“‘Personal Recollections’ of 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.

Bernard Joseph (B.J.) Dobski is a Professor of Political Science at Assumption University in Worcester, MA, where he teaches courses on political philosophy, international relations, and American foreign policy. While his training and much of his scholarly work focuses on classical Greek political thought, especially the work of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato, he also has co-edited volumes on the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare, most notably Souls With Longing (Lexington, 2011), Shakespeare and the Body Politic (Lexington, 2013), and “The Political Wisdom of William Shakespeare” (Perspectives on Political Science, 2012). His published work on Mark Twain appears in The Review of Politics (“‘We Should See Certain Things Yet, Let Us Hope and Believe’: Technology, Sex, and Politics in Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee,” 2007), The Journal of American Political Thought (“Gospel of Joan: Statesmanship and Providential Politics in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections,” 2020), and in The Artistic Foundations of Nations and Citizens: Art, Literature, and the Political Community (Neither Patriot, Nor Saint: The Theological Implications of Twain’s Portrait of Nationalism in Personal Recollections,” 2021).  

During his Quarry Farm residency, Professor Dobski participated in the 2023 Park Church Summer Lectures. You can view his talk with the link below.

  • Bernard J. Dobski, “Twain’s Machiavellian Princess: Personal Recollections and Political Philosophy” (August 2, 2023 – The Park Church)

I recently completed a project dedicated to Mark Twain’s last complete novel, the one that he called his best and worthy of his greatest efforts, but which is also, regrettably, all-too-often ignored and unread, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. As a Political Scientist whose training and scholarly background are primarily centered around classical Greek political philosophy, my work on Twain’s Joan entailed a learning curve that was both long and steep. That means that for the last few years, Mark Twain and his Joan of Arc have become full-time residents in the homes that I have shared with my partner. All those whose scholarly pursuits have taken them away from time with their family and friends will thus appreciate how grateful I am that my girlfriend has welcomed both Twain and Joan into our lives. So, I was especially pleased that the Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Quarry Farm Fellowship gave me the opportunity to “return the favor”, as it were, by allowing us to live and work where Twain lived and worked for twenty of his most prolific summers.

Bernard J. Dobski on the Quarry Farm Porch (photo courtesy of the author)

My research on Mark Twain seeks to place arguably America’s greatest man of letters within the three-thousand year tradition of political philosophy in the West. More precisely, my work on the book that Twain devoted to a French-Catholic saint endeavors to illuminate both his reflections on and his contributions to an understanding of divine providence in human and political affairs. While Twain’s work and correspondence are filled with searing criticisms of institutional religion, his work on Joan is far more respectful and appears to take seriously Joan’s claims to divine revelation and the subsequent belief held by others that Joan herself may have been divine. Twain’s presentation of his heroine and the thoughtfulness about religious belief that this work cultivates within his readers stands in stark contrast with the philosophical determinism and moral pessimism so often attributed to him. My reading of Personal Recollections attributes this greater sensitivity to the possibility of divine revelation to Twain’s engagement with the texts, figures, and questions that define political philosophy as it was practiced from the ancient Greeks up to the nineteenth century. I thus came to Quarry Farms to explore its wonderful collection of primary and secondary sources, the Crane and Langdon libraries, and the archives at the Gannett-Tripp library in the hopes of deepening the links between Twain and the texts of political philosophy that inform his last complete book.  

As anyone familiar with Twain can tell you, with this literary master there is no such thing as a “smoking gun.” Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, with the ever-cagey Twain, for every “smoking gun” one finds, you are sure to encounter something, somewhere else where he says the exact opposite (or nearly so). It seems the only thing one can reliably count on to grasp Twain’s political wisdom is the texts he provides us. And when it comes to understanding those texts, what I found at Quarry Farm gave me more than I was hoping for.   

At Quarry Farm, one does not simply live and work and think where Twain lived and worked and thought. The setting is such that one comes to live and work and think with the man himself. It is as if one has been temporarily granted the power of Twain’s “No. 44” (the Mysterious Stranger) to conjure the past into existence. The “real past,” as he tells August Feldner, “not an image of it; I can summon it out of the unborn ages, and there it is before my eyes. Alive and real, not a fancy, an image, a creation of the imagination.” It is something like this divine and sacred power that Quarry Farm gives to those fortunate enough to spend time there.

It is not possible for me to improve upon the testimonials of others with their moving descriptions of the house and the majesty of its surroundings. Nor do I have it in my power to convey the experience of sitting on the porch where Twain and his family enjoyed countless hours overlooking the valley below. There they surely witnessed, as I did, the morning fog lift to reveal mountains that change from blue to green to a deep purple as the sun crosses the sky. And being animal lovers, the Clemens and Crane families no doubt took delight, as my girlfriend and I did, in the deer, foxes, raccoons, cats, and birds who remain the Farm’s permanent residents. Honestly, it is a place that must be seen to be believed.

After acclimating myself to the Crane home, my work routine for the two weeks I was at Quarry Farm was deliciously simple. At night before going to bed, I would peruse the property’s many collections, whether the Crane-Langdon library on the first floor, or the wonderfully resourced scholars lounge near the second-floor bedrooms. Whether driven by my research agenda or simply inspired by what I found on the shelves, I would set aside texts that I wanted to explore the following day. Early the next morning, equipped with a cup of coffee and a cigar, I would sit outside on the porch and devour the primary and secondary literature that I had collected the previous night. I should stress here, as others have, the incredible benefit of having at one’s fingertips the resources one needs to complete one’s scholarly projects. The amount of work written by and on Twain is vast and often difficult to have ready-to-hand.  Quarry Farm’s collections allowed me to deepen my grasp of Twain’s work and thought at a rate that would have taken me many months elsewhere.  

My workdays (if one can call such leisure “work”) were punctuated by strolls around the property, often to the hilltop where Twain’s study was originally built, or by visits to nearby Elmira College (where his study is currently located) and the Langdon-Clemens plots at Woodlawn Cemetery. Then, in the late afternoons and early evenings, I would adjourn to the first-floor library to plunge myself into many of the wonderful histories and works of poetry that Twain and his family owned and read. With a productive day behind me, the leisurely selection of texts would commence all over again.

Given such an experience, it will come as no surprise that, like many before me (and I am sure those who will come after), I swore never to leave Quarry Farm and told Joe Lemak that he would have to drag me from there kicking and screaming. (Fortunately for the both of us it did not come to that!)

Not to be forgotten in all of this was the wonderful staff at the Gannett-Tripp library who helped me navigate their archives. It was there, amidst Twain’s personal correspondence and the additional secondary literature, that I would discover much of the textual evidence that strengthened my understanding of Twain’s engagement with the work of classical political philosophy. And as I noted, it was not a “smoking gun” that I discovered, but the keen insights of others working before me whose scholarship opened up new vistas for understanding Twain’s relationship with the texts of the ancient Greek world.

I also want to express my gratitude to Joe Lemak for the opportunity to share my work on Twain’s Personal Recollections at Park Church. The talk gave me an opportunity to tighten up and rework some of the research I had been conducting at Quarry Farm. The audience was engaged and asked wonderfully thoughtful questions. And the video record of the talk, with its posting on CMTS’s website, made my research visible to an audience as wide (if not wider) as most academic publications.   

Finally, it deserves noting that in the months leading up to my residency at Quarry Farm, I completed the bulk of my book manuscript on Twain’s Personal Recollections. But I struggled with my closing chapter. I felt like I had made the necessary arguments and had defended my particular reading of and approach to Twain as well as I could. And yet, I still was dissatisfied with the work’s final chapter. Thankfully, my time at Quarry Farm provided me with the resources and the materials to draw to a persuasive close my study of Twain’s last and “best” novel. And far from just allowing me to bring my book to a much more effective conclusion, my experience at Quarry Farm, I believe, deepened my understanding of Twain and the contributions this giant of American literature made to political philosophy in the West. The result is, I hope, a more persuasive accounting of Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Thanks to the opportunity afforded me by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, that manuscript is now in the hands of prospective publishers where it will hope to find its readers.

View from the Quarry Farm Porch (photo courtesy of the author)