Harvesting: A Thank You to Quarry Farm (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.

Ryan Heryford is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Literature in the Department of English at California State University, East Bay, where he teaches courses in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, with a focus in ecocriticism and cultural narratives of environmental justice. He has published, or has forthcoming articles, on environmental thought in the works of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Édouard Glissant, and M. NourbeSe Philip. His scholarship has been supported by the William Faulkner Society, the Emily Dickinson International Society, and the University of California Center for Global California Studies. His current book-length project, “The Snugness of Being:” Vitalism and Decay in Nineteenth Century American Literature, explores the influence of nineteenth-century environmental and biomedical philosophy on constructions of self and subjectivity within the works of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville.

Professor Heryford has given two lectures recently for CMTS, specifically:

  • Ryan Heryfod, “‘Now don’t any of you gentleman get my bones mixed up with yours’” (September 2, 2021 – Chemung Valley History Museum) Lecture Images
  • Ryan Heryford, “‘the breath of flower that perished’: The Imperial Ecologies of Mark Twain’s Early Letters” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images

My toddler picked all of Mark Twain’s fruits and vegetables, or so she claims.  “He said it was okay,” she later confided over a basket of unripe tomatoes.  However luxurious, we hadn’t come to Quarry Farm for the produce.  Even upon our first drive up the East Hill to the back courtyard, the carefully tended gardens of my daughter’s harvesting fantasies, I was yet uncertain of my own presence within these hallowed grounds of American literature. 

My research had, up until the fellowship, primarily considered two distinct bookends of Clemens’ writing career, neither of which had much to do with the warm years of family life and creative nourishment imbued in Quarry Farm.  Beginning with his 1866-67 travel correspondence in Nicaragua and Hawai’i, I was working to trace Twain’s very early writings about bodies, ecologies and disease to his much later, unpublished manuscript “3000 Years Among the Microbes.” Reading through the young journalist’s narrative meditations on a diversity of flora and fauna as entangled within his commentaries on settler-occupation in the Pacific and Central America, I was most interested in what I considered to be Mark Twain’s colonial phenomenology, his alignment toward or departure from an imperial tradition of writing about non-European ecologies as bearers of disease and decomposition, dangers to the legibility and coherence of a traveler’s corporeality.  My project quickly jumped forward in time to consider one of Twain’s final unfinished manuscripts, which told the unusual story of a human-turned-germ named Huck who infects the body of a Hungarian immigrant named Blitzowski, a work, I argued, which represented a return to Twain’s earliest writings, revisiting scenes of corporeal boundary-crossing and entangled human and nonhuman communities, situating these concerns within late-nineteenth bio-medical theories of infectious disease.

As necessary as it is to better acknowledge these under-considered writings in Twain scholarship, there was a glaring lacuna in my research which only felt more pronounced among the fields and woods, the orchards and mossy stone pathways of the author’s most celebrated literary output.  My reluctance to address such key texts might best be attributed to that intimidation likely shared by many early career academics working within the literary canon.  Among the hundreds of scholarly tomes housed within the second-floor study of Quarry Farm, the decades-long collections of peer-reviewed journals by some of the most notable scholars in Twain studies, what more could said about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and, if perchance there was some unmined gem of critical inquiry, how I could possibly presume to receive it?

Photo courtesy of Ryan Heryford

I suspect my daughter initially shared such feelings.  Despite the generous welcome by CMTS director, Joe Lemak and caretaker, Steve Webb, their assurances that Quarry Farm was a home to be lived in, my spouse and I were nevertheless inclined to shore up some boundaries around our increasingly curious two-year-old.  “No Legos outside the kitchen”; “Not too close to the fireplace”; “Please don’t touch that candlestick”; “What would Mark Twain say?”  My daughter glared sheepishly down and away from the many framed photographs and iconic portraits of the author, his trompe l’oeil eyes following her across the dining room. 

I’m not sure what the twenty-first century industry of mindful-parenting would say about invoking American literary figures as disciplinarians, nor can I fully imagine how Clemens might feel about his role as a phantasmic policeman to toddlers.  I didn’t have long to meditate on such questions.  By our second morning at Quarry Farm, I descended the back steps to an enormous Lego tower adorning the library’s entryway.  “I asked Mark Twain,” my daughter pointed to a picture of Clemens smoking his cigar on the front porch.  “He said it was okay.” 

More courageous than I, she had met Twain face-to-face and begun a conversation, one wherein the most esteemed author in American letters arrived not to enforce or uphold the sanctity of limitations, but rather, to invite exploration and play.  The spirit was infectious. Quickly I immersed myself in a vociferous re-reading of the classic texts, so many of which had been drafted and revised amidst the parenting of his own daughters at Quarry Farm, and which had previously overwhelmed me in their canonical magnitude.  More defined questions emerged:  How did Twain’s spectacular renditions of McDowell’s cave – from a wellspring of graverobbing escapades to a perverse mausoleum – return across his writings as space for subaltern meditations on posthumanism and the materiality of bodily decay?  Could a parallel reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and “3000 Years Among the Microbes” offer us insights into the author’s phenomenology of racism and xenophobia?  Most importantly, might these seminal texts invite more sustained pathways between Clemens’ early-career journalism and the author’s presumably nihilistic end-of-life lamentations?  Beyond permissions sought from the ghost of Samuel Clemens, such research questions were fostered and supported by the deeply present and vitally engaged Center for Mark Twain Studies and its affiliates.  From generative and encouraging conversations with Joe Lemak and Matt Seybold, to the thoughtful curatorial welcome (and gardening prowess!) of Steve Webb, to the critically informed audience of the Chemung County Historical Society, I’ve come to find the current of Twain studies not as a destination to be visited and passed through, but a thriving community in which to root, grow and branch a scholarly career.

While living at Arrowhead, a Massachusetts farm not wildly dissimilar from Susan Crane’s Elmira home, and drafting that other American literary behemoth, Herman Melville, in a letter to his long-time friend and publisher Evert Duyckinck, writes:

“Do you want to know how I pass my time? – I rise at eight – thereabout – & go to my barn – say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped.) Then, pay a visit to my cow – cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it – for it’s a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws – she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity – My own breakfast over, I to my work-room & light my fire – then spread my M.S.S on the table – take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will.”

(L 174)

Returning to what is perhaps the only American novel more critically considered than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contemporary Melville scholars have increasingly looked toward the author’s mundane embodied currents as sites for meditation on the Moby-Dick’s continued concerns with the vitality of nonhuman ecosystems, the conflicted ontologies of post-Enlightenment personhood.  More personally profound, following the daily rhythms of Clemens at Quarry Farm – inventing stories for my daughter as inspired by the zoomorphic tiles adorning the parlor fireplace, searching together for mushrooms in the woods beyond the orchard, in route to the site of that famed octagonal study – will forever shape what it means to me to read and write about Mark Twain.  Embracing my own speculative imaginings about his time in Elmira spent away from the desk, in particular his time spent parenting – a labor and journey which anyone with a two-year-old might likely agree to be far more daunting, enlivening and enriching than writing a great American novel – I’ve come to find, not assumed familiarity, but rather, the courage to ask questions which will undoubtedly nourish my scholarship across the years ahead.  To Joe Lemak, Steve Webb, Matt Seybold and all of the folks at the Center for Mark Twain Studies, I can only hope to manifest gratitude for this incredible opportunity within my continued research.  To future Quarry Farm Fellows, I encourage you to harvest those fruits and vegetables which might otherwise seem too lofty, intimidating or controversial.  My toddler already asked permission, and he said it was okay.