The Center for Mark Twain Studies has announced the winners of the Annual Portraying Mark Twain Art Contest and the Mark Twain Essay Contest. First place prizes were awarded to Morgan Mordini ’22 and Alex Taylor ’23, respectively. Morgan’s winning piece in the Art Contest was a wintery photograph of the Mark Twain statue on the Elmira College campus, looking directly at Cowles Hall, the building where his wife Livy received a part of her education.
Honorable mentions in the Art Contest were awarded to Max Lundin ’22, Jenna Cowder ’22, Brooke Shollenberger ’23. Each student was awarded a monetary prize ranging from $150-$50 for their artistic and writing skills.
The 2020 Mark Twain Writing Contest winner is freshman art major Alex Taylor’23, who submitted a creative essay inspired by Mark Twain’s The War Prayer. After learning that many of Mark Twain’s novels and stories were illustrated by artists such as Lester Ralph (Eve’s Diary) and Truman Williams (Adventures of Tom Sawyer), Alex decided to illustrate his own fictional letters from a 21st Century father and husband who was stationed somewhere in Syria. Alex wrote that he intended for the reader to think about soldiers in their own family, just as reading The War Prayer had caused him to think of soldiers who have been important to him in his own life.
The 2021 Portraying Mark Twain Contest and Mark Twain Essay Contest will soon be open for entries. All Elmira College students are encouraged to submit artwork and writing that reflects some aspect of Mark Twain, his writings, or his life in Elmira. More information is available here. Any questions should be directed to Dr. Joseph Lemak ([email protected]).
Have you written an excellent paper, taken a fantastic photograph, or painted an outstanding picture inspired by Mark Twain or his literature? If so, then all Elmira College students, both undergraduate and graduate, should consider submitting their works to CMTS’ two annual contests.
All Elmira College students are encouraged to upload digital files of artwork they have created that portrays Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Elmira or some aspect of Mark Twain’s literature.Up to $350 in prize money will be distributed among winning entries. Winning entries will be featured in publications of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Deadline: March 30, 2020. You can find more information here.
Elmira College students are encourage to submit their best creative or scholarly writing projects inspired by Mark Twain or his literature. Scholarly and literary essays should develop an explicit theme or thesis and should have a clear sense of analysis or bibliographical material. Creative essays or works should focus on Mark Twain’s writing or life. Winners will receive a cash prize and have their name added to the list of past winners on the Mark Twain Statue located in the entrance to McGraw Hall. Deadline: April 27, 2020. You can find more information here.
Editor’s Note:In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of MarkTwainStudies.org.
Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm. Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).
The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.
The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:
Ryan Reid ’23: A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.
Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.
Alexander Taylor ’23:My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.
Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.
Samantha Proseus ’23: Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion. I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it. I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been.
Elijah Jordan ’23: The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.
To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.
Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure.
The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner.
It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people.
Brianna Costley ’23: When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.
In 1907 Oxford University deigned to give Mark Twain an honorary degree. Twain had received such plaudits before, including from esteemed American institutions such as Yale University, but the 71-year-old product of Hannibal, Missouri, who had no formal education past grammar school, was particularly flattered by the attentions of the oldest collegiate institution in the Anglophone world. As Ron Powers puts it, “[Twain] cherished the red Oxford gown he was given, and wore it whenever he felt like it, which was often.”
I like to think that on a patio, somewhere in Vermont, Dr. Powers is enjoying this early summer evening decked out in his own cherished gown, this one two shades of purple with some gold trim. Perhaps he has worn it to the grocery, or the nursery, or the bank this past week.
A hair older than Twain was when he matriculated from Oxford, Powers is, likewise, a product of Hannibal, Missouri who found a way to make his living first as a journalist and thereafter as a professional writer across genres and mediums. He spent more years in school than Twain did, but judging by his own account of his time at University of Missouri, he accumulated roughly as many honors.
Twain scholars and friends of CMTS know Powers best as a biographer and memoirist, who both explored Twain’s life as a scholar and kept the mythical figure with whom he shared some autobiographical affinities constantly on his shoulder while he was writing about television, mental illness, sports, small towns, Americana, and more. Twain is primogenitor of the idiosyncratic lineage of reporters and chroniclers to whom Powers repeatedly turns for words of wisdom, sure, but also as models for a brand of American writing which for most of his career Powers has worried is endangered. As early as 1988, long before #FakeNews, alternative facts, or filter bubbles, he wrote,
“Propelled by mass media, the tendency to frame everyday issues in the rhetoric of life and death has inflated the commonplace and deflated the significant. A saturation of cheap public rhetoric has numbed us both to the authentically spiritual and the authentically profane. Truth and falsehood have been mostly relieved of their oppositional qualities.”
from “Don’t Think of It As Art” (1988), collected in The Cruel Radiance (1994)
Ron Powers’s commencement address to the Elmira College class of 2019 was certainly foremost about their moment of “lift off,” but it also draws attention to the divisive political climate and volatile media environment which make those 1988 words seem familiar and prophetic.
Kudos, congratulations, and also gratitude to Ron. We hope you enjoy listening to a few more of his words.
The spring portion of the 2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes on Wednesday, May 29 with two events, a theatrical reading of Waiting for Susy at 5:30 p.m, followed by a lecture by Professor Bruce Michelson of University of Illinois at 7:00p.m. Both events will take place at Quarry Farm. Both events are free and open to the public.
Last fall Professor Bruce Michelson of the University of Illinois asked if there would be students interested in performing a staged reading of his one act play Waiting for Susy, a comedy about a famous, momentous, historic encounter between Mark Twain and “a bearded man” that actually never took place. Luckily enough, theatre students Alex Garey ’19 and Matthieu Marchal ’20 were recruited, and alumna Sarah Kaschalk ’17 agreed to take over as director and perform as Susy, Mark Twain’s daughter.
As an undergraduate Sarah was often seen on stage, both acting and singing. She was the stage manager and directed a one act play in her senior year. It had been several years since she was involved in theatre, and she said, “I didn’t realize how much I missed directing! Michelson’s play has reminded me of the joys of directing. It’s been fun to work with Alex and Matthieu who both have worked with the EC theatre department.”
Alex, who was last seen in Professor John Kelly’s play “Gra” as the character Conor Fitzgerald, said he enjoys playing the part of Mark Twain, especially because of Twain’s ties to Elmira College and his prominence in the local Elmira area. “It took awhile to find the right accent after learning an Irish accent for ‘Gra.’ Finally, I just imagined an over-the-top Southern accent because this comedy highlights Twain’s eccentric character.”
Matthieu’s experience came from taking Acting I as an elective last fall. As an art minor, he is quite comfortable in the role of painter, and his command of the French language and proper pronunciation has been indispensable in bringing this play to life. He plays the mysterious “Bearded Man,” with a wry sense of humor that comically provokes Twain to spar with him in his own less than perfect French.
Waiting for Susy will be performed in the Quarry Farm Barn on Wednesday, May 29 at 5:30p.m. Following the performance at 7:00p.m., Professor Michelson will deliver the final Trouble Begins lecture of the season titled “Mark Twain’s Homes and the Public Private Life.” The Center for Mark Twain Studies welcomes everyone to attend both events.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies has announced the winners of the Annual Portraying Mark Twain Art Contest and the Mark Twain Essay Contest. First place prizes were awarded to Jamie Dorsey ’21 and Rebecca Heagy ’19, respectively. Jamie’s winning piece in the Art Contest was a photograph of the Mark Twain gravestone taken from a dramatic angle that emphasized “Twain.” His photo has already been used to advertise the spring Trouble Begins lecture series on the CMTS Facebook page. Rebecca was this year’s annual essay contest winner.
Honorable mentions in the Art Contest were awarded to Emily Selbert ’20 for her photo highlighting several volumes of “Mark Twain’s Letters”; Erica VanNostrand ’20 for her self-portrait standing at the doorstep of the Mark Twain Study; and Shannon Strawinski ’19 for her digitally enhanced photo of the Mark Twain statue outside of Harris Hall.Each student was awarded a monetary prize ranging from $75-$250 for their artistic and writing skills.
The 2020 Portraying Mark Twain Contest will open for entries at the end of May, 2019. All Elmira College students are encouraged to submit artwork that reflects some aspect of Mark Twain, his writings, or his life in Elmira. More information is available here.
The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes Wednesday, November 7 when presenter John Bird takes the audience through Twain’s summer of 1884 at Quarry Farm. The final fall lecture begins at 7:00 p.m. in the Barn at Quarry Farm. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Bird, emeritus professor of English at Winthrop University, will present “‘At the Farm’: Reliving Mark Twain’s 1884 Summer at Quarry Farm.” As he did for many summers, Mark Twain packed up his family (including dogs and cats, and in this case, a bicycle) and left Hartford for an extended stay at Elmira’s Quarry Farm. Part of his current work-in-progress, a micro-biography of Twain in the year 1884, Bird’s presentation will let audiences relive Twain and his family’s experience that summer. Even though Twain wrote his friend Joe Twichell near the end of the stay that he had not accomplished anything of value during the summer, he actually had an interesting and productive summer: he read a proof of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and made some important revisions; he began a sequel even before he published his novel, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Among the Indians; he became fully engaged in national politics during the presidential campaign; and he sat for the bust Karl Gerhardt made (twice) at Quarry Farm for the frontispiece of Huck Finn. Just as importantly, he engaged with his family, writing a short but charming personal memoir, “At the Farm,” with humorous and heartwarming anecdotes about his daughters. Living with Mark Twain day-by-day for this summer brings him and his family back to life and gives the audience a window into life at Quarry Farm, a place central to his work and his life.
Bird is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor, as well as a number of articles on Mark Twain. He is a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.
Last weekend (October 5-7. 2018) CMTS hosted the 2018 Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium “American Literary History and Economics in the New Gilded Age.”
The economic expansion of the U.S. during Mark Twain’s lifetime was unprecedented, in this country or any other. Twain was fascinated by the technological innovations that transformed commerce and industry, the volatile financial markets that strained to keep up with the demands of entrepreneurs and investors, the infamous magnates that accumulated private fortunes unimaginable to previous generations, the corrosive symbiosis of private wealth and public servants, the precarious plight of consumers and laborers who both drove the economy and were periodically driven over by it, and the fledgling field of philosophical inquiry, political economy, aimed at understanding the organizing principles of capitalist society.
Before anybody suspected he would become the literary figure who defined this era, Twain gave it its lasting nickname, the Gilded Age, recognizing that the luxurious lifestyles of America’s nouveau riche celebrities and the bedazzling technologies advertised by American entrepreneurs disguised deep disparities of wealth, exploitative employment practices, systemic corruption, and widespread financial fraud. As we find ourselves in what is now frequently called “The New Gilded Age,” characterized by many of the same phenomena, CMTS’s Fifth Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium featured scholars who explore the intersections of economic history, economic theory, mass media, and literature.
The symposium was organized by Henry B. Wonham (University of Oregon), Lawrence Howe (Roosevelt University), and Matt Seybold (Elmira College). Wonham and Howe’s collection, Mark Twain & Money, was published in 2017, while Seybold’s Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (coedited with Michelle Chihara) was just published this year.
The festivities began with an opening reception on the Elmira College campus. After a welcome address from Dr. Charles Lindsay, President of Elmira College, Professor Matt Seybold (Elmira College) kicked off the talks with an introductory address. Dr. Seybold’s talk can be found here. The opening reception was highlighted by David Sloan Wilson (Distinguished Professor of Biology & Anthropology at Binghamton University) delivering the keynote address “Mark Twain, Cultural Multilevel Selection, and the New Gilded Age.” This provocative talk challenged literary scholars to theorize the multilevel selection of systems of meaning and maladaptive economic systems. An audio-recording of Professor Wilson’s talk can be found here.
The majority of the symposium took place at beautiful Quarry Farm, where 11 papers were delivered in an intimate section. A number of the talks were recorded. All of the recorded talks can be found in the Trouble Begins Archives. After all the papers were delivered, all attendees enjoyed a cocktail hour on the Porch at Quarry Farm, followed by a dinner in the Barn.
They symposium concluded with a farewell breakfast at Quarry Farm where attendees conversed and said their good-byes to old and new colleagues.
CMTS is pleased to announce that we are already working on the 2019 Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium, tentatively titled “Mark Twain and the Natural World.” This gathering will explore the relation between human beings and the natural world. This broad scope allows for critical examinations of Twain’s writing about the natural world in any number of ways: as nature writing; as a form of environmentalism; as commentary on animal welfare, technology and science, and travel; and as a forerunner to mid-20th to early 21st century writers (Krutch, Abbey, Kingsolver, Quammen, and Gessner) who offer comic responses to nature as well as recognize the comic in the natural world and in our relationship to that world. The conference organizer is Ben Click (St. Mary’s College of Maryland). Professor Click is the current editor of Mark Twain Annual and plans to publish a special issue of MTA in conjunction with the symposium.
Images from Friday’s Opening Reception and Saturday’s Paper Sessions
Andrew Kopec, Ann Ryan, and Lawrence Howe answer questions from the audience
2018 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira, the town where he would meet his wife, spend many of his summers over the remainder of his life, write several of his most acclaimed books, and finally be laid to rest. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold commemorates the occasion by offering his estimation of what Elmira meant to Mark Twain.
January 26, 1905
It was the 30th birthday of Mark Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. His father, Charley Langdon, had met Samuel Clemens when they were both passengers on the world’s first pleasure cruise in 1867. Little did young Charley know that his new friend was fashioning their voyage into a series of humorous newspaper dispatches which would become the basis for one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, The Innocents Abroad.
By the time that book was published, Sam and Charley would both be engaged. Their marriages would take place within a few blocks of one another, officiated by the same famous minister, Thomas K. Beecher. A decade later, they would have seven children between them, who spent four months every summer frolicking together on the sloping lawns of Quarry Farm with a menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, cows, and goats belonging to their aunt, Susan Crane.
30-year-old Jervis Langdon could remember those carefree summers. Susy Clemens, named for that aunt, showed him how he could send coded messages to his cousins at the hilltop farm from the windows of his family’s mansion in the town below by turning a hand mirror towards the full moon. On many a summer’s eve, he and his cousins sat huddled around Uncle Sam on the farmhouse’s open-air porch as he told fabulous stories or read from manuscripts of his works-in-progress before the ink was even dry.
If 30-year-old Jervis was nostalgic on this January evening in 1905, he could hardly be blamed. It wasn’t just his own milestone birthday. He was expecting the imminent birth of his own first child, a son, who would arrive just two days later. Were this not cause enough for sentiment, he found himself dressed as a character from one of the stories which had been routinely read aloud to him, as well as his sisters and cousins. He was preparing to attend, along with many other prominent residents of Elmira, NY, a “Dickens reception.” Each guest would be costumed as a character from one of the novelist’s works.
Jervis had been cast in the part of Caleb Plummer from The Cricket On The Hearth. His sister, Ida Langdon, who had recently matriculated from Bryn Mawr and would later become a professor of English at Elmira College, chose the part of Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, while friends took auxiliary parts in the story, including Crystal Eastman, Ida’s best friend, as Tilly Slowboy, and Dorothy Mather as Mrs. Fielding. Within a few years all three recent graduates (Eastman from Vassar and Mather from Cornell) would be suffragettes and members of the American Association of University Women, an organization committed to increasing the representation of women in higher education.
Charles Dickens had a special significance for the Langdon siblings. Many years earlier, their father and Aunt Livy had gone to see Mr. Dickens read at sold-out Steinway Hall in New York City on New Years Eve. They were joined that night by Charley’s increasingly infamous new friend, whom they called Sam, but who signed his scathing review of the performance “Mark Twain.” This was Olivia Langdon’s chaperoned first date with the man who would become her husband. Twain was so smitten that in his review he couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it boasting, that he had attended Dickens’s reading with “a highly respectable” and “beautiful young lady.”
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Samuel Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent, writing, over a hundred letters cascading into the Langdon home through the ensuing months, supplemented by occasional visits. The year was 1868.
When Sam visited the Langdons again for Thanksgiving, Livy finally yielded her conditional consent to his proposal. She sent her fiancé off on another leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month joking, smoking, and drinking his way through the Midwest, Olivia faced the reality, alone, that this might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by family she adored. She wrote to Sam, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
Sam contemplated this letter in a Central Michigan boarding house on Christmas Eve, with only the fading fire in an unfamiliar hearth and a series of holiday brandies to keep him warm. He reflected on his fiancé’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly detached, and was inspired to make an extraordinary promise:
I just don’t wonder that it makes you sad to think of leaving such a home, Livy, and such household Gods—for there is no other home in all the world like it—no household gods so lovable as yours, anywhere. And I shall feel like a heartless highway robber when I take you away from there…
I’ll not read that passage again for an hour!—for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me. You shall visit them, Livy—and so often that they cannot well realize that you are absent. You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometimes when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home…a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge from care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, Home—and then, away down in my heart of hearts I yearn for the days that are gone & the phantoms of the olden time!—for the faces that are vanished; for the forms I loved to see; for the voices that were music to my ear; for the restless feet that have gone out into the darkness, to return no more forever!
But you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation. No, I with my experience, should dread to think of your old home growing strange to you.
I have tried several times, and am trying again now, to articulate the consequences of this promise, which I think cannot be overestimated. But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 150 years ago, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist, nor would anybody be obligated to preserve Quarry Farm for posterity. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which ensured the Clemens family’s annual pilgrimage to Elmira.
And it was in Elmira that not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam found, looking out across the Chemung River Valley, a new “symbol of heaven.” The vanished faces, musical voices, and “phantoms of the olden times” came floating through the windows on all sides of the study Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce a series of novels in what I call The Quarry Farm Style: full of whimsical children and nostalgia for an American past, but also politically radical, like the community in which they were written.
As Sam and Livy (as well as Charley and his new wife, Ida Clark) settled into domesticity and child-rearing in the 1870s, they would associate Dickens with that first date at Steinway Hall, that tear-stained letter from Lansing, and, as many do, with the holiday season. They read Dickens’s books aloud to their children, such that his characters intermingled with Twain’s, forming the premise for a range of allusions, inside jokes, and family folklore which passed through the generations. The novella which inspired Jervis and Ida Langdon’s costumes in 1905 was, as Dickens himself described it, a “fairy tale of home” dedicated to his own infant son.
The Quarry Farm Style
The Clemenses did not attend the Dickens reception in 1905, but those who did reflect both how Mark Twain brought out the best in Elmira, and why Elmira brought out the best in Mark Twain. The reception took place at the Elmira Industrial School. The 36-year-old school was one of several educational institutions, including Elmira College and Elmira Free Academy, which had been founded through the financial backing of another Jervis Langdon, grandfather to the Jervis who celebrated his birthday that night. Each of these groundbreaking educational institutions made possible by the Langdon fortune were sustained in the ensuing decades by other local financial benefactors, as well as by many Elmirans who volunteered as teachers, administrators, fundraisers, and advocates.
The mission of Elmira Industrial School was to provide a free trade school education to any young women willing to dedicate herself to establishing financial independence. The students came from “homes of poverty and vice” and were mentored by an entirely female faculty, including many of the affluent young women who were graduating from elite private colleges in the region, like Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Oberlin, and Elmira. Several of ladies who attended the Dickens reception were faculty, volunteers, and/or alumna of the three local institutions all dedicated to counteracting the effects of social and economic oppression.
The elder Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, the original owners of Quarry Farm, were the foundation stones upon which was built a remarkable tradition of generosity and community service which survived them and their famous son-in-law. In his eulogy for the first Jervis Langdon, Thomas K. Beecher made the outrageous claim that “Envy’s self was silenced at sight of his prosperity, so many were sharing in it.”
Beecher had learned repeatedly that the Langdons considered their millions only as valuable as the causes for which they could be put to work. When, in 1846, their church refused to condemn slavery, the started a new one, joined the Underground Railroad, and told the abolitionists who passed through their enormous mansion – including the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – that “the family house and purse were at the service of fugitives from slavery.”
Eight years later, when they asked the most controversial memberof the most famous family of theologians in America to come lead their renegade church, he laid out terms which he though no congregation would accept, largely because of his exceptional emphasis on community service. The Langdons accepted his terms without negotiation. The progressive, inclusive congregation he imagined grew so large it could only meet in an opera house, drawing the ire of rival churches and the regional Ministerial Union.
Mark Twain responded to their condemnation of Beecher as one might expect, joking in a local newspaper that “a little group of congregationless clergymen, of whom I have never heard before, have crushed the famous Beecher and reduced his audiences from 1500 to 1475.” The Langdons came to Beecher’s defense much more quietly and effectively, buying up shares in the opera house so that no amount of social pressure could compel the proprietors to bar the doors, then beginning the process of building Beecher a church as big as an opera house, one that would look like nothing else in the nation, complete with a maze of apartments and a billiard room where one could occasionally find one of the nation’s most recognizable preachers drinking beer with the nation’s most recognizable infidel.
The still youthful Mark Twain who came to Elmira in 1868 had argued across a series of burlesque tales, stand-up routines, and travelogues that mankind in general, and Americans in particular, were natural hypocrites, charlatans, and misers, and that those who dared to believe otherwise were doomed to continual poverty and despair. Then he met the Langdons and this airtight thesis got shot all to hell.
Young Twain believed that all his countrymen had been converted to the “Revised Catechism” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.” But, as Twain put it, “Mr. Langdon was a man whose character and nature were made up exclusively of excellencies,” who could easily have gone “to Wall Street to become a Jay Gould and slaughter the innocents,” but instead endowed schools for girls, bought farms for fugitive slaves, and emboldened both his children and the people in his employ to test their most far-fetched idealisms on his dime. This confused Mark Twain.
Out of his confusion emerged the Quarry Farm Style, with its children who are not innocent, its cynics who are not hopeless, its free-thinking slaves and scientific magicians and heroes who decide to go to hell. It is a style which never lets you lose sight of your romantic idols, though whenever you reach for them it suffocates you under piles upon piles of corpses. So many corpses.
Those “Up-State” towns…
The Dickens reception in 1905 was hosted by Clara Spaulding Stanchfield, dressed as Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. Clara was Livy Clemens’s lifelong friend and fellow Elmira College alumna, after whom she named her second daughter. Clara’s husband, John B. Stanchfield, came as Mr. Dombey. He could call himself “Mark Twain’s lawyer” and only be mildly stretching the truth. The world-famous author retained counsel on a wide variety of matters in numerous jurisdictions, but he had been regularly consulting Stanchfield, both officially and unofficially, for decades, and their friendship reached back even further. Before the Stanchfields married, John and Sam had frequented the same billiard parlors, both using aliases. It is, indeed, reasonable to suspect that Sam may have played some role in matchmaking his amiable drinking buddy with his wife’s best friend.
John rose rapidly in the ensuing years. He became a partner in the firm which is now Sayles & Evans, was a Democratic candidate for both Senator and Governor, and tried a series of prominent cases. He was also one of several Elmirans who aided the Clemenses during their time of greatest need, when Twain’s publishing house was plunged into bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893. With much of the nation descending into a credit crisis, the most affluent families in Elmira offered free consulting, low-interest loans, and other aid to their neighbors.
The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak House, another Elmira College graduate, suffragette, and member of the American Association of University Women, belonged to a family that purchased what they knew were likely worthless shares in the Paige Typesetter, thus helping increase the Clemens liquidity during a period of desperation: a charity made all the more charitable because it protected Sam and Livy’s pride by pretending it was not simply charity.
This generation of Elmira women – Ida Langdon, Dorothy Mather, Flora Shoemaker, and Ruth Pickering among them – would be remarkably successful in promoting women’s rights both within the city and region, and throughout the nation. While all were devoted activists, their ringleader was clearly Crystal Eastman, who by this time had already discovered her talent for political organizing by leading a protest against rules requiring women wear skirts and stockings while swimming. Within a decade Crystal would become one of the most prominent and effective advocates for women’s suffrage, and this was hardly her most revolutionary position. Looking back upon the community in which she was raised, she wrote, “In this environment I grew up confidently expecting to have a profession and earn my own living, and also confidently expecting to be married and have children.”
Crystal’s younger brother, Max Eastman, who would graduate from Williams College later in 1905, was not as cripplingly shy as he had been a few years earlier, but still struggled to converse with his sister’s outgoing friends, several for whom he would harbor lifelong crushes. It was hard to imagine that this skinny young man would, in ten years time, be one of the most controversial political voices in the country, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and editor of censored antiwar publications.
Max and Crystal would live for much of the teens and twenties in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Max would make an extended visit to the Soviet Union to study with Leon Trotsky, and yet, he would always characterize Elmira as the most radical community in which he had ever lived. Many years later, in an essay titled “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” he would chastise a famous literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, who ignorantly described Elmira as one of “those ‘up-State’ towns…without the traditions of moral freedom and intellectual culture.” Eastman argued convincingly that the “social and political attitudes” which prevailed in Elmira “were far more radical than Mark Twain was when he arrived here.” Mark Twain and Elmira worked upon one another in “general rebellion” such that by the time Max came of age in the 1890s, he found himself “in the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced or found room to contain.”
Adolescent Max met Mark Twain during the installation of an organ at Park Church. Max and Crystal’s mother, Annis Ford Eastman, who disguised herself as Mrs. Blimber from Dombey & Son for the Dickens gala in 1905,was the first women ordained in the state of New York. Beecher called her the best preacher he’d ever heard and, befitting both Beecher’s rebellious nature and Elmira’s emerging feminist culture, he chose her as his successor at the vaunted Park Church. His friend Mark Twain must have shared his high estimation of her character and talents, directing that she should handle his funeral rites.
Like Beecher, Annis Eastman’s unconventional approach to the pastorate went far beyond the happenstance of her gender. Max fondly remembers his mother reading the risqué Calamus poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud to her friend Julia Beecher and setting the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier” to the ragtime tune “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” The esteemed place of the Eastmans seems evidence enough that Elmira was not, as that literary critic had guessed, a “symbol…of all that vast and intricate system of privilege and convention.”
Max Eastman wrote of Twain, “My admiration for the man was and still is as firm and emotional as though he were the saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This from a man whose parents were both pastors and who lived much of his youth in the apartments within the Park Church. The “gospel” written in Elmira, Max claims, “was one of self-reliant revolt against forms and conventions,” and it was authored not only by Mark Twain, but by the Langdons, Clemenses, Beechers, Stanchfields, Shoemakers, and Eastmans, by the students and faculty of the first degree-granting college for women and the secondary and trade schools those students helped to charter, by the thousands of parishioners who attended the largest and most progressive non-denominational church in 19th-century America, by the members of the city’s flourishing women’s rights organizations, and by the stalwart station-masters of the Underground Railroad, who not only sheltered fugitive slaves but persuaded former slaves, like Mary Ann Cord, the beloved cook at Quarry Farm, to settle here. It is no wonder, with such collaborators, Twain was able, in that octagonal study overlooking it all, to give birth to the Quarry Farm Style from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all modern literature descends.
Max and Crystal Eastman were both at Sam’s funeral in 1910, as were the Stanchfields, his only surviving daughter, Clara, his nieces, Ida and Julia, and the brother-in-law, Charley, who first brought Sam Clemens into the circle of Elmira 43 years earlier. Mark Twain’s nephew, now 35 years of age, rode with the coffin from New York City, along the same rails which had taken his father to see Charles Dickens speak on New Years Eve in 1867, rails which had been laid when his grandfather was, at least according to Twain, the country’s only respectable railroad magnate.
Jervis Langdon Jr., born two days after the Dickens ball, would also, like his great-grandfather, become a successful railroad executive. He likewise inherited that radical generosity which mesmerized Sam Clemens and inspired him to pay yearly homage to his wife’s “household Gods.” On December 31st, 1982, 115 years to the day after Charles Dickens read to Charley and Olivia Langdon (and a dumbstruck and unappreciative Mark Twain), Jervis Jr. signed the agreement which bequeathed Quarry Farm to Elmira College and founded the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Perhaps, though he was just five years old at the time, Jervis Jr. remembered something of what Annis Eastman had written in her eulogy for Samuel Clemens:
We are not here at this time to speak of the great man whose going hence the whole world mourns, nor to claim for him that place in the halls of fame which time can give him. We are not here to try to estimate his worth to the world, the service he has rendered to civilization and the moral progress of mankind, nor yet to eulogize him for the integrity, justice and magnanimity of his character. There will be time enough for all this in the days to come and many a voice more competent than mine to set forth the lessons of his life.
Though I suspect none of us would dare to claim more competence than Annis Eastman, Jervis Jr. has bequeathed to us the task which she deferred. The mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, made possible by the gift of Quarry Farm, is to create that “time enough” to “set forth the lessons of Twain’s life.” And the scholars who reside here “estimate the worth to the world” not only of Mark Twain, but of the too often forgotten and misremembered Elmira which made Mark Twain possible.
There are many ways you can help sustain the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. You can become a Friend of CMTS by making a donation here or learn more by emailing us at [email protected] As part of our celebration of sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira we are also launching a Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. If you or your organization would like to participate, please contact Director Joe Lemak (information provided in link).
The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies features four lectures, with the first event set for Wednesday, October 10 in The Barn at Quarry Farm. All four lectures begin at 7:00 p.m., and are free and open to the public.
Wednesday, October 10 in The Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.
“Getting to Know Mark Twain through the Eyes of Grace King, a Southern Woman of Letters” Miki Pfeffer, Nicholls State University
New Orleans writer, Grace King, enjoyed a two-decade friendship with Sam and Livy Clemens and their daughters, Susy, Clara, and Jean. King visited the family in Hartford in 1887 and 1888 and in Florence in 1892. She wrote to her family about the Twain homes, meals, dress, and habits. From New Orleans, she exchanged letters with each Clemens, especially Livy, with whom she became a confidante. As each family member died, she kept in touch with the living, right through Clara’s brief messages around 1918. Miki Pfeffer will read from some of King’s captivating letters that offer a fresh view of the Clemenses and of Mark Twain as loving homebody, father, and generous friend to this ambitious southern woman.
Miki Pfeffer holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature and a Ph.D. in Urban History from the University of New Orleans. She is a visiting scholar at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. Louisiana. Her book, Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women’s Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair, was awarded the 2015 Eudora Welty Prize for scholarship in Women’s Studies and Southern Studies from the Mississippi University for Women.Her current mission is to see Grace King’s letters published and appreciated, and she offers the collection of the family of Twain in a book to be published in 2019.
Wednesday, October 17 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus 7p.m.
“Mark Twain, TV Star” David Bianculli, Rowan University and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross
The real Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens, appeared in only one film in his lifetime, shortly before his death: a short silent movie of him walking around his Stormfield home, photographed by Thomas Edison’s Edison film company in 1909. But since then, Mark Twain has been on television dozens of times – immortalized, and impersonated, by a frankly startling array of actors on the small screen. The
best of them, Hal Holbrook in his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, you know, and should. But the rest of them? Other actors portraying Mark Twain, in various programs over the 70-year-history of television, have ranged from Jimmy Stewart and Bing Crosby to Woody Harrelson and William Shatner. The character and image of Mark Twain have been kept alive by shows ranging from Bonanza and The Rifleman to Touched by an Angel and Star Trek: The Next Generation. David Bianculli will discuss and show clips from all these and more.
David Bianculli has been the TV critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he also appears as occasional guest host, since 1987. Beginning in 1975, he’s worked as a TV critic for newspapers in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, most recently for the New York Daily News from 1993-2007. Currently, he is a full-time professor of TV and film history at Rowan University, and editor of the website TV Worth Watching (www.tvworthwatching.com) which he launched in 2007. Bianculli has written four books – The Platinum Age of Television: From ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘The Walking Dead,’ How TV Became Terrific; Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’; Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously; and Dictionary of Teleliteracy – and has written chapters for and co-edited, with Douglas Howard, Television Finales: From ‘Howdy Doody’ to ‘Girls,’ to be published by Syracuse University Press in November. Bianculli has a B. S. in Journalism and an M. A. in Journalism and Communications, both from the University of Florida.
Wednesday, October 24 in the Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.
“Writing from Roots in ‘America’s Hometown’: Flood, a Novel” Melissa Scholes Young, American University
Literature and life often claim you can’t go home again, but what happens if you have to? In this book talk and author reading, Melissa Scholes Young will chronicle how Mark Twain’s own exodus from Hannibal parallels Laura Brooks’, the protagonist of her debut novel, Flood, who like the Mississippi River, once ran in the wrong direction in order to recalibrate. She’ll share her historical research and creative writing process as well as explore whyTwain’s origin in rural America is more relevant than ever.
“Filled with pithy dialogue and cultural references, Scholes Young’s writing ties Laura’s journey of self-discovery squarely to Hannibal and its famous young troublemakers. As Laura reckons with her past, Scholes Young reckons with Twain’s influence on the region. This debut is a wonderful story of home, hope, and the ties that bind us to family.” – Publishers Weekly
Melissa Scholes Young is an associate professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. and a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of the anthology Grace in Darkness. Her debut novel, Flood, set in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown she shares with Mark Twain, was the winner in Literary Fiction for the 2017 Best Book Award.
Wednesday, November 7 in the Barn at Quarry Farm
“‘At the Farm’: Reliving Mark Twain’s 1884 Summer at Quarry Farm” John Bird, Winthrop University
As he did for many summers, Mark Twain packed up his family (including dogs and cats, and in this case, a bicycle) and left Hartford for an extended stay at Elmira’s Quarry Farm. Part of my current work-in-progress, a micro-biography of Twain in the year 1884, my presentation will let audiences relive his and his family’s experience that summer. Even though Twain wrote his friend Joe Twichell near the end of the stay that he had not accomplished anything of value during the summer, he actually had an interesting and productive summer: he read proof of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and made some important revisions; he began a sequel even before he published his novel, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Among the Indians; he became fully engaged in national politics during the presidential campaign; and he sat for the bust Karl Gerhardt made (twice) at Quarry Farm for the frontispiece of Huck Finn. Just as importantly, he engaged with his family, writing a short but charming personal memoir, “At the Farm,” with humorous and heartwarming anecdotes about his daughters. Living with Mark Twain day-by-day for this summer brings him and his family back to life and gives us a window into life at Quarry Farm, a place central to his work and his life.
John Bird is Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University. He is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor, as well as a number of articles on Mark Twain. He is a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.