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.
Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian/American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. He is past-President of MELUS, the Italian American Studies Association, and the Working Class Studies Association. This year he celebrates his 45th year of teaching, forty of them at the college and university level. His books include Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Leaving Little Italy, From Wiseguys to Wise Men: Masculinities and the Italian American Gangster and the short fiction collection, Importato dall’Italia. He is currently working on a study of humor and irony in Italian American culture and a novel.
My stay at Quarry Farm, at this stage of my career as a writer and teacher, became a reckoning of sorts, a reconciliation between what literature had done to me and what I had done to it during my life since that first attempt to take it all so literally. Mark Twain has been in me since I was a kid. I have always been affected strongly by literature. The lives portrayed in books were always more exciting than the one I would return to after I had closed the book I was reading. I took literature seriously for the first time I read Huckleberry Finn. What happened after I read it is best accounted in the poem I wrote when I was twelve.
“After Reading Huckleberry Finn“
Finding that the Des Plaines River flowed into Illinois River
at Skinner Island, and from there, right into the Mississippi.
My buddy Tom and I made a raft from scraps
of wood we found in his father’s shed,
and shuttled it down River Road,
dragging it behind our bikes to the creek.
With provisions of Wonder bread, peanut butter, and pop,
We took off to explore the territory.
No letters left behind, and with spirits
expecting adventurous times,
we would be pioneers paddled away from the shore.
We saw what Huck and Jim had seen
in the woods that walled our way,
in the summer sky, in the dirty water
pouring out of the industrial plants.
No more than a few miles downstream,
where the current picked up, we started spinning,
and crashed into a fallen tree,
the raft broke, drowning not us but our dream.
Losing it all, we swam to shore and stumbled home
in soggy gym shoes and soaked skin,
determined to someday do it again.
With stinking clothes and runny nose, I cried
alone in my room, never telling anyone
of our failure to escape.
I spent the next day in the library
looking for another way out.
Later, after I had studied literature in high school, I laughed at my early and naive attempt to imitate literature. In English class I learned that literature was a chain reaction based on a person’s experience: i.e., the writer experienced something that affected him or her strongly; as a way of understanding that experience or recreating it, the writer told others about it in words; the reader read the experience and he or she was in turn affected by the experience. I began reacting to literature (in less adventurous fashion) by imitating stories and poems in my own writing. I wanted to have that power that authors like Mark Twain had over me.
From there, I approached my college lit courses as a student of magic and mechanics: the right words created one effect; sentence strings paced performance; a metaphor or simile another effect. And with the proper ingredients, a moving story of poem could result. I won’t go into what happened after I read Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” suffice it to say it was a better planned adventure that took me cross country in a three-month hitchhiking adventure.
What I learned from all this is that when writing moves me, I move myself, and I have been moving ever since my first encounter with writers like Twain.
Prior to my stay at the place where Twain had written much of what had affected me, I had spent most of the last ten years travelling. I was spending more time away from my home than in it: more conferences than I could count, visiting lectures here and there, teaching gigs in Italy, left me little time to sit still. I did my writing on the run, and during the few days that I sit still. I had written a paper on Twain when I was in grad school on Twain entitled, “Only the Traveler is Free,” and I was pretty much following that road throughout my career. That was before Covid.
I came to Quarry Farm with the intentions to see what it was Twain had to say about Italy, Italians, and Italian Americans, to fit him in to study of Italian American humor that I’ve been working on since I had finished my last book. I had been stuck, not so much with what to write, but why to write this book. Did I really need to do this work? Shouldn’t I spend the last years of my career working on what I had ignored during that whirlwind of writing articles for peer review and scholarly publications? What about the play, the novel, the memoir, all that I had put aside over the years as I made my professional way to a distinguished professorship? I didn’t know what to expect from a couple of weeks away to work.
When I arrived, I spent the first day getting to know the place, making it mine by setting up my study area, my kitchen, my reading room, my bed. I roamed throughout the house setting up my materials, marking my territory. The next day, dragged down a bit by a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine that had forced me to delay my residency, I lay in bed, reading the books I had brought with me, staring at that crazy yellow wallpaper, leaving only to make cicoria and ceci, an ancient Italian recipe designed to cleanse the body and fortify strength. I slept dreamless woke up the next morning ready to work. I combed the library, seeing books I had read and too many that I hadn’t. They all became my friends as I worked my way through my topic and in less than a week, I had gathered what I had come to find, and now needed to figure out what I was going to do with it. I went from writing, to reading, to cooking, to reading, to writing, and achieved a rhythm and flow in my work that I had not experienced in a while. I took a break each day to walk around the land, wondering what of what I was seeing had been seen by Mark, yes, our relationship now is on a first-name basis.
On Easter Sunday, a day when most Italians are with their families, I was alone, cooked a nice meal, had some great wine, and then decided to visit Twain’s gravesite. Seemed like the right thing to do since I was his guest and he and his family where the closest thing I had to family right then. Like Twain, I like my cigars and had smoked a few, while sitting on the porch, staring out at the mountains whose name I still don’t know. At his gravesite I sat finishing one I had started a few days earlier, and when I got down to the stub, I tucked it into the soil above his grave, still burning, and watched it until died out. It was my way of letting him know that he’s not the only one who enjoyed cigars while he wrote, and that we had something besides writing in common.
When my residency came to an end, and I was packing up and thinking about what I had accomplished. I had found the research I was looking for, I had a good start at writing it up, but more than achieving the goals I had stated in my proposal, I had a new energy that came from not travelling, from staying in one place long enough to not just think, but process that thinking without interruption, but more than that came a new resolve to concentrate on what matters to me, the man who lives literature, and not only the professor who studies and teaches it.