Silent Work in Elmira: Letters from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection


Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.

Susan Crane

Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to reproduced these letters with permission from the Ohio History Connection, where they are part of the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection. This resource is also made possible by the Chemung County Historical Society, especially archivist Rachel Dworkin, and local historian J. D. Iles, host of Hidden Landmarks on WETM.

I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.


Wilbur H. Siebert

In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.

As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.

That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.

Jervis Langdon
Jervis Langdon

A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.

As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.

If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.

Rachel & Silas Gleasons

Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.

William Still

These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”

Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.

Our most comprehensive telling of this story, so far, is the “Gospel of Revolt” episode of the C19: American In The Nineteenth Century podcast, which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Selection from a map of Underground Railroad networks in New York State, created by Wilbur H. Siebert for his book. The full map available here, courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

The following letters are reproduced with the permission of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (August 27, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 14, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 23, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 26, 1896)

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See the two photographs of John W. Jones to which Crane refers beneath the letters, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.


John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (December 17, 1896)

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John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (January 16, 1897)

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John W. Jones, circa 1850 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)
John W. Jones, 1896 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)

The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert (Macmillan Company, 1898)

The Underground Railroad: A Record, Revised Edition by William Still (People’s Publishing Co., 1878)

"One of The Best Men I Have Ever Known": Happy Birthday, Thomas K Beecher

Throughout his life, Mark Twain had what his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine called a “natural leaning toward ministers of the Gospel.” While acknowledging that Twain was “hopelessly unorthodox” and “rankly rebellious as to creeds,” Paine noted that “something in his heart always warmed toward any laborer in the vineyard.”

From his days roughing it out West to his final years in Connecticut, Twain would befriend many ministers. However, it might be something of a stretch to say that he “warmed toward any” member of the clergy. Most of his clerical friends labored on the religiously liberal side of the theological vineyard. In fact, Twain had little patience for ponderously dogmatic men of the cloth preaching from what he dismissed as the “drowsy pulpit.” 

This would account for his long friendship with the Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, born today (February 10) in 1824. Far from dogmatic in his theology, Beecher occupied a pulpit that was anything but “drowsy”.

During his tenure as The Park Church’s minister in Elmira, Beecher was considered “one of the most radical preachers of the time,” according to Max Eastman, who literally grew up in Park Church. Eastman’s parents were both ordained ministers who served as Beecher’s assistants there (his mother Annis, in fact, was one of the first women to be ordained in America). (For more on the Eastmans, Beecher, and the Park Church culture of Elmira, check out the recent “Gospel of Revolt” podcast episode produced by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.)

Although he would grow up to be an atheist, Eastman would still praise the independent-minded Beecher for having “no doctrine but the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” (Quoted from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman [Harper’s Magazine, 1938]; also available in Mark Twain in Elmira)

Beecher was the son of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher (and half-brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe). He’s best known in Twain circles as the close friend and minister of Twain’s in-laws, the Langdons. From 1854 until his death in 1900, he would serve as pastor of Park Church, which the Langdons co-founded. During this time, Beecher would officiate (with Joseph Twichell) Twain and Livy’s wedding in 1870, and he would also oversee their daughter Susy’s funeral after her sudden death in 1896

A protégé of the controversial Hartford divine Horace Bushnell, Beecher possessed the same “rich fertility and bold novelties of thought and in the subtle penetration of his aesthetic imagination” as his mentor. (Quote from Thomas K. Beecher: Teacher of the Park Church at Elmira, New York, 1854-1900) Eastman would credit these enlightened qualities with making the progressive Park Church a hub for “the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced…they happened, moreover, to be the same people and ideas that Mark Twain had absorbed into himself by marriage.” 

Years before Twain would meet Beecher, however, his reputation as a complex and paradoxical minister extended back to before the Civil War. According to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,

From a young age, Thomas Beecher had shown a disinterest in the ministry and an aptitude for natural sciences and education…Up to the beginning of the Civil War he opposed abolition as too radical. He disagreed with the woman’s rights movement that his sister Isabella and brother Henry supported. These views led to his dismissal (from New England Church in Williamsburg, NY), and he accepted a call from the Independent Congregational Church in Elmira, NY in 1853…Despite Thomas’ anti-abolition stance there is evidence he participated in the Underground Railroad.

After the Civil War broke out, Beecher would remain conflicted about his ministerial purpose and the relevance of organized religion on the battlefield while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. He reflected in a letter from December 1862:

Even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain whom I have ever heard of, I am clearly persuaded that, as a chaplain, I am quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support. 

And now as to religious reading and other literature furnished by the million pages for distribution, I have a word or two. The paper, pictures, type and plentifulness are beyond praise. But the contents are often times ridiculously unapt and worthless among soldiers.

from The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains, the Union

Beecher would recover a sense of pastoral purpose upon returning to Elmira and volunteering to minister to captured confederates held in the prisoner of war camp there. Not only was he the first minister among local clergy to lead a worship service for the POWs—his sermon was apparently considered “practical, sensible, and liberal”—but his subsequent sermons would also become the most popular among the prisoners. (Quoted from “History of the Park Church”)

After the war, as Twain was courting Olivia, Beecher provoked controversy among members of Elmira’s Ministerial Association by holding popular Sunday evening worship services in the town’s opera house. Twain drew from scripture to pen a biting defense of the unorthodox minister (who, like Jesus, had run afoul of the religious establishment). Writing under the pseudonym S’Cat in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, Twain noted that Beecher “finds himself in the novel position of being responsible to God for his acts, instead of to the Ministerial Union of Elmira.” Twain continued with a sharp, sarcastic edge, 

[Rev. Beecher] felt warranted in this course by a passage of Scripture which says: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature.” Opera Houses were not ruled out specifically in this passage, and so he considered it proper to regard Opera Houses as a part of “all the world.” He looked upon the people who assembled there as coming under the head of “every creature.” … His great mistake was in supposing that when he had the Savior’s endorsement of his conduct, he had all that was necessary.

from “Mr. Beecher & The Clergy” reprinted in Mark Twain in Elmira

A few years later, as plans for constructing the new Park Church were underway, Twain would equate Beecher’s “peculiar” ministerial style with the very essence of the church’s “fresh and original” design. In an article published in the New York Times from 1871, Twain observed:

If Rev. Mr. Smith, or Rev. Mr. Jones, or Rev. Mr. Brown, were about to build a new church edifice, it would be projected on the same old pattern, and be like pretty much all the other churches in the country, and so I would naturally mention it as a new Presbyterian Church, or a new Methodist Church, or a new Baptist Church, and never think of calling it by the pastor’s name; but when a Beecher projects a church, that edifice is necessarily going to be something fresh and original. It is not going to be like any other church in the world; it is going to be as variegated, eccentric and marked with as peculiar and striking an individuality as a Beecher himself; it is going to have a deal more Beecher in it than any one narrow creed can fit in it…

From such sentiments, it’s apparent that Twain, who once had an ambition to be a preacher of the Gospel, felt a religious kinship with what Paine called Beecher’s “doubtful theology.” However, where Beecher would ultimately find solace in his unconventional Christian faith, Twain would continue his quest for, as Ron Powers put it, “a new faith system to fill the void.”

In an autobiographical dictation from 1907, Mark Twain reflected on this difference while still fondly recalling his good friend Thomas Beecher as “one of the best men I have ever known”:

I knew Reverend Thomas K. Beecher intimately for a good many years…He was deeply versed in the sciences, and his pulpit eloquence fell but little short of that of his great brother, Henry Ward. His was a keen intellect, and he was brilliant in conversation, and always interesting—except when his topic was theology. He had no theology of his own, any more than any other person; he had an abundance of it, but he got it all at second-hand. He would have been afraid to examine his subject with his own fine mind lest doubts should result, and unsettle him. He was a very frank, straightforward man, and he told me once, in the plainest terms, that when he came on from Connecticut to assume the pastorship of that Elmira church he was a strenuous and decided unbeliever. It astonished me. But he followed it with a statement which astonished me more; he said that with his bringing up he was aware that he could never be happy, or at peace, and free from terrors, until he should become a believer, and that he had accepted that pastorate without any pangs of conscience for the reason that he had made up his mind to compel himself to become a believer, let the cost be what it might. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it. He also said that within a twelvemonth or two he perfectly succeeded in his extraordinary enterprise, and that thenceforth he was as complete and as thorough a believer as any Christian that had ever lived. He was one of the best men I have ever known.

from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3

Dwayne Eutsey is an independent scholar and former Quarry Farm Fellow who is currently working on a book about Mark Twain’s theology.

“The Gospel of Revolt: Mark Twain in Elmira,” An Episode of The C19: America In The Nineteenth-Century Podcast, Featuring Hal Holbrook

Also available on iTunes and other podcast purveyors.

The Center For Mark Twain Studies is proud to announce the release of our first podcast project, a collaboration with C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists for their podcast, C19: America in the Nineteenth Century. The episode provides a tour through the history of Elmira, with stops at the Park Church, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Quarry Farm. Did you know that Mark Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, lobbied for the release of a young woman arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1853? That Mark Twain’s grave lies in a cemetery with numerous conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad? That Mark Twain’s eulogy was given by the first woman ordained in the state of New York? Our episode explores the largely forgotten and often surprising political history of this small town.

The episode was written and narrated by Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies, and co-produced by Joe Lemak, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Our C19 producer was Ashley Rattner of Tusculum University. It also features performances from Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, who spent 65 years touring Mark Twain Tonight! and is the focus of the new documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, available now on Amazon Prime Video and Apple iTunes. In our podcast, Holbrook plays a 71-year-old Mark Twain and is joined by his grandson, Will Holbrook, who plays Twain at 33.

We are also grateful to Quarry Farm caretaker, Steve Webb, and Larry Howe, President of the Mark Twain Circle. They provided music for the episode with their ensembles, The Compass Rose Sextet and Steve Webb & The Balance.

We hope you find time to give it a listen this holiday season. Let us know what you think!

Perfect Pairings of Music & Literature: A Holiday Collaboration with The Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes

Want to learn more about how Mark Twain and his family celebrated Christmas, while also listening to holiday-themed music at the historic Clemens Center? Next Saturday, December 7th, Dr. Matt Seybold will be presenting selections from Twain’s holiday writings as part of the “Perfect Pairings” series created by the OSFL. Tickets are available now at ClemensCenter.org

Discount tickets are available with a Student ID.

Interactive Map of 1901 Elmira Now Available

In collaboration with SmallTown 360, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has created an interactive map of 1901 Elmira. The map highlights the important people and places that shaped Mark Twain and the Langdon family during his summers in Elmira. Key points include Quarry Farm, the Langdon Mansion, and the Park Church. The map also points out lesser known places like the home of Darius Ford, friend of Twain and Elmira College professor who was offered to accompany Charley Langdon as a companion and tutor on a round the world tour; the home of John Slee, associate of Twain during his Buffalo days and the eventual manager of J. Langdon & Co.; the Lyceum Theater, where in 1868 Twain first performed in public in Elmira, with a young Olivia Langdon in the audience; and the Elmira Reformatory, a prison in which Twain performed for the “captivated” audience – Twain later wrote that he found the group extremely satisfactory.

The map is located under CMTS “Online Resources” and can be accessed HERE.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies hopes that this map is used by all teachers, students, and Twain enthusiasts with the goal of promoting Mark Twain’s important legacy in Elmira. At the same time, CMTS endeavors to celebrate its own local history as a vibrant, cosmopolitan upstate New York town in the latter half of the19th and early 20th century.

CMTS would like to thank the following people with their help on this project:

April in Elmira & Redding (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting with today’s narrative from Larry Howe, we will occasionally be featuring testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, 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.

Larry Howe is Professor of English at Roosevelt University, author of MARK TWAIN & THE NOVEL (1998), and co-editor of MARK TWAIN & MONEY (2017).

I came to Quarry Farm on April 1st for a stay of about 3 weeks. This is my second Quarry Farm fellowship, and I have had the pleasure of a couple of other short stays, so the house, grounds, and the city in the valley below are quite familiar to me. I didn’t need a getting-acquainted period as I settled in.  

My other visits to Quarry Farm were in the Summer and Fall. So I wasn’t sure what to expect in April. Despite the fact that Spring was several weeks underway, there were days when a Winter chill still lingeredFortunately, sunshine made intermittent appearances frequently enough to allow a cup of coffee on the front porch. Given the general weather, instead of taking long walks over the hills and in the woods, I fell quickly into a work routine.

I’m in the midst of a project on Mark Twain and property, and my fellowship period is dedicated to revising earlier work on the real estate chapter and developing aspects of Clemens’s time in Hartford and Stormfield. I spent long hours at the kitchen table, drafting and revising. For me, the latter is the most time consuming part of the process because I will revisit a paragraph numerous times: reshaping, cutting, adding, and recasting sentences. As a result, my production is never what I hope it will be, but I’ve come to expect that.  

Anyone who has had the pleasure of working here knows that having the wealth of scholarly resources readily available on the study shelves make this an ideal setting. If there’s a downside, it’s that there is so much material close at hand; hours can go by dipping into one volume or another. Having the collective wisdom of so many dedicated scholars close at hand leaves one no choice but to dive in to answer any question that arises, and to locate one’s own interpretive position within the wide range of critical opinions. 

Some of my research of property records is available online. And for this work, the upgraded internet access at Quarry Farm was indispensible. For example, I was able to track down the deed records of Livy’s purchase of the estate in Tarrytown, NY, in 1902 and Sam’s sale of that property in 1904, after Livy’s death. Still, a lot of older records have not been digitized.

Elmira is also the seat of Chemung County, so it was very easy to drive down the hill and drop into the Registry of Deeds on Lake Street to compare Quarry Farm property to others in which Livy and Sam Clemens had a personal stake. It was somewhat suprising to see that Sam Clemens was among the executors of Jervis Langdon’s estate, recorded in sales of Langdon town lots to a variety of buyers. 

Records for Stormfield in Redding, CT, are also only available in bound form. Because it’s a shorter journey there from Elmira than it is from my home in Chicago, I took the opportunity on one day to drive to Redding to consult the town clerk’s records. Along the way, I was also delighted to stumble onto Mark Twain Lane—which ends at the gated entrance to the Stormfield property. 

Just across the from the gate is the site of Isabel Lyon’s Lobster Pot, which has been replaced by a different building (though still called the Lobster Pot), now an art studio and gallery of a local painter. Her portraits of Sam and Jean Clemens hang in the Mark Twain Library not more than a mile away on Redding Road. As I took photos of the stone pillars that frame the entrance to Stormfield, I was approached by a local who tipped me off to walking trails on a part of Clemens’s property that had been acquired by the Redding Land Trust. He also gave me directions to the property that Clemens acquired for Jean. The stone walls at the head of that driveway bear a sign that reads “Jean’s Farm.” Her original house still stands on what continues to be a working farm.  

Back at Quarry Farm the next day, I organized the photos of the documents that I reviewed at the Town Clerk’s office, including Clemens’s acquisitions of various parcels that comprised the Redding property, the deed of twenty acres to Isabel Lyon, the Power of Attorney that Clemens executed to void the notorious POA document that he accused Ralph Ashcroft of tricking him into signing, and the transfer of the twenty acres of Lyon’s property back to Clemens. As I pored over the “Ashcroft–Lyon Manuscript” for the conclusion of my real estate chapter, the formal language of property records, written in impeccable cursive hand and signed by the parties involved lent an authenticity to the story that I was tracking.   

Scholarly work is often described as a solitary enterprise, and my experience was no different. There were quite a few days when I saw no one. This was my own doing. Steve Webb, the friendly and knowledgeable Quarry Farm caretaker is on site and available. Joe Lemak, Matt Seybold, and Nathaniel Ball are close by (I bumped into Matt at Wegman’s one evening, and I met with Joe and Matt for lunch on another day) and are more than willing to help out with anything one may need. But the steady rhythm of work would allow whole days to go by without interruption. One evening, my wife called to see how things were going. When I tried to speak, a hoarse whisper was all I could muster. I realized that this was the first time I had used my voice since the day before when I had made a run for provisions.  It was disconcerting to find myself temporarily mute. The trade-off for this weird experience was well worth it. A temporary loss of speech was a small price to pay for a concentrated period of luxuriating in the world of Mark Twain, in a site that remains as it was when he occupied it.

Even for scholars, a Quarry Farm fellowship is a rare opportunity.  The Mark Twain community is fortunate that the Langdon family made this available to us and that its stewardship has been so responsibly maintained by the Center for Mark Twain Studies. My advice to Twain scholars who’ve yet to enjoy a residency at Quarry Farm: plan on it. The memories of your visit will stay with you. 

The Park Church Culture Into Which Mark Twain Married: An Introduction to “Mark Twain’s Music Box”

EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.

117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”

Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.

The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”

Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”

This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,

“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”

from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)

The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!

Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.

As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:

“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”

from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)

This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.

Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.

Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”

Thanksgiving Steeple-Jumping: The Sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s “Conditional” Engagement

On Thanksgiving Day, 1868, Olivia Langdon “yielded a conditional consent” to Sam Clemens’s third proposal of marriage. They had know each other for less than a year, having been introduced on the occasion of a Charles Dickens reading in New York City the previous New Year’s Eve. Sam had made himself a fixture in Elmira during the Summer and Fall of 1868, going out of his way to visit the Langdons whenever there was an interruption in his American Vandal lecture tour.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, following a sold-out show in Cleveland, Mark Twain scheduled a pro bono performance at the Elmira Opera House, donating the proceeds to a local fire department, and creating a convenient excuse for Livy to see him perform and for Sam to again impose upon her family for the holiday. Clemens told his friend Mary Fairbanks that, though Livy had been slowly falling for him during the preceding weeks, as he bombarded her with love letters, “the lecture Monday night brought the disease to the surface.”

He redoubled his efforts during Thanksgiving week, so frequently seeking time alone with her that her father made a joke of having the drawing-room measured while they were in it, to see if it was big enough to accommodate three people.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Elmira

The day before Sam was required to travel to his next booking, Livy “yielded,” sending the famously mercurial Clemens into fits of manic delight. In reporting their engagement to a few of his closest friends, he repeatedly joked, “If there were a church in town with a steeple high enough to make it an object, I would go out and jump over it!” (For those familiar with Elmira, a town with numerous steeples, this hyperbole was even richer.)

Writing to Livy after his lecture two days later, he said, “Never was a lecture so full of parentheses before. It was Livy, Livy, Livy, Livy, all the way through! It was one sentence of Vandal to ten sentences about you. The insignificant lecture was hidden, lost, overwhelmed, and buried under a boundless universe of Livy!”

But while Sam was driven to distraction by his eagerness to exclaim his love, the marriage was still far from assured. Its “conditions” being foremost the approval of Livy’s parents, Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon. Sam had announced his intentions on Thanksgiving, but they were not immediately agreed to. The Langdons were hesitant, perhaps understandably, to give their daughter away to a self-described vandal, cannibal, and wild man. The Elmira lecture, on this front, may not have worked to his advantage.

The Langdons asked Mr. Clemens to supply references (many of which, infamously, failed to testify on his behalf) and to demonstrate to their satisfaction that he was “a good, steady, reliable character” and “a Christian.” Sam consented to all these terms and, eager to please, volunteered to also quit drinking and only “seek the society of the good,” neither of which were asked of him and neither of which he followed through on, even temporarily.

When Livy’s mother wrote to Mary Fairbanks herself a few days later, asking for advice regarding Mr. Clemens, she admitted to being strongly prejudiced against him. “At first our parental hearts said no,” she wrote, “to the bare thought of such a stranger, mining in our hearts for the possession of one of the few jewels we have.” And the way she frames her request to Mrs. Fairbanks betrays the nature of her concern:

Olivia Lewis Langdon

“What I desire is your opinion of him as a man; what the kind of man he has been, and what the man he now is, or is to become. I have learned…that a great change has taken place in Mr. Clemens, that he seemed to have entered upon a new manner of life, with higher and better purposes actuating his conduct. The question…is – from what standard of conduct – from what habitual life, did this change, or improvement, or reformation commence? Does this change, so desirably commenced make of an immoral man a moral one, as the world looks at men? – or -does this change make of one, who has been entirely a man of the world, different in this regard, than he resolutely aims to enter upon a new, because a Christian life?”

I would be very hesitant to characterize the Langdons as prudish or risk adverse. To their credit, they would come to accept Sam’s proposal, after several months, and, despite his lack of character references, treated themselves as sympathetic witnesses to his mature temperament.

But the question that troubled them, the day after Thanksgiving, 1868, was whether a man who had not only made a habit, over his nearly 33 years, of committing vandalism, profanity, and heresy, but had recently risen, via his ironic promotion of such habits, to the status of “a somewhat celebrated personage,” had any incentive to change. If being the immoral Mark Twain had served him so well, why should anybody trust the sincerity of Sam Clemens’s pledges to be moral?

In the coming months, Sam would grow restless waiting for the Langdons to give their blessing. He would become defensive, presuming that the well-to-do family was shunning him for his humble origins and uncertain prospects. Writing directly to Livy’s mother the following February, he defiantly proclaimed, “I have paddled my own canoe since I was thirteen, wholly without encouragement or assistance from any one, and am fully competent to so paddle it the rest of the voyage, and take a passenger along, beside…we can make the canoe go, and we shall not care a straw for the world’s opinion about it if the world chooses to think otherwise.”

But what Olivia Lewis’s letter to Mary Fairbanks reveals is that the Langdons were not the least bit concerned about their daughter’s financial security. To the contrary, they seemed to take his increasing fame and fortune as a given, worrying rather that the wealth itself might be damaging to his character, reinforcing habits and values of a lower order by proving them profitable.

Relive Twain’s Summer of 1884 with the Final Lecture of the “Trouble Begins” 2018 Season

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.

 

Mark Twain working in the Study, circa 1880’s.

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.

150 Years of Mark Twain in Elmira: Dickens Holidays, The Gospel of Revolt, & The Quarry Farm Style

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

Jervis Langdon (left), Samuel Clemens & Charles Langdon (right)

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.

Charles Langdon & Ida Clark Marriage Certifican, Courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society

Samuel Clemens & Olivia Langdon Marriage Certificate, Courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society

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 (left) & Ida (right) Langdon with Artist’s Rendering of Caleb & Bertha Plummer from 1905 Edition of THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH

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.

An Account of the Dickens Reception Appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette on January 27, 1905

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.

(see the whole letter from the Mark Twain Project)

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.

Frontispiece to First Edition of Charles Dickens’s THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH

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.”

Thomas K. Beecher

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.

Interior of Park Church

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…

Clara Spaulding Stanchfield with 1911 Illustration of Mrs. Micawber from Charles Dickens’s DAVID COPPERFIELD

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 B. Stanchfield with Illustration of Mr. Dombey from 1867 Edition of Charles Dickens’s DOMBEY & SON

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.

Flora Shoemaker with artist’s rendering of Ada Clare from Charles Dickens’s BLEAK HOUSE.

The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak Houseanother 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.

Crystal Eastman as Tilly Slowboy from Charles Dickens’s THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH

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.”

Max Eastman

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.”

Annis Ford Eastman and Illustration of Mrs. Blimber from 1867 Edition of Charles Dickens’s DOMBEY & SON

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.”

Mark Twain’s Study at its original Quarry Farm site, perched above Elmira.

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.

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).