades Henry has served the boyhood home, the museum expanded to include eight properties, updated its historical message for accuracy, and focused on scholarly outreach, most notably the weeklong teacher workshops offered each summer and the quadrennial Clemens Conference that welcomes scholars from around the globe. In 1982, Henry began compiling The Fence Painter, the museum publication he has edited since. He has traveled considerably to lecture on Twain and contributed two chapters to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings, edited by Kevin Mac Donell and Kent Rasmussen. The museum has done its part to be a good neighbor, offering free admission to Hannibal residents and hosting free summer outdoor concerts for more than a decade. The museum also took the Tom & Becky ambassador program under its wing.

Life at the museum is not all glamour. Henry has warded off contrary would-be Twain impersonators and dealt with his share of confused tourists asking such questions as, “Where is Mark Twain buried today?” (The answer, of course, is Elmira.) He is just as likely to be found installing an exhibit as carrying a plunger into a restroom. But if you know Henry, that should come as no surprise. He is never heard saying, “That’s not my job.” He rolls up his sleeves and does what needs to be done.

Everyone has their own story of meeting Henry for the first time, which usually includes descriptors like “knowledgeable,” “friendly,” and “helpful.” I first met Henry in 1996 when I was planning a Mark Twain summer program for 4th and 5th grade students. I called the museum, and Henry himself answered the phone. I explained I was coming to Hannibal in a few weeks and asked if we could meet. When I told him what day I was arriving, he responded, “Well, my wife’s having a yard sale that day, but I’ll give you my home phone number. Give me a call when you get in, and I’ll come meet you.” That gracious and generous response had a far-reaching impact on my own life. Henry drove me all over Hannibal that day showing me places I would have certainly missed. Having since had the privilege of knowing him and working alongside him, I can honestly say that he treated me with the same respect and kindness that he shows to actual celebrities. Henry is simply a nice guy.

Serving as director and curator of a museum consumes time and energy, yet Henry managed to hold a seat on the Hannibal School Board from 1992 to 2010 and play in the same softball league for 30+ years. For years, his hobby has been stamp collecting. A member of the American Philatelic Society, Henry is no stranger at stamp collecting conferences and has been an invited speaker at the annual United Postmasters of America meeting.

Balancing scholarship, historic preservation, and tourism (which pays the bills) is a daunting task. It can only be done as a labor of love. Leading staff, managing board members, fundraising, responding to millions of inquiries, and indulging the most esoteric of inquiries, Henry has done it all. It should come as no surprise that Henry’s favorite Mark Twain quote is, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Henry will continue to work part-time on curatorial projects at the museum after he retires as director, and for that we are grateful. But, he has “reached the grandpa stage of life,” as Twain put it, and with a two-year-old granddaughter and another grandchild on the way, Henry has earned a new pastime. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage everyone reading this to make a generous donation to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Henry’s honor. It is the least we can do for all he has done for us.

Archives of Mark Twain Circular Now Online

The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).

Back issues of the long-running newsletter are now available in digital form.

Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.

Check it out!

Mark Twain, Mad Magazine, & Old Crow Whiskey

Cover of October 1959 Issue of Mad Magazine

News outlets reported last week that the current longest-running humor magazine in the U.S. – Mad magazine- will soon stop publishing new material. First issued in 1952, the New York Times describes Mad as an “irreverent baby-boomer humor Bible.” Details of the magazine’s future at this date remain sketchy. Mark Twain scholars John Bird and Judith Yaross Lee have recently edited a forthcoming collection of essays Seeing “Mad”: Essays on “Mad” Magazine’s Humor and Legacy from Cover to Fold-In. Lee describes Mad as having “a literary quality of intellect along with great irreverence in the parodies – and that’s reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Virginia City writing.”

This also seems an appropriate time to revisit at least one appearance of Mark Twain and Elmira in Mad: the October 1959 issue. The story behind this appearance begins in 1936 with a small privately printed memoir titled Drinking with Twain: Recollections of Twain and His Cronies as Told to Me Laurel O’Connor, Raconteuse (1936). The work was copyrighted by Frank Edward Kelsey (b. 1865 – d. 1952). Kelsey, a native of Michigan, was a rugged individualist who resided in Elmira for about four years in the late 1890s, working as a furniture manufacturer. During his brief time in Elmira, he dabbled in politics, helped incorporate the town of Elmira Heights and became that town’s first mayor. He also spent time at Charles Klapproth’s saloon listening to locals tell stories about their favorite hometown celebrity, Mark Twain. Laurel O’Connor (pseudonym of Laurabell Reed Connor Stones (b. 1901 – d. 1999), a journalist and intimate of Kelsey’s, wrote down the stories as Kelsey told them to her – stories about Twain drinking Old Crow whiskey at Klapproth’s in Elmira. However, there is no evidence that Kelsey ever actually met or corresponded with Twain. Klapproth’s name is misspelled throughout the memoir as “Klaproth” along with other historical inaccuracies.

By the early 1950s, Twain’s fondness for Old Crow, as told by Kelsey, gained the attention of that company and they began capitalizing on their connection to Mark Twain in their magazine ads. A number of Old Crow ads appeared featuring Twain, including one with Rudyard Kipling reading to Twain at Quarry Farm. The Twain/Kipling ad featured a small tagline: “$250 Reward is paid for documented information relating prominent 19th-Century Americans and Old Crow.” 

Another ad featured Twain asking Klapproth’s bartender, “Lou, which barrel are we using now?” The line is lifted directly from Kelsey’s memoir – further evidence that Kelsey’s stories were the source of the Old Crow ad campaign. Another Old Crow ad featured Mark Twain and Bret Harte in Hartford. Yet another featured Twain grouped with “Famous Americans” Daniel Webster, Gen. John H. Morgan, Gov. Robert Letcher of Kentucky, Henry Clay and James Crow himself. All the whiskey drinkers in those ads were men.

Between 1900 and 1959, no women had appeared in whiskey ads. Then, in 1959 the tide turned. In early 1959 D’Arcy Advertising Company announced a change of policy – they would be bringing women back to whiskey ads in an upcoming ad for House of Lords scotch whiskey. It was a perfect opportunity for Mad to capitalize on the situation with seven panels of mock advertising under the heading “Women Will Appear More and More in Whiskey Ads!”  The Mark Twain Old Crow ad originally captioned “Mark Twain holds forth at Klaproth’s Tavern” was re-captioned “Carrie Nation starts her Bar-Wrecking Crusade” as she takes an ax to a bottle of Old Crow.

It is not been determined when Old Crow discontinued their Mark Twain advertising campaign. However, by 1980 the company revised “When Mark Twain held forth at Klapproth’s cafe …” with new artwork and a corrected spelling for Klapproth’s name. The new artwork more accurately reflects the fireplace and bas-relief from Klapproth’s saloon that now is housed at Elmira College.

Much of the decor of the Mark Twain Archive, including the fireplace and the wood paneling, was originally part of the Klapproth Tavern.

Barbara Schmidt is an independent scholar who focuses on Mark Twain, American Humor, and American History. She is the webmaster at TwainQuotes.com and the Book Review Editor for the Mark Twain Forum. In 2017, she was named a “Legacy Scholar” by the Mark Twain Journal.

In Memory of Noted Twain Scholar, Carl Dolmetsch, Listen to His 1988 Trouble Begins Lecture

Carl Richard Dolmetsch, Jr. passed away earlier this month. He was 94. Dolmetsch wrote an influential book in Mark Twain Studies, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His history of the modernist magazine, The Smart Set, was also highly acclaimed and he published both academic and popular articles on early American literature and classical music.

For more about Dr. Dolmetsch’s legacy, we refer you to obituaries written by the Provost of William & Mary, where he spent most of his academic career, by his fellow Williamsburg journalist, and by the Virginia Gazette.

Dr. Dometsch was a guest of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies in October of 1988. As a Distinguished Academic Visitor, he led courses in English and American Studies, and was part of the Trouble Begins lecture series. That lecture, “Mark Twain and The Jews,” would become part of “Our Famous Guest”. It was preserved, recently digitized, and is now available for streaming and download from our online archives.

The Mugwump Bump: Mark Twain, Independent Politics, & The Election of 1884

Although it’s been almost a century since Mark Twain’s death, his staying power as an American icon endures. 

There are many reasons for his iconic status: his stories (especially those that keep getting banned), his aphorisms (some of which he actually said), and his knack for relentless self-promotion that pioneered today’s viral marketing. At the heart of his continued cultural relevance, however, is Twain’s uncanny ability to tap the deep and volatile fault lines that emerged in America after the Civil War and that have continued to fracture (some at an exponential rate) well into the present.

The San Andreas Fault of these national fissures, of course, is race relations in America. But there are plenty of other ruptures extending from Twain’s era into our own: social upheaval wrought by new technologies, tensions between capitalism and socialism, and political factionalism.

Recently, while reading Kay Moser’s article “Mark Twain—Mugwump” (Mark Twain Journal, 1982), I was struck by how his political views still speak to us today, especially with the Democratic debates beginning tonight and another presidential election looming on the horizon. In her article, Moser delves into how Twain’s involvement in the 1884 presidential election “led to a showdown between his personal, strongly held convictions and the political conformity that was demanded of him by his literary friends and the Nook Farm residents.”

Up until the 1884 election, Twain had staunchly supported (and actively campaigned for) Republican presidential candidates. A speech he gave in favor of James Garfield in 1880, in fact, was remembered in Hartford “as the greatest effort of his life,” according to Albert Bigelow Paine. Twain’s friend and fellow Garfield campaigner, William Dean Howells, read the speech twice and wrote “that he could not put it out of his mind.” However, four years later the presidential election would place Twain at political odds with Howells and with many friends in Hartford.

The rift was provoked by Twain’s disdain for the Republican nominee in 1884, James G. Blaine, who, despite a reputation for corruption, had “very devoted followers within the party who would not believe any of the charges brought against him,” as Moser puts it. In protest, Twain and other reform-minded Republicans left the party to form what became known as the Mugwumps. 

Derived from an anglicized version of the Algonquian word “mugquomp,” or “important person, kingpin,” the term was originally intended as an insult, implying that members of the group thought they were too good for the messy realities of party politics. Embracing the slight as a badge of their political independence, however, Twain and the Mugwumps put their support behind the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. Although he had his personal moral failings (such as fathering a baby out of wedlock with his mistress), the Mugwumps considered the Governor of New York and foe of Tammany Hall corruption a man of integrity (as a politician, at least).

It may be tempting to draw specific parallels between the elections of 1884 and 2020; there are certainly instances where history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme (as one of those aphorisms misattributed to Twain asserts). I’m more interested, however, in Twain’s thoughts on the importance of political independence rooted in personal conscience—wisdom that might benefit contentious factions across the spectrum today.   

As Moser notes, Twain resisted the stultifying influence of political and religious orthodoxy throughout his life. “Loyalty to petrified opinions,” he observed, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-and never will.” In the growing chasm today between people vehemently identifying with one party affiliation against another, Twain’s following insight seems particularly pertinent:

“No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.”

from “The Writings of Mark Twain” by Albert Bigelow Paine

For Twain, one’s ever-evolving conscience, not adherence to rigid ideology, should determine how one votes and ultimately identifies as an American:

“I believe you said something about the country and the party. Certainly allegiance to these is well, but certainly a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor; the party and country come second to that, and never first.”

Moser concludes that Twain “insists that the true patriot is the Mugwump, the independent, the man who is not afraid of change when his conscience dictates it. And such men, Twain asserts, come from an illustrious ancestry:

‘…in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains, of the children of the world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory. And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ.’”

That sentiment may be a bit over-the-top by today’s standards, but perhaps today’s standards could benefit from a little Mugwump bump.

New American Studies Prize Named for Mark Twain Scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.

Fishkin Receives John S. Tuckey Prize in 2017

Fishkin is among the most well-known and highly-regarded scholars in Mark Twain Studies. She edited the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain and has published two influential books, Was Huck Black? (1993) and Lighting Out For The Territory (1996), as well as numerous articles. In 2017, she received the John S. Tuckey Award for achievements in Twain scholarship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.

Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”

Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”

The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.

Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

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.