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.

Dwayne Eutsey’s Talk Focuses on Joseph Twichell’s Sermons at Elmira’s Park Church

The 2018 Mark Twain Lecture Series, hosted by the Chemung County Historical Society and the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes on Thursday, August 23 at the Chemung Valley Museum (415 East Water St., Elmira).  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

“Never Be in a Hurry to Believe”: How Joe Twichell’s Visits to Elmira and Cornell May Have Saved Huck Finn’s Soul” Dwayne Eutsey, Independent Scholar

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is known for its biting skepticism toward religion.

Joseph Twichell and Mark Twain

However, there is also a deeper and more complex religious undercurrent coursing through Twain’s classic that is often overlooked or misunderstood by contemporary readers. Dwayne Eutsey will explore how the “conservative-progressive” theology of Twain’s good friend and pastor, Joe Twichell, may have influenced these depths with visits to Elmira’s historic Park Church and Cornell’s Sage Chapel in 1876 as Twain was beginning to write his masterpiece.

Dwayne Eutsey is an independent scholar in Mark Twain studies who is writing a book that examines the significant influence of religious liberalism on Mark Twain’s life and writing. Entitled “There is No Humor in Heaven”: Mark Twain and the Religious Liberalism that Shaped His Life, the book will contribute to the ongoing discussion among scholars and the public regarding Twain’s complicated views on religion.

Mr. Eutsey has also written several pieces for, which you can read here.

About Chemung County Historical Society

Founded in 1923, the Chemung County Historical Society is a non-profit educational institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, and presentation of the history of the Chemung Valley region. First chartered by New York State in 1947, today CCHS operates two cultural repositories, the Chemung Valley History Museum and the Booth Library. We are the largest general history museum in our region. Open year round, CCHS tells the history of Chemung County through interactive exhibits, educational programming and lectures for visitors of all ages. The Chemung County Historical Society is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and receives funding from the New York State Council on the Arts.

About the Center for Mark Twain Studies
The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira College community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.


A Tragic Spring For Joe Twichell

Saturday, April 21, marked the 108th anniversary of Mark Twain’s passing.

For Twain, whose final decade was wracked by overwhelming bereavement, the promise of death’s release was something welcome. By the end of his life, Twain’s sentiments toward life and death were akin to Satan’s musings in Letters From the Earth (1909):

Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs–the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.

In memorializing him in the next day’s Hartford Courant, Twain’s close friend and pastor, Joseph Twichell, observed that the humorist who had brought so much laughter into the world “had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.”

Unfortunately, the month of April 1910 would prove to be most unwelcome for Twichell as well. As he prepared to give a prayer at Twain’s funeral service in New York, Twichell received word that the health of his beloved wife Harmony had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. He managed to return to Hartford by train in time to speak with Harmony before she died shortly after midnight.

As a devout Christian pastor and a battlefield chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War who had ministered to wounded and dying troops, Twichell was no stranger to death’s sharp sting. Still, according to Steve Courtney’s excellent biography, the eight years following the simultaneous loss of his friend and his wife were particularly difficult for Twichell (who would himself die in 1918).

According to Courtney, a grieving Twichell lamented to his son David, “I’ll just have to live from day to day. How many times have I told people that, and that in their sorrows God would give them comfort and strength for each day as it came.”

As trying as those remaining years were for Twichell as he sought daily comfort and strength in bearing his loss, I hope he found the same solace he had offered previously to Twain, who noted that Twichell had “something divine” in him that provided a consoling “touch that heals, not lacerates.”

Perhaps he found it in his wide, supportive circle of family and friends and in the Gospel he preached for decades from the pulpit of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Perhaps Twichell, who shared Twain’s affinity for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, found succor in these mystical ruminations.

At the very least, perhaps what he privately told Twain after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 also provided shelter from the storm for Twichell in the end:

“I, indeed, believe, that behind the riddle there is a Hidden and Awful Wisdom; that for me tempest-tost on these wide weltering seas there is an anchorage, that for the mortal spirit there is a practicable victory over the world with all its baffling mysteries.”

Never In A Hurry To Believe: The Theology of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

On this day 132 years ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the first “banning” of Adventures of Huckleberry, by the Concord Public Library. Controversy has followed the novel ever since, with the most recent ruckus occurring just a few months ago in a Virginia school district. Recent attempts to suppress the book are prompted by its racially offensive language instead of snobby objections to “rough, ignorant dialect.” Both cases, however, seem fixated on the novel’s admittedly rude linguistic surface while missing the deeper moral undercurrents.

At the risk of violating Twain’s warning to avoid looking for any moral in his book, I discern a complex morality flowing through its pages as strong (and at times as murky) as the Mississippi River itself. And I am not alone. Victor Doyno, for example, summed it up as a boy’s journey “from religion to morality.”

While I agree with Doyno’s point generally, I also believe there might be a deeper religious significance to Huck’s moral growth than Doyno’s distinction between conventional Christianity and a morality grounded in secular skepticism suggests. I base this interpretation on the possibility that Twain may have been influenced as he was formulating Huckleberry Finn in early 1876 by two sermons his good friend and pastor, Joe Twichell, also preached at the time.

As I elaborated last summer in a lecture given at The Park Church in Elmira, I find an intriguing thematic link between these sermons eulogizing Twichell’s mentor, the controversial clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell, and Huck’s attitudes toward (and personal experience of) religion. Twain knew and admired Bushnell and also regularly attended Twichell’s services at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, so he most likely was aware of these sermons, which Twichell originally preached in March at Asylum Hill and in April at The Park Church, which Twain’s in-laws helped to establish.

Dubbed the “Emerson of Hartford” for his highly unorthodox theology, Bushnell was unlike Emerson in that he remained a devout, lifelong Christian (despite being brought up on charges of heresy at one point). He dedicated his ministry, in fact, to revitalizing traditional Christian faith claims amid in a modern world wracked by, among other things, Darwinism and the Industrial Revolution.

Although not as radical as Bushnell, Twichell still shared a deep bond with his mentor that extended beyond theology. He reflected in one of the eulogy sermons that “no human being, save my father…had ever seemed to summon me to the purpose of living a true life…And as a man, far less than as a theologian, he continued to make his impression upon me to the last.”

Twichell touches on many of Bushnell’s beliefs in these sermons that would have been appealing to Twain. For example, pointing out that truth for Bushnell “was not the truth that is in the Bible particularly, but an universal thing, and wherever he saw it, however uttered and exhibited, he acknowledged and reverenced it.” Guided by prayer, Bushnell adhered to “the law of his mind and heart,” and therefore “he could not borrow or use other men’s views and reasons. It was his necessity to find his own, and when he found them he knew what they were, and had the confidence in them that comes of seeing to the bottom of a matter.”

At the heart of Bushnell’s unorthodox theology, steeped as it was in reason and fierce independence, was a quest for an authentic and personal experience of the divine. Twichell notes, “It was the soul of the Bible, that lives underneath its garment of language, that he craved to find, and he asked God day and night to give him a soul that could discern it.” In taking this approach, Twichell believed Bushnell exemplified “a new demonstration of the reasonableness of our Christian faith, and of its power to stand” as a “sign for doubters of every degree…groping in darkness.”

Twain, who had observed nearly a decade earlier as a journalist on the Western frontier that “a religion that comes of thought, and study, and deliberate conviction, sticks best,” certainly would have felt a kinship with such views. But it was in Bushnell’s unflinching willingness to explore his deepest religious doubt that I find the most direct connection between Twichell’s sermons and the development of Huck’s religious sentiments. Twichell points out two particular admonitions of Bushnell’s that are especially relevant: “Be never afraid of doubt” and “Never be in a hurry to believe; never try to conquer doubts against time.”

Huck is certainly never afraid of doubt nor is he ever in any hurry to believe anything when it comes to religion. These qualities are evident when he declares that he “don’t take no stock in dead people” after the Widow Douglas reads him the story of “Moses and the Bulrushers.” It’s also there when he concludes that Miss Watson’s claims that daily prayer will get him whatever he asks for just “warn’t so.”

Still, following the example of Bushnell’s openness to doubt, Huck begins to appreciate another dimension of prayer after he fakes his death and runs away. While a famished Huck watches the search party setting loaves of bread filled with quicksilver afloat on the river to locate his drowned corpse, he picks up one of the loaves that ironically finds its way to him and begins to eat it, reflecting:

“I reckon the widow or the parson or somebody prayed that this bread would find me, and here it has gone and done it. So there ain’t no doubt but there is something in that thing.”

Later, at the novel’s pivotal moment, Huck prays for strength to do what he’s been taught is God’s will: turn Jim in as a fugitive slave. The complicated theological irony here is that even though Huck concludes he “can’t pray a lie” and so chooses to go to hell instead of betraying Jim, his prayer resembles that of Twichell’s doubter groping in darkness, and, circuitously, helps him find the resolve to do the truly Christ-like thing and sacrifice himself for his friend.

Because Twain composed the first 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn in a burst of creative energy at Quarry Farm during the summer after Twichell preached the two Bushnell sermons, it seems plausible that the unorthodox theology of Horace Bushnell which Twichell eloquently reflected on may have informed the religious doubt in Huck that would eventually bring him to this ironic (yet morally empowering) encounter with God.