On Top of the Hill: Losing and Living 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.

Sarah Nance is an Assistant Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy. Her work examines late 19th, 20th, and 21st-century literature and art through the lens of the medical humanities, and her current scholarly book project explores the intersections of illness, violence, and scale in contemporary literature. She is also at work on a collection of poems about the strange temporality of grief and the physical locations associated with loss. Her critical and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Literature and MedicineArizona QuarterlyThe Los Angeles Review of BooksASAP/J, BelletristParenthesesMuse/A, and elsewhere.

Professor Nance at Quarry Farm

There’s an old, rectangular magnet on the fridge door at Quarry Farm, in a small room off the kitchen that’s still lined on one wall with the original ice box and its small silver nameplate (“McCray Refrigerator & Cold Storage Co.”, 1882). Pictured there is a black-and-white image of the valley below the East Hill, and an excerpt from a letter from Samuel Clemens to William Dean Howells on June 14, 1877: “But we are housed here on top of the hill, now, where it is always cool, & still, & reposeful & bewitching.” 

To live at Quarry Farm—even if just for a few weeks—is to live enchanted, experiencing the same bewitching draw of the house that Clemens describes to Howell as I open the front door onto the porch and vast green lawn every morning, feeling the cool June air fill the foyer along with the smell of coffee. The first day I walk the house’s hallways and rooms, marveling at each desk and lamp and book and painting on the wall. By the second, the two-floor expanse feels homier: my toothbrush in the bathroom, my own books left on the library table for the next day’s reading, my evening visits on the porch with a bobbed-tail tuxedo cat who meows loudly for scratches behind the ears.

Polyphemus Moth on the Quarry Farm Porch

I came to Quarry Farm to work on a poetry manuscript about loss, orientated around the changing spaces and altered temporalities we find in grief. It feels strange, in a way, to be working on this project in a house that was—and remains—so much alive: the whir of a lawnmower or the slam of a screen door as my partner comes inside; the deer we see race across the lawn midday; the birds swooping from one large treetop to another, the little barks of a chipmunk standing on a stone step; the humanlike shriek of a red fox in the woods late at night. One morning there’s a giant moth resting on the porch, the largest insect I’ve ever seen: a Polyphemus moth, I learn, who beats his wings for hours to warm himself before taking off into the safety of a nearby tree. 

And yet loss is pressed into all the corners of Twain’s biography, and thus into the house as well: there is something haunting about the photographs of Twain seated on the steps to his study during his last visit to Quarry Farm, years after the family quit summering there, several years after his daughter Susy’s death. Twain, who produced so prolifically throughout his life, acknowledged the difficulty of facing loss through language, writing the following to William Bowen in 1873 after Bowen also lost a child: “[F]or words are empty at such times; they are but the shadow of consolation without the substance; they bring no relief, they can suggest no comfort.” How, then, does language attempt to describe the grief of loss? Twain seems to have attempted it, in the brief account of his daughter Jean’s death on Christmas Eve—titled “The Death of Jean”—which he wrote shortly before his own death, and he finds some hope in the words of others. As he wrote to his wife after Susy’s death, “Livy darling, it broke my heart – what you wrote to Sue about immortality. Let us believe in it! I will believe in it with you.” 

Professor Nance’s Workspace at Quarry Farm

As I read through accounts of Twain’s losses in the upstairs library, window open facing the barn, the house itself takes on a slightly different tenor, a crystallization of the center of Twain’s life with grief blurring the boundaries on either end but never quite intruding. There is space here, too, for the whirling mind of Twain: Twain the charmer, the inventor, the center spoke of so many networks. This is, after all, how my manuscript first intersected with Twain. I thought I was writing in part about people local to my current home state of Colorado: Margaret Brown, Denver socialite saved from the Titanic; Nikola Tesla, who set up a laboratory in Colorado Springs to harness electricity through elevation. And yet Twain appeared where I went, rumored to have saved the unsinkable Molly Brown from drowning as a baby when they both lived in Hannibal, preserved in a photo with his iconic dark mustache and long gray hair, holding a ball of light in Tesla’s laboratory in New York. And yet from our vantage point, to see the house, the study, the cemetery—the photos of his daughters on the walls, the name of his son Langdon carved into a watering trough in front of the house as a monument—is to always also see the preservation of a great grief, a specimen of sorts. My manuscript is interested in 18th and 19th century practices of mourning, particularly in their overlap with collecting more generally. In the same way a locket of hair or faded photograph remind us of loss, so too do specimens mounted on a pin: these are the objects that outlive us.  

I came to Quarry Farm looking for ghosts and found something different: a way to inhabit a space of joy that is also a space of sorrow. And yet, what joy: the bats swooping low through the sky on our last night there as the sun began to set, the mosquitos held off by the dampness of a late-afternoon rain earlier that day. At the bottom of the rolling field-of-a-yard, a meadow filled with lightning bugs, glistening like fairy lights in the trees, deer grazing along the edge of the road as the light dimmed. Looking back up the hill, the house, with all of its lights ablaze, looked like its own perfect specimen, that which has housed and harbored so many and will, with any luck, outlive all of us as well.

Steps leading up to the original site of the Study