Living the Life (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.

Max Cavitch is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also an affiliated faculty member of the programs in Comparative Literature, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, and Psychoanalytic Studies. He is the author of American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman (2007) and of numerous essays on topics in American and African American Literature, Cinema Studies, Poetry and Poetics, and Psychoanalytic Studies. He is the editor of the forthcoming Oxford World’s Classics edition of Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and co-editor, with the historian Brian Connolly, of the forthcoming essay collection, Situation Critical! Critique, Theory, and Early American Studies. He also edits and regularly contributes to Psyche on Campus: A Blog on Teaching Psychoanalysis in the Undergraduate Classroom, which he launched in August 2019.

As a specialist in early American literature, I’ve been reading, teaching, and writing about Mark Twain for almost three decades. Yet—although I was aware of Quarry Farm as one of the author’s homes—it wasn’t until 2018 that I heard of the Quarry Farm Fellowship Program. One of my former graduate students asked me to write a letter of recommendation for his application; thus it was from him that I learned of the program and, subsequently (his application having been successful), of the splendors of living and working there. I applied the following year, and it was my great good fortune to be able to spend most of the month of July 2020 in residence, working on Twain’s gargantuan Autobiography.

I’d first written about Twain in my 2007 book, American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman. Twain’s caricature of sentimental elegy in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was one of the touchstones of my book, and, in my “Introduction,” I explore the significance of Huck’s relationship with the lugubrious “poetess” Emmeline Grangerford (including his own failed attempt to write an elegy for her) and the rest of the Grangerford family, with whom he seems finally to have found a place that feels like home—until, that is, he’s forced to watch helplessly as the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons slaughter each other in the name of a forgotten grievance. I was well aware, at the time, that the character of Huck shared much in common with his author—not least, a childhood full of illness, death, and trauma. But it wasn’t until I delved more deeply into Twain’s life and the three-volume, authoritative edition of his Autobiography, published by the University of California Press between 2010 and 2015, that I recognized the full scope of the misery and trauma that filled Twain’s life along with the attendant symptoms of what we might now recognize as manic depression.

Mark Twain on the steps leading to the Study (1903)

It’s a truism that the greatest humorists are born of great suffering, and Twain certainly bears that out. But all of our lives defy reduction to simple sayings and neat formulas. Much of my interest in autobiographies, like Twain’s, has to do with the complexity and idiosyncrasy of individual experience—each and every person’s particular ways of struggling against the norms, formulas, scripts, and expectations heaped upon them by families, communities, and institutions. Of course, we’re all creatures of our time and place; but circumstance alone can account for only so much of our stories. Twain’s story of his extraordinary life is not only one of the longest autobiographies of modern times, but also one of the most unconventional; for example, it defies chronological sequence, and most of it was not written in Twain’s hand but, rather, dictated by him to a series of amanuenses. Part of the fun of reading it is trying to reconstruct the history of its long and fragmented composition and to trace the waxing and waning of Twain’s enthusiasm for this ingenious project, which occupied him (on and off) for almost forty years.

By comparison, a three-week sojourn at Quarry Farm is not much time to grapple with such a literary behemoth. But the peaceful concentration fostered by the house and grounds (so expertly and unobtrusively managed by Steve Webb) made it possible for me both to finish reading all 2200 pages and to write several dozen pages of my own—pages that will be incorporated into my comprehensive critical study of autobiography, Passing Resemblances. I’m tremendously grateful to Steve Webb, Professor Joseph Lemak (Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies), and Professor Matt Seybold (Editor-in-Chief of for making possible my very happy and very productive stay at Quarry Farm, which added a brief but memorable passage to my own life story!