October 6 & 7, 2023 – Elmira, NY
The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College hosted its annual Quarry Farm Symposium from Friday, October 6 and Saturday, October 7, 2023, organized around the theme of Mark Twain: Invention, Technology, and Science Fiction. The keynote address was presented by Sheila Williams, the multiple Hugo award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. The annual symposium gathers scholars from various fields around a theme related to Mark Twain studies or the nineteenth-century more broadly and is held at the historic Quarry Farm site, where Twain wrote his most famous works during summer stays with his wife’s family in Elmira, New York.
In his landmark 2010 essay, “On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History,” John Rieder wrestles with the slippery definition of “science fiction.” He notes that clear genre definitions are frequently demanded by “two institutional locations, commercial publishing and the academy, and this pair of institutions bears no accidental resemblance to the oppositions between high and low culture….” (204). Building from Bourdieu and Habermas, Rieder argues that because of these “contradictory drives for economic profit and cultural prestige in commercial publishing, the history of sf is well positioned to contribute importantly to broader cultural history…” (206).
Scholars have acknowledged that much of Twain’s work could be labeled “science fiction” if it were published today, an understanding that goes back at least as far as David Ketterer’s 1984 collection, The Science Fiction of Mark Twain. Twain’s writing appeared in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace side-by-side with dime novels about boy explorers in submarines or airships, hero-worshipping biographies of famous inventors, and the translated works of contemporaries like Jules Verne. Moreover, Twain embodies the straddling of popular success and cultural prestige that Rieder mentions; then and now, Twain’s career navigated these contradictions. Locating when and how Twain’s work fits the “science fiction” label can help us see the limits and utility of genre.
Of course, Twain is more than just a literary figure; he was part of a culture immersed in science and technology. Alan Gribben, in Mark Twain’s Literary Resources, Vol. 1 (2019), specifically notes science was one area Twain read voraciously, including “an entire set of Charles Darwin’s works” and “at least a dozen titles” on astronomy (44). Once he had money, Twain constantly sought new inventions to fund; his investments in new printing technology partly caused his bankruptcy. Gary Scharnhorst’s recent biography The Life of Mark Twain: The Final Years (2022) reminds us that Twain spent his later years scrutinizing osteopathy, Christian science, and other nascent medical movements, partly to help his ailing wife and daughters. Twain constantly interacted with all these developing fields and more, frequently in very public, mercurial ways.
With all this in mind, this symposium worked to understand the “broader cultural history” Rieder mentions by placing Twain and his contemporaries within the cultural transformations of science and technology, and within the broad literary boundaries of science fiction. What do we learn if we look at science fiction through the lens of Mark Twain, or Mark Twain through the lens of science fiction? The symposium welcomed a range of papers on this theme, including the following topics and more:
- Portrayals of science and technology in fiction by Mark Twain and/or his contemporaries
- Scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas that influenced literature during Twain’s lifetime (1835-1910)
- Critical interrogations of nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric, knowledge-making, and science-related art and letters
- Critical examinations of the writing surrounding nineteenth-century invention and science, including patents, copyrights, planning documents, promotional materials, and more
- Research on inventors in Twain’s circle of acquaintances, including James Paige, Nikola Tesla, Jan Szczepanik, or larger concerns such as Hartford’s Colt Arms Factory, and their portrayals by Twain or by other writers in “heroic” biographies, magazine features, etc.
- Science fiction in nineteenth-century humor, including frontier narratives, tall tales, scientific romances, and satires
- Twain’s place in the evolving definition of science fiction, including perceptions of him among writers of the Gernsback era, the “Golden Age,” the New Wave, Afrofuturists, and other movements
- Modern technologies and their role in reproducing Twain in online editions, in memes, in repurposed quotations on Facebook, et al.
- Studies of appropriations of Twain’s image or work in science fiction, including steampunk, space opera, or other sub-genres
Shelia Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction
SESSION ONE: Twain in the Context of Science Fiction
Edward Guimont, “Shadow of the Comet: Celestial Speculation in Twain’s Lifetime”
James D. Keeline, “Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone and Hugo Gernsbeck and Ernst Ruhmer and the Telephot”
Bruce Michelson, “AI and the Technological Seductions of Mark Twain’s World”
SESSION TWO: Technology in Twain’s Novels
Chander Shekhar, “Navigating Whites’ Utopia: An Active Readers Response to Puddn’head Wilson“
Todd Nathan Thompson, “Weapons of Mass Distraction: A Comic Genealogy of A Connecticut Yankee‘s Speculative Exceptionalism”
Judith Yaross Lee, “Responses to Todd Nathan Thompson and Chander Shekhar: Technology and Imperialism in Mark Twain’s Novels”
SESSION THREE: Science Fiction from Twain’s Era
Patrick Prominski, “‘The Diamond Lens’ and Fitz-James O’Brien’s Imagined Order”
Ronny Litvack-Katzman, “Science Fiction at the Boundary of Genre”
Anjalee Gunaratnam, “Aliens of Our World: Nineteenth-Century Naturalists in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and John Clare’s Bird Poems“
SESSION FOUR: Twain, Science, and Religious Faith
Nicole Amare and Alan Manning, “Twain to Twilight: Latter-day Saint Motifs and Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing”
Max Chapnick, “Mark Twain vs. Christian Science and Empire”
Matt Seybold, “The World-Empire”
Nathaniel Williams is the author of Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America (University of Alabama Press, 2018). He is Associate Editor for The Mark Twain Annual and on the editorial board of The Incredible 19th Century (I19). His articles have appeared in American Literature, Utopian Studies, and elsewhere. He is a continuing lecturer for the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis.
Sheila Williams is the multiple Hugo-Award winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. She is also the winner of the 2017 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award for distinguished contributions to the science fiction and fantasy community.
Sheila started at Asimov’s in June 1982 as the editorial assistant. Over the years, she was promoted to a number of different editorial positions at the magazine and she also served as the executive editor of Analog from 1998 until 2004. With Rick Wilber, she is also the co-founder of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. This annual award has been bestowed on the best short story by an undergraduate student at the International Conference on the Fantastic since 1994.
In addition, Sheila is the editor or co-editor of twenty-six anthologies. Her newest anthology, Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, was published as part of the MIT Press Twelve Tomorrow series.
Nicole Amare is a Professor of English at the University of South Alabama. With Alan Manning, she has published research on Mark Twain’s wrestle with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Max Chapnick is a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University where he is teaching First-Year Writing and Advanced Writing in the Disciplines for Science. He recently defended his dissertation Wild Science: Radical Politics and Rejected Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Fiction at Boston University. His academic writing appears or is forthcoming in J19, Studies in Romanticism, American Periodicals, Configurations, ESQ, and PMLA.
Edward Guimont received his PhD in history from the University of Connecticut, and is currently Assistant Professor of World History at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts. His first monograph, H. P. Lovecraft and Astronomy: When the Stars Are Right (coauthored with Horace A. Smith) will be published by Hippocampus Press in fall 2023. He is currently writing a political history of the Flat Earth movement. His work has appeared in Contingent Magazine, The Lovecraft Annual, Quest: The History of Spaceflight, and Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.
Anjalee Gunaratnam recently completed her M.A. in English at McGill, where she also graduated with a double B.A. in Philosophy and English Literature. As a literary scholar with a philosophical edge, she finds the intersections between literature, history, and the philosophy of science and metaphysics to be the most fascinating. She has spent most of her graduate degree specializing in nineteenth-century British literature, focusing on the fiction of H.G. Wells.
Additionally, she has given a guest lecture on Wells’s The Time Machine, won the James McGill Graduate Award for her colloquium presentation on John Clare, and has completed a research project under the supervision of Professor Michael Nicholson in which she investigated SF’s use of linguistics. In her thesis, she wrote about spatial estrangement, the figurative use of philosophies of time, and the significance of perspectival shifts in fin-de-siècle scientific romances. Her work has recently been accepted for publication in The Wellsian. She aims to pursue a PhD that explores the language of energy – from its poetic and ecocritical uses to its role in Victorian thermodynamics and industry – in the works of George Eliot, H.G. Wells, Anne Brontë, Charles Dickens, and more.
James D. Keeline has researched and written about the history of juvenile series books for about 35 years. As an independent scholar, he has published dozens of articles and given presentations since 1992, including nearly annual presentations for the Popular Culture Association conferences. He was area chair of the PCA section devoted to series books and dime novels for two terms totaling 13 years. His long-term projects nearing completion include a Series Book Encyclopedia which gives basic information on hundreds of series and people who created them. After twelve years (1988-2000) managing an antiquarian bookstore specializing in collectible children’s books, James returned to the IT world where he is a Linux system admin for a small company, managing more than three dozen servers for their applications.
Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Communication Studies at Ohio University, where she taught from 1990 to 2019. Her six books and five dozen articles on American popular rhetorics include Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), Seeing MAD: Essays on MAD Magazine’s Humor and Legacy (2020), and “The Sociable Sam Clemens: Mark Twain Among Friends” (2018). She chaired the 2020 Quarry Farm Symposium, “American Humor and Matters of Empire,” based on her essay of the same name in Studies in American Humor. She is currently completing a study of Clemens’s 37-year relationship with the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
Ronny Litvack-Katzman recently graduated from with a MA in English from McGill University, from where he also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science. His SSHRC-supported thesis project used narratological approaches to explore interdisciplinary questions in nineteenth-century science and its literary manifestations. His current work on gendered narrative dynamics in early science fiction lies at the confluence of gender studies, genre studies, and the history and philosophy of science – research he plans to pursue in at the PhD-level.
Alan Manning taught linguistics, editing, and writing courses for 35 years at various institutions: Louisiana State University, Stephen F. Austin University, Idaho State University, and Brigham Young University. Though formally retired since 2022, he continues to advise and mentor the student editors of Leading Edge: A Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, published by the editing program in the Department of Linguistics at Brigham Young University. He has written two fantasy/sci-fi novels himself and has co-authored several research articles (with Nicole Amare) on Mark Twain’s complicated interactions with Latter-day Saints and Restored-Gospel theology.
Bruce Michelson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois. He has been President of the Mark Twain Circle of America and the American Humor Studies Association. Author of Mark Twain on the Loose, Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution, Literary Wit, and other books, he has received John S. Tuckey and the Louis J. Budd Awards for his scholarship on Mark Twain, and a Charlie Award for his contributions to the study of American humor.
Patrick Prominski is Assistant Professor of English and the Composition Coordinator at Grand Rapids Community College. At GRCC, he teaches first-year writing, literature classes, and mentors in the honors program. Research interests include Charles Brockden Brown, physicians and medicine in 19th century American literature, and the professionalization of the sciences in fiction. His most recent publication is “Samuel Thomson’s Crusade: Populism, Folk Remedy, and Tradition in Timothy Flint and Catharine Maria Sedgwick,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Literature and Medicine.
Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies, as well as Director of the Media Studies program at Elmira College. He is the resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies, where he edits MarkTwainStudies.org and produces The American Vandal Podcast. He is co-editor of The Routledge Companion To Literature & Economics and a 2019 special issue of American Literary History on “Economics & Literary Studies in the New Gilded Age.” Other recent and forthcoming work can be found in American Literary Realism, Leviathan, Los Angeles Review of Books, Mark Twain Annual, The Cambridge Companion to Literature & Economics, and the John Hopkins Guide to Critical & Cultural Theory.
Chander Shekhar is an Assistant Professor of English at the Department of English and Foreign Languages, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Uttar Pradesh, India. He received his PhD in American literature from Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, India in May 2023. His research interests include Historical Fiction, Memory Studies, Reader-response, the Role of Reader, Narrative Techniques, Utopian Studies, Dystopian Studies, Protopia, Violence, and Technology. He also has a keen interest in Future Studies, Dalit Studies, and Environmental Studies. He has published articles on utopian/protopian thinking and its relation to technology and society. His articles appeared in Forum for World Literature Studies and Pertanika: Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities.
Todd Nathan Thompson is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Contributing Editor to Studies in American Humor. Todd is author of A Laughable Empire: The US Imagines the Pacific World, 1840-1890 (Penn State University Press, 2023) and The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). Todd has earned research fellowships through the Center for Mark Twain Studies, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Lilly Library. His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in American Periodicals, Scholarly Editing, Early American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Teaching American Literature, and elsewhere. At IUP, Todd teaches graduate and undergraduate literature and writing courses, including classes on humor and satire, literature and activism, and pre-1900 American literature.