The 2023 Trouble Begins Lecture Series and Park Church Summer Lecture Series are supported by the generous donations of The Mark Twain Foundation and Katherine Roehlke.
Wednesday, October 4 at The Quarry Farm Barn (7:00pm)
University of California, Davis
“Mark Twain and Kenneth Robeson: Missouri Writers of Two Generations”
In many ways, Mark Twain embodies the public’s perception of a successful writer. Beloved by many in his time, still read and discussed today, Twain had a lucrative and influential writing career, at least partially facilitated by the enviable support given to him by his wife and his sister-in-law’s family at Quarry Farm. Even under these ideal circumstances, he often struggled to finish stories and sketches.
Like Samuel Clemens, Lester Dent was a Missouri-born writer who spent his career working under a better known pseudonym. As “Kenneth Robeson,” he produced over 150 novels—about 10 books a year—in the Doc Savage series for Street and Smith publishing until 1949. If Clemens represents the 19th-century ideal of the popular author, Dent represents the subsequent generation’s mass-production standard of authorship: formulaic fiction written by multiple authors under the same pseudonym featuring a character owned by the conglomerate rather than an individual creator. This presentation will cover Dent’s strategic composition methods and Street and Smith’s publishing method. The Doc Savage stories were enormously influential on superhero comic books and adventure series—both in terms of content and in terms of their business model. Today’s age of franchise fictions, multimedia storytelling, and conglomerate-owned “properties” (particularly superhero narratives) resembles Twain’s world less and less and Dent’s world more and more.
Nathaniel Williams is the author of Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America (University of Alabama Press, 2018) and Associate Editor for The Mark Twain Annual. His articles have appeared in American Literature, Utopian Studies, The Cambridge History of Science Fiction and elsewhere. He is a continuing lecturer for the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis. He is currently writing a book on The Shadow and Doc Savage series’ role in defining franchise fiction in the twentieth century.
Wednesday, October 18 at The Quarry Farm Barn (7:00pm)
Robert E. Cray
Montclair State University
“‘The Wickedest Man in New York?:’ Mark Twain and the 1868 Water Street Sham Revival”
1868 Water Street in lower Manhattan featured raucous dance halls and sailors seeking entertainment, alcohol, and sex. John Allen’s No. 304 Water Street establishment ranked among the most notorious. In fact, journalist Oliver Dyer, an ally of the nearby Howard Mission, described Allen as the “Wickedest Man in New York,” launching a stellar instance of journalistic and religious sensationalism. Prayer meetings commenced in Allen’s closed establishment by August and September. The curious, the cynical, and the faithful converged; roughs, prostitutes, and sailors mingled with or stared at uptown Christians. Howard Mission evangelicals displayed John Allen as a religious trophy, his upcoming redemption seemingly at hand. But was this a real work of faith? Mark Twain had something to say about this. So, too, did many other journalists. But what Twain said illuminates both his brand of humor and insights regarding religion and sensationalism, underscoring his ability to burlesque (and parody) sensationalized events. He would not disappoint.
Robert E. Cray is a Professor of History at Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ. His published works include A Notable Bully: Colonel Billy Wilson, Masculinity, and the Pursuit of Violence in the Civil War Era, (Kent State University Press, 2021); Lovewell’s Fight: War, Death, and Memory in Borderland New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014) and Paupers and Poor Relief: New York City and its Rural Environs, 1700-1830 (Temple University Press, 1988). Cray’s article “Major John Andre and the Three Captors: Class Dynamics and Revolutionary Memory Wars in the Early Republic, 1780-1831,” which appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic, 1997, won the journal’s best article award. He is currently working on religious sensationalism in early Gilded Age New York City.
Wednesday, October 25 at The Quarry Farm Barn (7:00pm)
University of Viriginia
“Mark Twain and the Civil War Memoir Boom”
In December 1885, Mark Twain’s firm published the first volume of Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. After Grant’s memoirs became a popular sensation, Twain published memoirs by George B. McClellan and Philip H. Sheridan, as he sought to capitalize on the success of Grant’s memoirs and on public interest in earlier reminiscences by Joseph E. Johnston, William T. Sherman, and Richard Taylor, among many others. Mark Twain’s deep admiration of Grant’s book invites us to consider Civil War generals’ memoirs as both historical and literary works, revealing how they remain vital to understanding the interaction of memory, imagination, and the writing of American history. Twain’s example also shows how market forces of the late nineteenth century anticipated the memoir boom of our own day.
Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), and Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (University Press of Virginia, 1999). Cushman has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Greece. He has been honored as UVA Cavalier Distinguished Professor and recipient of a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award.
Thursday, November 30 at Cowles Hall, Elmira College Campus (7:00pm)
Barbara Snedecor in conversation with Matt Seybold
Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies
“Gravity — A Conversation”
In this new volume of letters, readers are invited to meet Olivia Louise Langdon Clemens on her own terms, in her own voice—as complementary partner to her world-famous spouse, Mark Twain, and as an enduring friend, mother to four children, world traveler, and much more. The frail woman often portrayed by scholars, biographers, and Twain himself is largely absent in these letters. Instead, Olivia (who Twain affectionately referred to as “Gravity” in their early correspondence) emerges as a resilient and energetic nineteenth-century woman, her family’s source and center of stability, and a well of private and public grace in an ever-changing landscape. Mark Twain’s biography recounted in Olivia’s letters offers new insights, and her captivating voice is certain to engage and enlighten readers.
Barbara E. Snedecor served for many years as Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. In addition to editing the second edition of Mark Twain in Elmira, she has contributed pieces to the Mark Twain Annual and American Literary Realism.
PAST 2023 LECTURES
Wednesday, August 16 at The Park Church
Michigan State University
“The Monetary Imagination of Mark Twain: From the Nevada Mines to the £1,000,000 Bank-Note”
This lecture will discuss Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain’s preoccupations with money and the role this plays in his creative life, his inventive use of language, his critiques of culture and politics and race, and the deeper imaginative patterns that shaped his work. This talk will cover the arc of Twain’s writings, ranging from the early work like Roughing It where silver, gold, and greenbacks are front and center through the classic works Twain is most famous for, to the later works about million-pound bank-notes, $30,000 bequests, and the vanity of small towns like Hadleyburg corrupted by life-changing bags of gold. The main point will be to demonstrate Twain’s obsessions with money and speculation but also to show how he came to use his imaginative powers in monetary terms, the coinage of his brain, circulating like currency throughout his work.
Stephen Rachman, Associate Professor in the department of English at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. He is former Director of the American Studies Program and Co-Founder of the Digital Humanities Literary Cognition Laboratory at Michigan State University. He is the editor of The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz-Hugh Ludlow (Rutgers University Press). He is a co-author of the award-winning Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow (Oxford University Press) and the co-editor of The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (Johns Hopkins University Press). He has written numerous articles on Nineteenth-Century American literature, and is the creator of an award-winning website on Sunday school books for the Library of Congress American Memory Project.
Watch Stephen Rachman’s Lecture HERE.
Wednesday, August 2 at The Park Church
Bernard Joseph Dobski
“Twain’s Machiavellian Princess: Personal Recollections and Political Philosophy”
While Twain has been the subject of some scholarly focus among political theorists, too few among this cohort appreciate his contributions to political wisdom. To recover an appreciation of Twain’s engagement with and contribution to political philosophy, I offer a political study of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a work that Twain considered his “best” and which, according to him, meant “more…than anything I have undertaken.” I examine the novel’s treatment of divine right kingship and particular providence that Twain initiated in Connecticut Yankee and that he explored in several other works published around the turn of the century, most notably “What is Man?”. Twain’s approach to providence in Personal Recollections represents a dramatic portrayal of the origins of modern politics through the figure of Joan of Arc as Machiavellian founder. This portrait allows the reader to reflect anew on the tensions between moral freedom and determinism at the heart of Twain’s corpus, opening a new window into the mind of America’s foremost man of letters at the turn of the century.
Bernard Joseph (B.J.) Dobski is a Professor of Political Science at Assumption University in Worcester, MA, where he teaches courses on political philosophy, international relations, and American foreign policy. In addition to his scholarly work Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Shakespeare, his published work on Mark Twain appears in The Review of Politics (2007), The Journal of American Political Thought (2020), and The Artistic Foundations of Nations and Citizens: Art, Literature, and the Political Community (2021). He has recently completed a book-length commentary on Twain’s Personal Recollections currently titled Twain’s “Prince”: Joan of Arc and the Origins of Modernity.
Watch Bernard J. Dobski’s lecture HERE.
Wednesday, July 12 at The Park Church
Alexander J. Ashland
“The Ruins, Relics, and Reshapings of Mark Twain’s Mississippi Memory”
In Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, readers encounter a figure whose recollections of the South are shaped by multiple texts, histories, geographic locations, and identities. In this lecture, I explore the relationship between memory and language, suggesting that Twain’s South becomes a vernacularized approximation of the past. As a result, the Life that Twain describes is not so much a memoir of an historical person as it is an autobiographical narrative of a persona. Indeed, the “life” Twain presents to readers is, like language and the Mississippi, ever changing and continuously resistant to control. I consider the ways in which “Twain” is caught between the pilot of his past and the passenger of the present, a crisis of identity that is further complicated by detours of race and indigeneity. Ultimately, his place in the world and in the text is subject to competing forces, and in recognizing the movement between passenger and pilot, I explore Twain’s Life and its preoccupation with the muddy mixtures of time and space, as well as the fluid identifications of race, indigeneity, and social status.
Alexander J. Ashland is an Assistant Professor of English at Viterbo University where he teaches courses in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. literature and culture. His current book manuscript, The Documentary Turn: U.S. Literature in the Age of Compromise, 1820 – 1877, establishes a prehistory and theory of documentary aesthetics as it emerged via the hybrid literatures of the nineteenth century. His work has appeared in the South Atlantic Review, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, as well as in edited collections, including The New Walt Whitman Studies and Ekphrasis in American Poetry.
Watch Alexander J. Ashland’s lecture HERE.
Wednesday, May 31 at the Quarry Farm Barn
“Mark Twain, Property, and Poetry“
Mark Twain is famous for writing prose—sketches, tales, and novels—not poetry. However, early in his career, he did at times turn his pen to verse satirically. The topic that often inspired these occasional poetic forays was property. In this talk, I will look closely at several neglected poems, such as “My Ranch,” which appeared in the aptly titled sketch “Real Estate versus Imaginary Possessions, Poetically Considered” (1865); “A Story of a Gallant Deed,” embedded in a sketch titled “A Memory” (1870); and a couple of occasional poems about his Hartford mansion. A close reading of these poems and the context in which they were written will show how Twain’s humorous experiments in this highly structured and compressed form of writing connect to what he understood about the difficulties of ownership and inherent problems in the language by which property is claimed and validated. Ultimately, I will show that, unlike Sam Clemens, who embraced the American ethos of ownership, Mark Twain reveals a skepticism about the language of ownership.
Lawrence Howe is Professor emeritus of English and Film Studies at Roosevelt University. His published work includes Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority (Cambridge, 1998), and with Harry Wonham, Mark Twain and Money: Language, Capital, and Culture (Alabama, 2017), and other articles, many of which focus on Mark Twain and Gilded Age economics. He is a former president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and a member of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Center for Mark Twain Studies.
Watch Larry Howe’s lecture HERE.
Wednesday, May 24 at the Quarry Farm Barn
Ann M. Ryan
Le Moyne College
“The Dangers of Loving Mark Twain”
Teaching the life and works of Mark Twain has become an increasingly fraught endeavor, complicated by any number of political and cultural forces. There are those who insist that Twain was a committed racial progressive and that any suggestion otherwise is simply the by-product of “cancel culture.” At the other extreme are those who point to Twain’s love of racial caricature and racist vocabulary and then relegate Twain to the literary dustbin, just one more white man whose privileges have expired. This talk explores a pedagogy that may exist somewhere between these extremes of misreading the author and misreading his works. We’ll discuss the relevance of Mark Twain at a moment when all sorts of cultural icons–from Flannery O’Connor to Dr. Seuss–are being questioned by virtue of their racial politics, at the same time that the entire field of African American studies is being attacked and censored. There may be a place for Twain in an objective, honest exploration of race and racism (two separate categories) in American culture. If Twain has any relevance in a 21st century classroom, however, we have to end our love affair with “St. Mark”–the white hero in the white suit–and we must embrace the somewhat grittier, more complicated human being that was Samuel Clemens.
Ann M. Ryan is Professor of American Literature at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She is the past president of the Mark Twain Circle, the former editor of The Mark Twain Annual, and co-editor of Cosmopolitan Twain (Missouri, 2008). Her research focuses primarily on issues of race and racism in Mark Twain’s life, his writings, and the culture that produced him. She is completing a book that explores all of the above entitled The Ghosts of Mark Twain.
Watch Ann M. Ryan’s lecture HERE.
Wednesday, May 17 at the Quarry Farm Barn
Jessica Camille Jordan
“Between Mark Twain and Bella Z. Spencer: Satire and Sentiment on the Subscription Book Market”
Ask a literary critic about the American subscription book market, and almost inevitably the conversation will turn to one figure: Mark Twain. Not without reason – Twain was both a subscription bookselling wunderkind, selling more than eighty-thousand copies of 1869’s The Innocents Abroad in just a year and a half through this method, and a favorite of the literary establishment, who considered him an exception to the low-quality offerings they believed typified the subscription business. Even so, the emphasis on a single author has resulted in a neglect of figures besides Twain who operated within it.
One such figure is Bella Zilpha Spencer, whose 1866 novel Tried and True, or Love and Loyalty: A Story of the Great Rebellion pre-dates Mark Twain and Charles Dudley’s Warner’s The Gilded Age – long considered the first novel sold by subscription – by seven years. In putting Spencer’s work, and her novel’s life on the subscription market, in conversation with Twain’s, we expand our understanding of fiction’s relationship to this pervasive and diverse system of distribution.
Jessica Jordan is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Stanford University. She is currently at work on her dissertation, Anxieties of Abundance: Book and Body in America’s Gilded Age, which explores how the late nineteenth century “book flood” heightened the already-troubled sense that books were people with minds (and bodies) of their own. Her work on women in the subscription bookselling trade has been honored with a California Young Book Collector’s Prize and she is a 2022-2023 Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.
Watch Jessica C. Jordan’s lecture HERE.
Wednesday, May 10 at the Quarry Farm Barn
The Mark Twain House and Museum
“Somewhere Between Where You Live and Where I Live is the Place Where We Ought to Live”: The Friendship Between the Revs. Thomas K. Beecher and Joseph H. Twichell
Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira was the outspoken and eccentric 19th-century minister who turned his Park Congregational Church into a force in the community, rejected creeds, and espoused a populist form of politics that supported farmers and the labor movement. The Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell of Hartford, Connecticut, ministered to a gilt-edged church, was intimate friend and traveling companion to Mark Twain, and remained of a conservative and relatively placid frame of mind throughout his life. The two men co-officiated at Samuel and Livy Clemens’s wedding in 1870 and occasionally swapped pulpits in the following years. They remained close despite personality differences that Beecher characterized in a letter to Twichell: “I can well believe that there is an intensity in certain directions in me that is needed by you. But I am equally persuaded that there is a sweetness, a cheerfulness, a love to mankind and an interest in their affairs illustrated by you, the want of which is in me a fearful defect.” Their frank and warm relationship provides a fascinating tale and casts light on the social background of Mark Twain’s world.
Steve Courtney is the author of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain’s Closest Friend (Georgia, 2008), winner of the Connecticut Book Award; ‘The Loveliest Home That Ever Was’: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford (Dover, 2011); and Mark Twain’s Hartford (Arcadia, 2016), among other works. He is co-editor, with Peter Messent of the University of Nottingham and Harold K. Bush of St. Louis University, of The Mark Twain-Joseph Hopkins Twichell Letters (Georgia, 2017, paperback edition published 2020). He has been a journalist for forty years, much of that time at The Hartford Courant, and has served as both publicist and curatorial project coordinator at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Watch Steve Courtney’s lecture HERE.
In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco.
The lectures are now held in the Fall and Spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. In the Summer of each year, the lectures are held at the Park Church. All lectures are free and open to the public.
The Barn at Quarry Farm
The Barn at Quarry Farm has been repurposed as a lecture venue. This was made possible from a generous preservation grant from the Jon Ben Snow Memorial Trust.
Attendees can park on Crane Road or on the grassy area behind the Barn. Quarry Farm is a fragile, natural environment. Please exercise care. If using a GPS, enter 131 Crane Road, Elmira, New York
Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall
Elmira College Campus
Lectures may also be held in Peterson Chapel in Elmira College’s Cowles Hall. The chapel features a series of stained glass windows depicted the history and traditions of the college, including one of Twain in front of his study and one of his wife, Elmira College alumnus Olivia Clemens, on front of the porch at Quarry Farm. There is also a Mark Twain Exhibit in Cowles Hall.
The address of Elmira College is 1 Park Place, Elmira, NY 14901. Cowles Hall is on the east side of Park Place, behind the Fasset Commons Art building on Washington Avenue. In front of Cowles Hall is a small man-made pond known as “The Puddle” and the Mark Twain Study. Public parking may be found off of North Main Street, at the north east corner of campus.
The Park Church
Founded in 1846 by a group of abolitionists, including Jervis Langdon, Mark Twain’s father-in-law, The Park Church has been a strong presence in Elmira’s history. Some of its congregation were close friends and family members to Mark Twain, including Susan Crane, who donated flowers from Quarry Farm every Sunday. Known for its striking architectural features, The Park Church contained Elmira’s first public library and has a long history of charitable service to the Elmira community. Thomas K. Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe and friend of Mark Twain, was the first minister at the Park Church and presided over its construction. Before its demolition in 1939, the Langdon Mansion was located directly across from the Park Church.
The Park Church is located at 208 West Gray Street, Elmira, New York.