Recap of the Quarry Farm Symposium “Mark Twain and Nature”

From Friday, October 4 to Sunday, October 6, scholars from Japan, France, Hawaii, Nevada, California, and from all over the United States gathered together in Elmira, New York, the historic home of the Langdon family, the Mark Twain Study, and Quarry Farm – the place where over the span of over twenty consecutive summers, Twain wrote some of the most iconic texts in American literature.

The purpose of the gathering was to participate in the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Sixth Quarry Farm Symposium, “Mark Twain and Nature.” The natural world figures prominently in the writings of Mark Twain, whether as the main object of description and commentary as in Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It or as an inextricable element of fictional narratives such as The Adventures of Tom SawyerAdventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and more. However, these writings (other than short excerpts from Life and Roughing It) rarely find their way into anthologies of nature writing. And yet, Twain’s writing about the natural world across his literary oeuvre provides prescient and germane commentary on the relationship between human beings and the natural world—revealing it to be a conflicted a relationship of antagonism and praise. On the one hand, he seemed at war with nature: “The purpose of all human laws is one—to defeat the laws of Nature.” On the other hand, he expressed both awe and respect for the power of the natural world: “Architects cannot teach nature anything,” and “Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.”

CMTS’s Sixth Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium was organized by Ben Click (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) and offered various critical examinations of the natural world in Twain’s writing: as nature writing similar to the ecocritical discourse of Thoreau, Dillard, and Abbey; as exploration of the aesthetic nexus between art and nature; as commentary on animal welfare; and as analysis of the intersection between nature and culture. Moreover, the papers cut across all periods of Twain’s writing life and furthered the claim of Twain as a forerunner to mid-20th to early 21st century writers such as Krutch, Cuppy, Abbey, Kingsolver, Quammen, and Gessner who now offer comic responses to nature as well as recognize the intrinsically humorous place of humanity in nature.

Festivities began on Friday, October 4 in the Rotunda of Cowles Hall, the original building of Elmira College, less than 100 yards away from the Mark Twain Study. After a cocktail hour and dinner, Michael P. Branch delivered the keynote address. Branch is a writer of creative nonfiction and humor, who focuses on the environment and the life in the American West. Branch is also professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has published five books and more than two hundred essays, articles, and reviews.

As a high desert rat and a writer of creative nonfiction that is both environmental and comic, Branch’s keynote, entitled “Made in Nevada,” considered Twain’s legacy in that area, and reflected on Twain’s influence on his own work. In particular, how did Twain lead the way in showing environmental authors that writing about the natural world could also be funny? As part of his presentation Mike shared several pieces from his recent books—Raising Wild (2016), Rants from the Hill (2017), and How to Cuss in Western (2018)—pieces that owe a great deal to Twain’s legacy as a nature writer, a humor writer, and a one-time Nevadan. Mike Branch’s keynote address can be found here.

The next day was located entirely at Quarry Farm. Symposium presenters delivered nine papers in three distinct panels. This was followed up by a roundtable discussion that encourage all attendees to participate. Breakfast and lunch was served in the Farm’s Maid’s Cottage and the Front Porch. After all the papers were delivered, the symposium was concluded with a closing reception on the Front Porch where all attendees discussed the day’s events, took in the majestic view of the Chemung River Valley, and enjoyed an assortment of refreshments. This was followed by a dinner and good cheer in the Barn.

The following are all the papers presented during the symposium. CMTS is confident that this group of lectures will encourage scholars to reconsider Mark Twain as a person who is deeply sensitive and has complex ideas about the environment, nature aesthetics, wilderness, animal welfare, and other topics pertaining to the natural world.

  • J.Mark Baggett, “‘Practicing the Wild’: Twain and Thoreau at the Lakes (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Katherine E. Bishop, “‘A Wilderness of Oil Pictures’: Reframing Nature in A Tramp Abroad” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images
  • Michael. P. Branch, “Made in Nevada” (Keynote Address – October 4, 2019 – Cowles Hall – Elmira College Campus) Video Clip
  • Charles C. Bradshaw, “Animal Welfare and the Democratic Frontier: Mark Twain’s Condemnation of Bullfighting in A Horse’s Tale” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images
  • Ryan Heryford, “‘the breath of flower that perished’: The Imperial Ecologies of Mark Twain’s Early Letters” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images
  • Barbara Ladd, “‘Night after Night, Day after Day’: Mark Twain and the Natural World” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Delphine Louis-Dimitrov, “Nature in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc: Pastoralism Revisited” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images
  • Don James McLaughlin, “Microphobias: Medicine after Miasma in Twain’s 3,000 Years among the Microbes” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn) Lecture Images
  • Lisa Vandenbossche, “Nature as Historian in Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Emily E. VanDette, “‘A Dog’s Tale’ in Context: Twain & the Transatlantic Anti-Vivisection Campaign” (October 5, 2019 – Quarry Farm Barn)