Quarry Farm Redux (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.

Laura Skandera-Trombley

Laura Skandera Trombley, in addition to being the forthcoming president of Southwestern University, is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award from the Mark Tewain Circle of America for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

President Trombley has given a number of lectures for CMTS in the past, including:

President Trombley wrote this personal reflection at Quarry Farm in early June 2020 when the United States was experiencing much civil unrest and protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd.

This week has been one of those very rare times when I have had the opportunity to exclusively think and write about my scholarly subject of study, Mark Twain. When I have visited in the past, as a scholar-in-residence, I would meet with various groups interested in Twain and his contribution to American literature and give a public lecture. Not this time. New York is still in the grips of COVID-19, and so my lecture is a podcast and I am here alone. It is peaceful on Water Cure Hill in this old house filled with books written by and about Twain. When sitting on the veranda, where Clemens and his family would take in the fresh air and breezes making their way up the valley, are a stunning panorama of the town and the Chemung River snaking its way between rolling hills. 

I am here to work on a project, now approximately six years in the making. All of my book length projects always take an inordinate amount of time, in part because I write slowly with lots of multiple drafts and because as an administrator most of my writing is done on the weekends and very early in the morning. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Clemens’ relationships with women as well as the last decade or so of his life, up until now I haven’t really spent much time studying his earlier years. Due to a series of unexpected events, I’ve become consumed with trying to figure out what transpired that made possible Clemens’ transition from a newspaper journalist and stand up comedian into an author of books and beloved public intellectual. I expect to be working on this manuscript for the next few years.

My first visit to Quarry Farm was in the spring of 1989, approximately eighty-five years after Clemens’ last, and I believe that I may have been the first doctoral fellow to be invited. I arrived after a long flight from California carrying my thirty pound “portable” computer from Radio Shack with the goal of beginning my dissertation. It was at Quarry Farm, sitting in the same room where I am today, where I had a panicked vision of what I was about to attempt. I felt like an ant whose assignment was to remove every grain of sand from an enormous beach. The task felt insurmountable; however, for the next two months, I began removing the sand grain by grain and wrote page after page. Other than occasional trips to the market, driven by the caretaker since I had no car, I was alone in this rambling farmhouse with one rotary phone and quaint, tiny Victorian furniture all too small to fit my 5’10 frame. I listened to the sudden rainstorms that would sweep across the valley and sat outside at night staring at the stars while the mosquitos feasted on my bare legs. This was the first time in my graduate school life, thanks to the generosity of The Center, that I was afforded the opportunity to take a break from my part-time jobs as a house cleaner and cocktail waitress, and to write, listen to the quiet, and think deeply.

The Kitchen at Quarry Farm

There was one tiny black and white television on the kitchen counter and if I arranged the rabbit ears just right, I could watch a blurry CNN broadcast. This was the spring of discontent, of revolution, of Tiananmen Square. I watched the student leaders breathlessly tell reporters that they were there to demand democracy, better education, more jobs, and political empowerment. I watched for hours sitting on that hard-wooden chair. I saw the bravery of the lone protester who would not allow the tank to pass, and I wept when the protestors were massacred.

This week, thirty-one years later, I am watching CNN again, this time on my laptop computer, while I sit on the veranda in the evening light swatting bugs. I watch while a video is endlessly replayed of a policeman slowly squeezing the life out of George Floyd while three other policemen stand back and stare. In city after city there are protests and violence and fires. Black lives matter. I listen to anguished and angry Americans demanding an end to systematized racism. I think about my students I taught this spring, first in person and then online, young people of color who have worked so hard to be college, who want to earn their degree, to have a career, to take care of their families, to be safe. I am too angry to weep.

I stay awake at night listening to the creaks and shudders of the house as the spring winds blow, thinking about the juxtaposition of the privilege of reflection and quiet, lifeblood to a scholar, and the chaos of the world beyond. Samuel Clemens relished the calm of Quarry Farm, but he didn’t live there. He grew up in a very different place as the son of slaveholding parents in Missouri. He was raised, as he put it, to have “no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” Let me be clear, Clemens was no secular saint, yet he called out America’s racism and mourned the tragedy of the failure of Reconstruction in his writing. In addition to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he published “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” about an enslaved woman’s loss of her family, and The Tragedy of Pudd’head Wilson, again about the loss of family due to slavery. In 1901, nine years before his death, he wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom” in reaction to a lynching in Missouri.

Perhaps the pundits are right, and nothing will ever be the same again. I hope so. I am desperately tired of the past and the denials and the rationalizations. America has been harboring the vicious virus of racism since our founding. Our country is crying out for change now and we all must listen, acknowledge, empathize, and respect the voices that have been trying to tell us the truth for centuries. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Enough of the rhyming. The poem I hear is Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”