Barbara Snedecor Receives the Henry Nash Smith Award

The Henry Nash Smith Award is given to a Twain scholar who has demonstrated exemplary service to the Center for Mark Twain Studies.  During Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, the Henry Nash Smith Award was given to Dr. Barbara Snedecor.

Dr. Snedecor earned her PhD while working full-time at Elmira College as a Writing Lecturer, Associate Director of the Writing Program, ESL Director, and then Director for the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Her dissertation was an annotated critical edition of Olivia Langdon’s letters.  She wrote an important article on Twain’s “A True Story Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It” which has proven to be fundamentally important to the work and legacy of CMTS. Her scholarly interest has been focused on Olivia Langdon and the life she lived in Elmira. She has contributed to the Mark Twain Annual and American Literary Realism and is the editor of the second edition of Mark Twain in Elmira.

While her scholarly work is noteworthy, it is her role as Director of the Center that merited this award.  Under Snedecor’s eleven-year tenure as Director she personally initiated a number of programs and achievements which we continue to benefit from today:

  • The Mark Twain Literacy Program, which helps place hundreds of Mark Twain books in the classroom of local teachers at no cost to the teachers or students
  • The creation of a digital archive of “Trouble Begins at Eight” lectures.
  • The creation of the Mark Twain Summer Teacher’s Institute, which educates regional teachers, reinforcing Mark Twain’s legacy for local students in a meaningful, deliberate, knowledgeable way.
  • The facilitation and solidification of the quadrennial conference as an international, rigorous academic conference.
  • The facilitation of a number of  Mark Twain symposia, including symposia on “The Mysterious Stranger,” Mark Twain’s travel writings, Twain’s biography and autobiography, and the memory of Twain scholar and Elmira College professor, Michael Kiskis.
  • Installing permanent exhibit of Clemens and Langdon related artifacts in Cowles Hall.

Dr. Snedecor undoubtedly steered CMTS in a positive direction. She proved to be a keen budget manager and handed over a financial situation which gives CMTS the potential to complete numerous new, large-scale projects.

The most important legacy of Barbara Snedecor is the goodwill she has fostered with in the Twain academic community and local Elmira community.  Dr. Snedecor’s professional goodwill and grace has impressed many. While her hardworking benevolence is appreciated by everyone who gets to know her, it also had a pragmatic side. Scholars were willing to work with her, a vitally important quality for the CMTS Director responsible for scheduling Quarry Farm Fellowships and the “Trouble Begins” lecture series.

Dr. Snedecor grew and solidified various functions of CMTS for over a decade. The current staff and the Twain scholarly community at large are very grateful for her service.

The Inaugural Trouble Begins Lectures (1985)

The voice in the above clip is that of John S. Tuckey, who, as Joe Csicsila puts it, “changed everything in Mark Twain studies back in 1963” with his book Mark Twain & Little Satan. 

In 1985, as America celebrated the sesquicentennial of Samuel Clemens’s birth, Tuckey was part of the star-studded inaugural season of The Trouble Begins lecture series, now entering its 33rd year. The series began with a lecture by Hamlin Hill, author of Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973) and Mark Twain & Elisha Bliss (1964). It also included Henry Nash Smith, one of the founders of the discipline of American Studies, and author of Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol & Myth (1950), a text which is still required reading for American Literature and American Studies graduate students. Smith passed away less than a year after he visited Elmira. He and Tuckey became the namesakes for the two CMTS-sponsored lifetime achievement awards given at the Quadrennial International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (next week!).

Darryl Baskin, in his first year as Director of CMTS, organized the first series. Recognizing that it was a unique undertaking with distinguished speakers, he arranged for recordings, a practice which has continued through the decades. Thanks to current CMTS Director Joe Lemak and Archivist Nathaniel Ball the recordings of the first season have been digitized and are now available in our Trouble Begins Archive. Below you will find the full program.

A Connecticut Yankee in the New Gilded Age

In a recent New York Times column heralding “The Collapse of American Identity,” Robert Jones  notes that British writer G.K. Chesterton once observed that the United States was “a nation with the soul of a church.” According to Jones, Chesterton “wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding ‘sacred texts,’ like the Declaration of Independence.”

Jones uses Chesterton’s comment as a counterpoint to the “two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines” he claims are currently pulling the country apart. While this contrast between Chesterton’s impression of America in the 1920s and today’s situation underscores the column’s overall point, I believe a literary work that speaks more directly to the zeitgeist of our times is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Contrary to breezy movie adaptations of this familiar story (Bing Crosby’s musical romp comes to mind), Justin Kaplan describes Twain’s story as “one of the queerer and more disturbing exercises of the American literary imagination, a brilliant comic fantasy that turns savage and shakes itself to pieces.” More precisely relevant to Jones’s column is Henry Nash Smith’s view, which Kaplan quotes, that the original text’s disjointed narrative reveals “a loss of faith in the doctrine of progress that was central to the American sense of identity.” Hank Morgan, Connecticut Yankee’s narrator, is afflicted with a malady that poet C.K. Williams called “narrative dysfunction, or what happens when we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.”

As a late 19th-century American stranded in Arthurian England, Hank is the epitome of someone who has lost the story of himself. Not surprisingly, Twain worked on Hank’s story in the mid-1880s, a time when the American narrative was unraveling at the peak of a tumultuous era Twain had dubbed the Gilded Age. The country was wracked by rapid and disorienting industrialization, a widening chasm between wealth and poverty, intensifying class conflict, new waves of immigration, and ceaseless political scandals. (For a thorough, and unsettlingly familiar, analysis of this period, see Sean D. Cashman’s America in the Gilded Age.)

Hank embodies the conflicted narratives emerging from these fault lines fracturing the country’s story of itself. He espouses the virtues of republican democracy while supplanting Arthurian monarchy with an autocratic form of capitalism that transforms the Knights of the Round Table’s spiritual quest for the Grail into an elitist “stock board…that used the Round Table for business purposes.” Despite embracing rational Enlightenment principles, Hank’s supreme political status as “The Boss” rests on his cynical exploitation of science to manipulate the ignorance and superstition of the medieval populace to his advantage.

These irreconcilable contradictions culminate in a cataclysmic civil war that makes Hank’s “dream of a republic” a nightmarish graveyard, leaving him “muttering incoherently” and “sinking away toward death.” Twain’s America may have avoided such a catastrophic fate, but he tapped into the growing anxiety of an “Age of Nervousness” characterized by what Jackson Lears calls “hazy moral distinctions and vague spiritual commitments.” Under such conditions, Lears writes, “personal identity itself came to seem problematic.”

As we make our way through the fractious New Gilded Age with hints of another “Age of Nervousness,” perhaps Connecticut Yankee can serve as a cautionary tale provoking us to heed Robert Jones’s call to “take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.” At the very least, Twain’s disturbing tale might help us avoid Hank’s tragic fate of falling into what his assistant Clarence mused was “a trap, you see—a trap of our own making.”