On Material Sanctity (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.

Merav Schocken is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include nineteenth-century American literature with a particular emphasis on critical race studies and topics of space and place. Her dissertation explores practices of self-deception in nineteenth-century American literature.

Her 2021 Park Church Summer Lecture, entitled “Material Sanctity: Salvaging the Sacred in The Innocents Abroad,” can be found HERE.

Photo Courtesy of Merav Schocken

In July 2021, I had the rare privilege of spending two weeks at Quarry Farm as a scholar-in-residence. Upon arriving to the hilltop house, I was immediately struck by the beauty and serenity of its verdant surroundings. After caretaker Steve Webb kindly showed me around the house and left me to settle in, I found myself roaming back and forth through the rooms, trying to take everything in at once – a feat I quickly realized was not only impossible but also unnecessary. The house unfolds slowly and in layers, with a world of objects that invite attunement to their nuances: the enormous, ornate stove used by Mary Ann Cord, the formerly enslaved woman who worked as a cook at the house; the parlor fireplace with the illustrated tiles that inspired Twain’s bedtime stories for his daughters; a large, mysterious portrait in the library known as the Poor Girl, which the Clemens family reportedly purchased while vacationing in Europe. Taking my cue from what seemed to be the house’s unhurried, steady rhythm, I soon settled into long stretches of reading, writing, and thinking.

“One of my reading corners”
(Photo Courtesy of Merav Schocken)

I came to Quarry Farm to work on a dissertation chapter on the role of self-deception in American depictions of the Holy Land, centering on Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1869) alongside Herman Melville’s 1856-57 travel journals, and his epic poem, Clarel (1876). While the narratives are known for their cynical portrayal of religion, I focus on the authors’ capitulation to the lure of material artifacts at traditional pilgrimage sites. When Twain arrived in Palestine, he was immensely disappointed by what he perceived to be a barren landscape. And yet, he finds himself simultaneously enchanted and unsettled byancient relics and sacred stones at Catholic sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. With the help of the purported relics, Twain uncharacteristically constructs a narrative of holiness around such sites. This allows him, in my reading, to counterbalance disillusionment with the land and escape spiritual darkness. In the preface to the travel narrative, Twain writes that he has viewed everything “with impartial eyes” and is “sure” he has “written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.” Yet such sites offer Twain a fantasy he cannot refuse, nor desire to put to the test. How does Twain reconcile his attraction to sacred objects with his Protestant upbringing? What accounts for his enchantment with the Church and his attempt to authenticate it? These are some of the questions I explored during my stay at Quarry Farm.

The house provided the perfect setting to examine these inquiries. Amid Twain’s cynical observations in Innocents Abroad are rare moments where he is overwhelmed by the aura of sites steeped in biblical history. Writing of his experience visiting ruins near the village of Banias, for instance, he observes that he “can not comprehend” that he is “sitting where a god has stood.” The appeal for Twain is that of tangible sanctity, transmitted by the physical setting. As I sat on the porch, gazing at the same view Twain had looked out on, I found myself wondering: what exactly lies at the root of an aura? The entire house seemed to pulse with Twain’s presence, yet this was particularly so in the porch. Perhaps this was the effect of undertaking the same creative activity in the same space as Twain: like him, this was where I did my editing after a day of writing. It was also where, surrounded by idyllic scenery, I enjoyed letting my mind drift, which helped clarify my ideas and generate new ones. The space came to embody not just the spirit of the past, but also the present and its possibilities.

Questions of connections to an imagined past are central to my chapter. Within nineteenth-century American imagination, the Holy Land possessed an aura that seemed to withstand the forces of the modern age. Despite the era’s increasing wave of religious skepticism, the Holy Land retained its status as the place of the real, where travelers could go to reconnect with their perceived origins. Twain’s own vision of Palestine was shaped by these romantic expectations. While he regularly ridicules the shams of religious tourism, underneath his flippant satire lies a deep desire to hold on to his preconceptions.

My fellowship was invaluable in giving me the time to research and write on a tension that dominates the narrative’s Holy Land section: the conflict between Twain’s Protestant proclivity towards an interior, unmediated religiosity, and his attraction to material objects of faith. As a Protestant, this attraction is dangerously inconsistent with his religious beliefs (ambivalent as these beliefs famously were). The result, then, is that of self-deception: while he attempts to reject the authenticity of material artifacts, he is unwillingly captivated by them – a fascination that intermittently rises and descends from the narrative’s surface.

As I came to realize, Twain’s intense preoccupation with tangible forms of sanctity forms a central theme in the narrative. During his aforementioned visit to the ruins of Galilee, for instance, the notion of the corporeal presence of Christ evoked by the physical setting both disturbs and appeals to him: “The situation is suggestive of a reality and a tangibility that seem at variance with the vagueness and mystery and ghostliness that one naturally attaches to the character of a god.” Twain’s experience challenges what Jenny Franchot in Roads to Rome calls “Protestantism’s anticorporeal aspirations.”[1] To a certain extent, materiality facilitates the sacred for Twain – this makes sense when we consider that the world of the spiritual seemed, in his time, more out of reach than ever. With secularization on the rise and the world becoming increasingly demystified, Twain’s complex engagement with Catholicism reflects an attraction to a more concretely accessible spirituality. Drawing on resources in the fantastic library at Quarry Farm, I examined this phenomenon within the context of the commodification of religion in American culture. Twain’s critique of this phenomenon formed another productive avenue of research, which I explored alongside a deeper examination of his own battles with religious doubt around the time of the publication of the narrative. Susan K. Harris’s The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain (1996) was particularly useful in this regard.

 On my last afternoon at the house, I returned to the porch one final time. As I sat there, taking in the views of the green hills, lush forest, and mid-summer wildflowers, I reflected on what I had learned and gained from my residency. My time at the house was highly productive and restorative. Not only did I complete a significant portion of my chapter, but I also left with a wealth of new insights, fresh inspiration, and wonderful memories. 

(Photo Courtesy of Merav Schocken)

[1] Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 23.