“Ever The Twain” (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information HERE.

James Plath is the R. Forrest Colwell Endowed Chair and Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he has taught American literature, journalism, film, and creative writing for 36 years. His essays on American literature have appeared in numerous edited collections and in such journals as The Hemingway Review, The F. Scott Fitzgerald ReviewJournal of Modern LiteratureStudies in the American Short StoryThe John Updike Review, and Journal of the Short Story in English. He is the author/editor of Conversations with John Updike (U. Press Mississippi, 1994), Remembering Ernest Hemingway (Ketch & Yawl, 1999), Historic Photos of Ernest Hemingway (Turner, 2009), John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews (Lehigh U. Press, 2016), The 100 Greatest Literary Characters (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), three volumes in the Critical Insights series from Salem Press, and two poetry chapbooks. As president of The John Updike Society he also took the lead in restoring Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania. and converting it into a museum and literary center.

Director Joseph Lemak told 2023 fellows that Quarry Farm was a magical place, and I found that to be true—even though, as the last fellow of the year, my stay came in cold November after most of the leaves had already dropped.

It didn’t take me long to realize that while two weeks sounded like a nice chunk of time to work on a project, there were enough challenges related to staying at Quarry Farm that you had to be resolute in dealing with them in order to make significant progress. Ironically, each of these challenges was also one of the chief benefits of the residency.

James Plath on the Quarry Farm Porch

Challenge #1: The Onsite Resources. They’re exhaustive/exhausting. My project was an essay detailing how Twain seems to have been an inspiration for John Updike in writing about female sexuality, and also seems to have modeled a successful writer who could straddle the popular and literary worlds, who could “sin boldly” in his unabashed writing, and who not only embraced celebrity but relished the role of writer as spokesperson for American literature, culture, and social behaviors. The nature of my project was such that what I needed to research was in the house, with no trips to unpublished materials at the archives necessary. The challenge for me was that the two rooms upstairs that constitute the main work space are filled with so many books and journals related to Twain studies that a person could stay a year at Quarry Farm and not get through them all. I realized that I needed a strategy, so I began by reading through books and materials that were most directly related to my topic—materials dealing with Twain’s public persona and appearances. Then I targeted books of which I was previously unaware. When I found myself taking copious notes I would check eBay to see if I could pick up an inexpensive copy. If not, I kept taking notes—until the last few days, when I switched to taking screenshots of pages to save time.

Challenge #2:  The Solitude. When Twain lived and worked here, he commented how the remote location and quiet surroundings were perfect for writing. His routine was to walk up the hill to his study around 8 a.m. and return to the house around 4 p.m. What he returned to was his wife and daughters and in-laws, with dinner together, time spent playing with the girls, relaxing moments on the porch when he’d read the day’s output to an appreciative (and sometimes critical) audience, a bedtime story based on the Aesop Fable fireplace tiles in the parlor, and games of Cribbage or Whist after the children were in bed. Susy Twain reports that her father sometimes even had cats with him in the study as he worked, so he may have had quiet but not necessarily solitude. When you work here, you are absolutely alone in the house, day and night . . . and the silence can be deafening if you’re not used to being that alone. Maybe this is why the Center for Mark Twain Studies provides a list of eateries and pubs for their fellows. You definitely need to leave the house once a day—even if it’s just to wander the aisles of the Wegman’s superstore just a few minutes away. After several early nights when I had to remain necessarily in the house, working nonstop because there was no place open, I learned to check the local eatery/pub sheet the previous night. Would my off-site breather be lunch, or dinner? There are some really good places to enjoy both, but their times of operations can be limited.

James Plath at the Mark Twain Study

Challenge #3: The House Itself.  If you’re into history, architecture, collectibles, or old houses, every room at Quarry Farm is a rabbit hole. It’s really easy to get caught up in the history of the house and its inhabitants and want to learn more. Example? You’re eating breakfast and notice a laminated copy of  “A True Story” near a photo of the Crane’s cook, Mary Ann Cord, whose story Twain told. Then you remember the caretaker telling you that the enormous cast-iron stove was made especially for Cord, and that her quarters were two small connected buildings just steps from the house. Out of curiosity you read more. The upstairs has a computer that has wifi and Internet, and you see that Cord—like Jervis Langdon, who died before his vision for the house could be fulfilled—was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Before you know it, you’re reading everything you can about the Underground Railroad and driving to Woodlawn to see not just the Twain graves but Cord’s. Was it a detour from my work on Updike and Twain? Absolutely. But those rabbit holes you go down will be the things that make your stay in the house memorable—at least that’s how it played out for me. In fact, the house and its inhabitants so completely pulled me into their history that I decided to write a chapbook of poems about them, begun at Quarry Farm. That meant I suddenly had two projects to work on, which made me even more sensitive to time. Yes, I needed a physical break and hiked the only trail open at Watkins Glen this time of year, but for the most part my routine was: work on poems over breakfast, then spend the day working on Twain/Updike research, have dinner, and after dinner read up on the house and its inhabitants so that my subconscious could work on more poems. I kept a notepad by the bed and got up in the middle of the night most nights to write. In this way I feel that I was able to maximize my time at the house. In this way I produced 28 rough drafts or beginnings of poems, in addition to my Twain-Updike research.

During my residency, as I left the house with winter coat and hat or worked upstairs with the lone blanket “throw” warming my legs, I wished occasionally that I might have visited at a warmer time. But the house was so brimming with history and stories that, even on days when I could see my breath, there was a certain magic.

“Quarry Farm in Winter” Painting by Diane Woodhouse