Six Degrees of Samuel Clemens (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.

Alan Rankin is a writer and independent researcher with an abiding interest in the unexplored corners of history. Since 1992, he has been studying the life of Nina Gabrilowitsch, Mark Twain’s granddaughter. His presentation “Nina: The Lost Diary of Nina Gabrilowitsch” was received with acclaim at the 2019 Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri. The companion piece, “Finding the Lost Diary of Mark Twain’s Granddaughter,” appears on the website for the Center for Mark Twain Studies. His work-in-progress chronicles the lives of Nina and her parents, Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Clara Clemens, in Europe and America during the Roaring ’20s. He also writes a biographical column for Renaissance Magazine.

His October 2019 post “Finding The Lost Diary of Mark Twain’s Granddaughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch” can be found HERE.

His September 2021 lecture “Out of The Shadow: Mark Twain’s Granddaughter” can be found HERE.

I shall not tarry to speak of the handsome Lago di Gardi; its stately castle that holds in its stony bosom the secrets of an age so remote that even tradition goeth not back to it; the imposing mountain scenery that ennobles the landscape thereabouts.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

I had breakfast with Mother on that lovely large balcony from which one sees so much, and then I packed. I took two pictures. The Lago di Garda was beautifully calm and blue, and on the right the mountains were imposing in the sun, with the old castle midway between. They are worth the snapshots.

The Diary of Nina Gabrilowitsch (Tuesday, August 12, 1924)
Vintage travel poster for Lago di Garda (Lake Garda), Italy, mid-20th century.
Castle visible on the left.

When Harper Lee was living in New York City, friends surprised her with an unusual, and unusually generous, Christmas gift. They gave her a year’s worth of wages, so she could finish writing her book.[i] The result was one of the great American novels: To Kill a Mockingbird (and later, a classic film). The book was one of a rare class, like Huckleberry Finn or The Diary of a Young Girl, that bravely portrayed, commented on, and agitated against a real social injustice. So that gift of a year’s wages, beyond being incredibly thoughtful, could be seen as an actual service to human understanding.

During my time at Quarry Farm, I learned that there’s a similar story from Mark Twain lore. Samuel Clemens and his family spent their summers at remote Quarry Farm, which was owned by Twain’s sister-in-law Sue Crane. Sue Crane knew how important the place was to his writing. So one year she presented him with an unusual gift: a remote study where he could go and write without interruption. The results included Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other works in which Twain often portrayed, commented on, and agitated against social injustice. Again: we’re all still benefiting from that thoughtful gesture.

Mark Twain’s Study, now located on the campus of Elmira College. Photo by Alan Rankin.

Sue Crane’s grand-nephew, Jervis Langdon Jr.,and the nearby Elmira College found a way to make sure that gift kept on giving: the Quarry Farm Fellowships. The house and grounds that so inspired Twain are regularly opened to those who are deeply involved in studying his work and his world. To my surprise, that includes “independent scholars” like myself.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, my interest in Mark Twain came about by accident. I began studying the life of Nina Gabrilowitsch after stumbling on her 1924 teenage diary; I didn’t know her connection to Samuel Clemens until later. Unlike most Quarry Farm Fellows, I am not a doctoral candidate, or an Assistant Professor of Anything. In studying Nina’s life and works, I was mostly self-taught. (The Twain scholarship community, collectively curious about Nina, welcomed even my clumsy early inquiries.) I had to be self-taught; there were no Nina experts before I came along. (And not many even now.)

Nina Gabrilowitsch in 1924. Courtesy Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Seeking information on Nina, I have inadvertently followed the Clemens family on their long journey around the country: Hannibal, San Francisco, Elmira, Hartford, Detroit, San Diego, and now Elmira again. Everything to do with the Clemens family, it seems, eventually comes back to Elmira.                          

Recently, I learned from John Cooley’s Mark Twain’s Aquarium that Twain was fascinated, late in his life, with the published diary of a young girl. I did a double-take when I read that fact, as you might imagine. Yes, Twain read and loved the diary of Marjorie Fleming, a Scottish girl who died at age 8 in 1811, long before Sam Clemens was born. He even called it “my favorite book,”[ii] and wrote an essay about Marjorie in 1909. I looked it up as soon as I arrived at Quarry Farm. In “Marjorie Fleming, the Wonder Child,” Mark Twain wrote:

It is one of the prides of my life that the first time I ever heard her name it came from the lips of Dr. John Brown — his very own self — Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh… who was Marjorie’s biographer, and who had clasped an aged hand that had caressed Marjorie’s fifty years before, thus linking me with that precious child by an unbroken chain of handshakes, for I had shaken hands with Dr. John.[iii]

He was “fangirling” just a little bit with that statement, I gotta say. (That’s not even the whole passage.) I’m mean, I’m not one to talk – I had many “fangirl” experiences at Quarry Farm. For example, I decided to read  Twain’s classic, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It” during lunch on the front porch, because I knew he wrote it at Quarry Farm. But it gave me an uncanny sense of literary deja vu when I read the opening lines, and realized I was reading “As I Heard It” on the same porch where he heard it!)

“A True Story…” begins, ” It was summer time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farm-house…” Talk about getting into the story! Photo by Alan Rankin.

These days, we call it “six degrees of separation.” But as the passage from “Marjorie” shows, the phenomenon was well-known even in Twain’s time.  My experience with Nina’s diary proved to me how important these connections sometimes are. After all, I began studying her life because my friend’s step-grandfather’s client’s grandfather was Mark Twain. (If one’s “Bacon number” describes their proximity to Kevin Bacon, my “Mark Twain number” is 5. However, my “Nina number” is 3.[iv])

Then there are the parallels, like the famous intersection of Mark Twain’s life with the passage of Halley’s Comet. Even before studying Mark Twain or Nina, I knew about Twain’s birth and death coinciding with appearances by Halley’s Comet. But since learning about Nina and her connection to Twain, there’s another coincidence of dates and lifespans that’s often on my mind….

Twain was born in 1835 and died in April 1910. Nina was born less than a year later, in August 1910, and died on January 16, 1966. I was born less than a year after that, in January 1967. I’m not implying any sort of cosmic connection, or whatever; it’s just one of the odd coincidences that have appeared during this project, like finding the Diary itself.

I think about it a lot. Not the coincidence; but the span of American history that’s encompassed by just these three human lifetimes. In 1835, buffalo still roamed the prairies; in 1924, dirigibles were a viable means of air travel; in 2021, I’m writing this on my computer so you can read it on your phone. Twain would scarcely recognize the America of today, although he would be unsurprised that human nature has not improved since his time. But perhaps he would be reassured that the Quarry Farm property is largely unchanged.

Houses, like trees, can measure their lives in decades or even centuries. This adds yet another dimension to “six degrees of separation.” Did Twain touch this same tree I’m touching now, its rough bark younger and smoother under his fingers? Maybe. One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes these links are closer than we realize.

Much is made, even by Twain himself, of how closely the paths of Samuel Clemens and Halley’s Comet coincided. But Nina was even closer. She was five months in utero at the end of his life. Technically, but also in a very real sense, she was in the room when Mark Twain died. Only Nina’s mother Clara separated them, which is sort of symbolic, if you think about it….

Joe Lemak, Matt Seybold and I were talking about Clara on the drive to lunch one day. After years of scratching my head over her baffling behavior and personality, I was gratified to learn they were as perplexed as I am. Hey, all of you out there in the Mark Twain group-mind: Somebody needs to write a book about Clara Clemens. Not me; I told Joe and Matt, “My book about Clara would be nothing but questions.” To me, the biggest question is: Why didn’t she tell dying Mark Twain she was pregnant with his granddaughter?

Even in books about Samuel Clemens and his family, information about Nina is sparse. But there were surprises waiting in the stacks at Quarry Farm. I learned three significant facts about Nina’s life I hadn’t known before, plus various minor details. I’m not going to list them all here; more research is needed, as the saying goes.

But I will share one of these discoveries. It has to do with Katy Leary, who was the Clemens family’s faithful maid for thirty years. Her role is common knowledge in Twain lore. I even knew that she stayed in service to the family after Twain died, to help Ossip and Clara prepare for Nina’s arrival. What I didn’t know was that Katy Leary was an eyewitness to Nina’s birth – or that she wrote about it years later!

From A Lifetime With Mark Twain [v]:

How pleased he would have been to see her. Katy Leary, an unexpected connection between Twain and Nina. An unbroken chain of embraces, you might say – at least as real as the chain that linked Twain and Marjorie Fleming.

This is the sort of thing that could have taken years to stumble across, because there is only a little data out there about Nina, but there is a LOT of material about Mark Twain. The ability to track down facts like that without leaving the house – or even the second floor – is one of the things that make Quarry Farm unique. I’m using “unique” in its actual definition – that is, one-of-a-kind, not duplicated anywhere else.

Sitting on the stairs to the Study, where Mark Twain once sat. Same path; different destinations.
Modern photo by Steve Webb.

I feel like the historical/literary/biographical equivalent of a tech startup that’s finally attracted an “angel” investor. After years of tinkering with this thing in my garage, it’s finally doing what it’s supposed to do every time, and the right people are starting to pay attention….

It is so validating to have my research on Nina recognized in this way, by those who have made the study of literature, and Twain, their lives’ work. Especially since I am the very definition of the “independent scholar.” The only scholars more “independent” than me are hermits, living in shacks up in the mountains. I’m not to that point yet, but I do envy the amount of writing they must get done.