“On The Pleasures of Reading at 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.

Kyhl Stephen is a PhD candidate and graduate student at Cornell University, where he studies nineteenth-century American literature and American Studies in the Department of Literatures in English. Generally, his interests include the cultural and intellectual histories of capitalism, and the economic humanities. His dissertation (currently titled but awaiting renaming), “Great Paper Cephalopods: American Fiction and the Textual Basis of Corporate Personhood, 1873-1913,” traces the contested rise of corporate personhood in the United States as the outcome of the production and uptake of texts. Corporations, he proposes, could assume the status of people because of the cultural and intellectual frameworks, codified in writing, through which they were perceived. As such, the dissertation locates literary form and commercial circulation as central in the history of corporate capitalism. It features key readings of literary writers such as Mark Twain, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, and Edith Wharton, as well as economists such as Irving Fisher, John Bates Clark, and Henry George.

There is an old joke that we are driven to study literature because we love to read. The more we love to read, the further and further we are driven into the study of literature, but the further we are driven into the study of literature, the less time there seems to be for actually reading. The joke is funny because of the irony in its construction but also, regrettably, because it is true. Obviously we’re reading a lot literally, but it is a different kind of reading—instrumental rather than pleasurable. Personally, even when I set out to read for pleasure, I often find I can only get a few pages in before I have to start jotting down notes, and then slowly, imperceptibly the time I have slated to relax instead becomes time for working.

Accordingly, when looking back at my time at Quarry Farm, I was at first alarmed that what I thought was not my time working but the pleasure of my visit. Surely, I had spent my time poorly if what I remembered was waking to the sound of birds, walking in the stunning gardens, sharing a glass of wine with dinner as the sun sets behind the hills, and (believe it or not!) reading just for pleasure. A lot of that comes back to the house itself, in ways I don’t always feel equipped to describe coming from my line of work. For much of our visit, my wife and I shared a funny mixture of awe, solemnity, ease, and welcome—joyful but nostalgic, too, and maybe just a little sad. My wife put it this way: that it was deeply moving to be living in a space that had seen so many happy years.

Joe and Steve told us that when the Langdons donated their family home to Elmira College, it was on the condition that it stay as much like a home as possible, and at that the College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies have been wonderfully successful. This is true in a more material preservation sense: the space is stunning, down to the last detail. We reckon based on some quick googling that even the toilets date back to the 1920s. We marveled every morning that someone was allowing us to eat our breakfast cereal at the very table that Mark Twain ate his own breakfast at one hundred and some years ago. But it is true in a harder-to-place relational sense, too. We felt like guests more than merely visitors, wrapped up in the lives of the Clemenses, Langdons, and Cranes in a way that was as emotional as it was intellectual—again as my wife put it, sometimes parasocial, sometimes paranormal. We plan from now on to celebrate the wedding anniversary of our good friends Sam and Livy on February 2nd—it’s a great excuse to eat out, anyway.

To be clear, though, that is not to say that I was not working. I came with a project, I had appointments at the Gannett-Tripp Library archives at Elmira College, and I spent every day reading as much as I could and working it into the long essay I came with. I don’t know that I can oversell what a tremendous resource the archives maintained by the Center for Mark Twain Studies are. I don’t think I was prepared for the wealth of material. I’m still parsing through all of what I scanned and recorded, and I’ll need a second fellowship to finish looking at the parts I didn’t even get to.

Maybe even more impactful, however, were the accidental discoveries and connections I was able to make in the library at Quarry Farm itself. I came to Quarry Farm from a university with an enormous library of its own, where access to scholarly materials is almost never a problem. What my work gained from the library at Quarry Farm was the benefit of its careful, skillful curation. As well as a strong collection by any measure, the wide range and organization of materials on offer sparked new questions and pointed to additional dimensions of my project.

For example, my project began with Twain’s short story “The £1,000,000 Bank Note,” attempting to follow how the story provides a kind of “map” for the role of money and purchasing in rendering the Twain persona real. This project has benefited greatly from Judith Yaross Lee’s wonderful book about Mark Twain’s brand, which I consulted a few times during my stay, and which got me thinking about personhood in the way that philosophical pragmatists thought about it. I could scratch that itch with some of the work of William James and helpfully positioned books about the Twain persona. With pragmatic personhood in mind, I also happened on Mark Twain’s What is Man, which I had never actually thought to read before, but which seems like a natural choice now. And it was an extremely fruitful choice in reframing my project, not merely as the incidental effect of a business practice, but as a proper philosophical commitment. Large sections of the library are devoted to Mark Twain’s travels, which seemed relevant given that “Bank Note” is set in London, and which got me thinking that I should finally read The Innocents Abroad. I read Innocents without any plans for it—just because it seemed like a pleasurable thing to read at Quarry Farm—though that too led to useful new ideas and connections (again, curse of the field…). The great fun of The Innocents Abroad is not the travel so much as the hijinks—the pranks on Italian tour guides and so on (Is… is he dead?). It’s not about imagining getting to see things, but imagining hanging out with Mark Twain and his friends, which seemed like arriving back at pragmatic personhood. This, in turn, came full-circle when, in some of my archival prodding, I learned about The Innocents Abroad, the board game, which was sold in the last decades of the nineteenth century—a product that, once purchased, would place players on the Quaker City to simulate that experience of hanging out with Mark Twain. Things were getting richer and more complicated, and starting to add up, too.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to understand the genuine pleasure of my visit to Quarry Farm as coterminous with my more austere work there. After all, I was, myself, doing pretty much the same thing that I’ve been claiming nineteenth-century people were doing. By interacting with texts and artefacts I was also encountering Mark Twain and his loved ones in a way that felt almost viscerally real—in a way that was deeply personal and that made it surprisingly hard to say goodbye. It was a research experience like no other—equal parts personally moving and intellectually energizing, and no more or less one for the other.

Image courtesy of Khyl Stephen