Quarry Farm Redux (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

Laura Skandera-Trombley

Laura Skandera Trombley, in addition to being the forthcoming president of Southwestern University, is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award from the Mark Tewain Circle of America for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

President Trombley has given a number of lectures for CMTS in the past, including:

President Trombley wrote this personal reflection at Quarry Farm in early June 2020 when the United States was experiencing much civil unrest and protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd.

This week has been one of those very rare times when I have had the opportunity to exclusively think and write about my scholarly subject of study, Mark Twain. When I have visited in the past, as a scholar-in-residence, I would meet with various groups interested in Twain and his contribution to American literature and give a public lecture. Not this time. New York is still in the grips of COVID-19, and so my lecture is a podcast and I am here alone. It is peaceful on Water Cure Hill in this old house filled with books written by and about Twain. When sitting on the veranda, where Clemens and his family would take in the fresh air and breezes making their way up the valley, are a stunning panorama of the town and the Chemung River snaking its way between rolling hills. 

I am here to work on a project, now approximately six years in the making. All of my book length projects always take an inordinate amount of time, in part because I write slowly with lots of multiple drafts and because as an administrator most of my writing is done on the weekends and very early in the morning. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Clemens’ relationships with women as well as the last decade or so of his life, up until now I haven’t really spent much time studying his earlier years. Due to a series of unexpected events, I’ve become consumed with trying to figure out what transpired that made possible Clemens’ transition from a newspaper journalist and stand up comedian into an author of books and beloved public intellectual. I expect to be working on this manuscript for the next few years.

My first visit to Quarry Farm was in the spring of 1989, approximately eighty-five years after Clemens’ last, and I believe that I may have been the first doctoral fellow to be invited. I arrived after a long flight from California carrying my thirty pound “portable” computer from Radio Shack with the goal of beginning my dissertation. It was at Quarry Farm, sitting in the same room where I am today, where I had a panicked vision of what I was about to attempt. I felt like an ant whose assignment was to remove every grain of sand from an enormous beach. The task felt insurmountable; however, for the next two months, I began removing the sand grain by grain and wrote page after page. Other than occasional trips to the market, driven by the caretaker since I had no car, I was alone in this rambling farmhouse with one rotary phone and quaint, tiny Victorian furniture all too small to fit my 5’10 frame. I listened to the sudden rainstorms that would sweep across the valley and sat outside at night staring at the stars while the mosquitos feasted on my bare legs. This was the first time in my graduate school life, thanks to the generosity of The Center, that I was afforded the opportunity to take a break from my part-time jobs as a house cleaner and cocktail waitress, and to write, listen to the quiet, and think deeply.

The Kitchen at Quarry Farm

There was one tiny black and white television on the kitchen counter and if I arranged the rabbit ears just right, I could watch a blurry CNN broadcast. This was the spring of discontent, of revolution, of Tiananmen Square. I watched the student leaders breathlessly tell reporters that they were there to demand democracy, better education, more jobs, and political empowerment. I watched for hours sitting on that hard-wooden chair. I saw the bravery of the lone protester who would not allow the tank to pass, and I wept when the protestors were massacred.

This week, thirty-one years later, I am watching CNN again, this time on my laptop computer, while I sit on the veranda in the evening light swatting bugs. I watch while a video is endlessly replayed of a policeman slowly squeezing the life out of George Floyd while three other policemen stand back and stare. In city after city there are protests and violence and fires. Black lives matter. I listen to anguished and angry Americans demanding an end to systematized racism. I think about my students I taught this spring, first in person and then online, young people of color who have worked so hard to be college, who want to earn their degree, to have a career, to take care of their families, to be safe. I am too angry to weep.

I stay awake at night listening to the creaks and shudders of the house as the spring winds blow, thinking about the juxtaposition of the privilege of reflection and quiet, lifeblood to a scholar, and the chaos of the world beyond. Samuel Clemens relished the calm of Quarry Farm, but he didn’t live there. He grew up in a very different place as the son of slaveholding parents in Missouri. He was raised, as he put it, to have “no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” Let me be clear, Clemens was no secular saint, yet he called out America’s racism and mourned the tragedy of the failure of Reconstruction in his writing. In addition to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he published “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” about an enslaved woman’s loss of her family, and The Tragedy of Pudd’head Wilson, again about the loss of family due to slavery. In 1901, nine years before his death, he wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom” in reaction to a lynching in Missouri.

Perhaps the pundits are right, and nothing will ever be the same again. I hope so. I am desperately tired of the past and the denials and the rationalizations. America has been harboring the vicious virus of racism since our founding. Our country is crying out for change now and we all must listen, acknowledge, empathize, and respect the voices that have been trying to tell us the truth for centuries. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Enough of the rhyming. The poem I hear is Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”

Laura Skandera Trombley’s Trouble Begins Lecture Now Available

The audio for the lecture can be found HERE.

The images for the lecture can be found HERE.

“I Wept”
Illustration from The Innocents Abroad, Chpt. 50

The lecture, “Riding with Mark Twain,” will be presented by Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley, incoming president of Southwestern University in Texas. According to Trombley, “I was about to trek into the desert to try to find what Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, had experienced over one hundred and fifty years ago on his foray through the Holy Land. Clemens had signed up because he was desperate for a future he couldn’t imagine. He had arrived at this juncture exhausted from fighting for a sense of self-worth and fearing that whatever he had managed to accomplish would vanish unnoticed. As contrarian as it might appear, he was convinced that traveling to Europe and then galloping through Palestine was his best opportunity to secure a lucrative future. As for me, I was longing for a feeling of intensity, a strengthened connection, a heightening of awareness, a clearer pathway. I figured I wasn’t the first person to seek enlightenment in the Judean Desert and neither was Clemens. We would be, together, Innocents Abroad.”

Trombley, in addition to being the forthcoming president of Southwestern University, is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

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. 

The audio for the lecture can be found HERE.

The images for the lecture can be found HERE.

Spring Virtual ‘Trouble Begins’ Continues May 27

The spring portion of the 2019-2020 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues on Wednesday, May 27.  All four lectures are free and available to the public on marktwainstudies.org.

“I Wept”
Illustration from The Innocents Abroad, Chpt. 50

The lecture, “Riding with Mark Twain,” will be presented by Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley, incoming president of Southwestern University in Texas. According to Trombley, “I was about to trek into the desert to try to find what Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, had experienced over one hundred and fifty years ago on his foray through the Holy Land. Clemens had signed up because he was desperate for a future he couldn’t imagine. He had arrived at this juncture exhausted from fighting for a sense of self-worth and fearing that whatever he had managed to accomplish would vanish unnoticed. As contrarian as it might appear, he was convinced that travelling to Europe and then galloping through Palestine was his best opportunity to secure a lucrative future. As for me, I was longing for a feeling of intensity, a strengthened connection, a heightening of awareness, a clearer pathway. I figured I wasn’t the first person to seek enlightenment in the Judean Desert and neither was Clemens. We would be, together, Innocents Abroad.”

Trombley in addition to being the forthcoming president of Southwestern University, is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

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. 

CMTS Announces the Spring “Trouble Begins” Lectures Line Up

Please note:  In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, CMTS has taken precautionary measures to move all lectures from the Barn at Quarry Farm to online at MarkTwainStudies.org. Presenters have agreed to record their lectures and make their talks available at the “Trouble Begins Archive.” Stay safe, everyone.

Wednesday, May 13

“Guilty Pleasure Editing: Mark Twain’s Marginalia of ‘Bad’ Poetry”

Lisa McGunigal, Hope College

“The exquisitely bad is as satisfying to the soul as the exquisitely good—only the mediocre is unendurable”

Mark Twain, Notebook 39, 1896
“The Last Meeting and Final Parting”
Sketch drawn by Mark Twain in 1890 that accompanied one of his poems

Considered a satirist, travel writer, and lecturer, Twain was rarely presented as a poet or appreciator of poetry to the public during his life—and still today many people assume an antagonistic relationship between Twain and verse. In fact, Twain penned 120 poems (the bulk being of a humorous nature) and was an avid reader and performer of Robert Browning’s works. Additionally, Twain was clearly familiar with the popular poets of his era as he frequently parodied them within his novels. This lecture will discuss how Twain enjoyed not only reading bad poetry but also writing marginalia within his personal poetry collection—often consisting of snarky remarks criticizing the sentimental tone or rhyming structure— illustrating his active investment in altering and questioning the text as an enjoyable activity. In fact, Twain solicited editions of bad poetry from his friends and admirers with the expressed purpose to criticize them, and several of these copies are held today by the Elmira College Mark Twain Archive.

Lisa McGunigal is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Hope College. Her research examines the intersection of performance studies and nineteenth-century American literary realism, focusing on how authors adopted and adapted strategies from performance sites in their novels to interrogate societal attitudes about race, class, and gender. She was a 2019 Quarry Farm Fellow, and her work has appeared in several journals including the Mark Twain Annual and American Literary Realism. Lisa received her B.A. from the University of Rhode Island, M.A. from the University of Virginia, and Ph.D. from the Pennsylvania State University.


Wednesday, May 20

“Witnessing the Civil War: In Elmira with Mark Twain”

Shirley Samuels, Cornell University

“The ‘Baton Rouge’”
Frontispiece for Life on the Mississippi

Mark Twain did not go to Elmira during the Civil War, so the title has some deliberate ambiguity. What Elmira held during the last year of the war was a prisoner of war camp, and I am intrigued with the idea that Twain might have visited the site with the small dread that he could have been confined there or in a place like it if he had been captured during his brief foray into serving with a renegade group of would-be confederate soldiers. Most of the presentation focuses on his uncomfortable writing about the war in Life on the Mississippi. The revisions that appear between the early drafts of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that appear in Life and its later, more familiar, appearance also fascinate me. Since Twain wrote most of Huckleberry Finn while sitting in his lair above Elmira, the title of the talk comes full circle.

Shirley Samuels is working on a monograph, currently titled “Haunted by the Civil War,” on witnessing, testimony, and culture in the United States. She teaches at Cornell University in several departments, including American Studies, English, History of Art and Visual Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Her books include Race and Vision in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. (2019); The Cambridge Companion to Abraham Lincoln (2012); Reading the American Novel: 1780-1865 (2012); Facing America: Iconography and the Civil War (2004); Companion to American Fiction, 1780-1865 (2004); Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation (1996); and The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 19th Century America (1992.) In addition to Cornell University, she has taught at Princeton University, Brandeis University, and the University of Delaware. She has held fellowships from The American Council of Learned Societies, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Huntington Library. She is a member of the 2020 class of Quarry Farm Fellows.

This lecture was previously presented for the Chemung County Historical Society 2020 Civil War Lecture Series.


Wednesday, May 27

“Riding with Mark Twain”

Laura Skandera Trombley, Southwestern University

“I Wept”
Illustration from The Innocents Abroad, Chpt.50

I was about to trek into the desert to try to find what Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, had experienced over one hundred and fifty years ago on his foray through the Holy Land. Clemens had signed up because he was desperate for a future he couldn’t imagine. He had arrived at this juncture exhausted from fighting for a sense of self-worth and fearing that whatever he had managed to accomplish would vanish unnoticed. As contrarian as it might appear, he was convinced that travelling to Europe and then galloping through Palestine was his best opportunity to secure a lucrative future. As for me, I was longing for a feeling of intensity, a strengthened connection, a heightening of awareness, a clearer pathway. I figured I wasn’t the first person to seek enlightenment in the Judean Desert and neither was Clemens. We would be, together, Innocents Abroad.

Laura Skandera Trombley is the forthcoming president of Southwestern University. She is president emerita of Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years, and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dr. Trombley is the author of five books and a number of articles. She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship, including being recognized by the Mark Twain Journal as a Legacy Scholar in spring 2019 for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women who surrounded Mark Twain. In 2017, she won the Louis J. Budd Award for her contributions to Mark Twain Studies. Dr. Trombley graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in English from Pepperdine University. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.


Wednesday, June 3

“Scandal at Stormfield: Mark Twain’s ‘Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript’”

Lawrence Howe, Roosevelt University

Samuel Clemens with Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft (circa 1908)

In 1908, when Sam Clemens moved into his Italianate mansion, Stormfield, in Redding, Connecticut, he seemed to have turned the page on his sadness of recent years and begun a happy chapter. About a year later, this happiness was disrupted by a scandal: his personal secretary Isabel Lyon and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft betrayed his trust. Mark Twain addressed their deceptions in his final text, the “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” a tortured piece of writing in which he struggles to come to terms with their treachery. In this presentation, Howe will offer an account of the events and Twain’s text that disputes criticism of the manuscript as evidence of his irascibility and exhausted talent.  Instead, Howe will show how the text’s compositional problems provide insight into Clemens’s vulnerability in the last stage of his life. In light of evidence proving that the trusted couple exploited him, the text documents a crime that we now recognize as elder abuse. Twain’s emotional tone in this text signals how unsettling this nearly disastrous episode was for him. Indeed, the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript is his attempt to regain control of his life by the means he knew best—through narrative.  

Lawrence Howe is Professor of English and Film Studies at Roosevelt University, past-president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, and editor of Studies in American Humor.  His publications include Mark Twain and Money: Language, Capital, and Culture, edited with Henry Wonham, and Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Novelistic Discourse. And he is currently at work on a book on Mark Twain and property. He has lectured throughout the United States and Europe on Mark Twain and other topics in American culture.

A Mark Twain Studies Primer

My name is Mac Morrison, I am an undergraduate student at Tulane University. I’ve loved Mark Twain’s books since I was a very small child, and I’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his work. In most academic fields there seem to be a short list of works by modern scholars that are considered canonical within the field,  and I was just wondering if you might be able to recommend some titles that fit that description that might be a good introduction to Mark Twain studies for someone who doesn’t have a clue where to start. If such titles exist. Honestly I was pleasantly surprised to find that a center for Mark Twain studies exists at all. In any case, I hope this email finds you well, whoever you are.
Best regards from a huge Mark Twain fan,
MacArthur Morrison

Mac asks an excellent question and is kind enough to let me respond to it in an open forum, where it may be read by others who share his curiosity.

The “primer” which follows focuses on secondary sources – works by biographers, historians, and other scholars – rather than primary sources – those written by Twain and his contemporaries. For the latter, I would recommend the Mark Twain Project – which has produced dozens of excellent editions of Twain’s published and private writings, many available online – as well as the Oxford Mark Twain, a 29-volume collection of Twain’s published works with excellent paratextual materials.

I am also excluding reference works and periodicals, notably Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z, David Fear’s Mark Twain Day By Day, the Mark Twain Journaland the Mark Twain Annualall of which are invaluable resources for Twain scholars and are likely available at your university library. You may also want to check our our digital resources and resources for teachers pages.

I would invite other Twain scholars to comment upon the following list, or even submit their own. Canons are sticky wickets. There are hundreds of volumes of Twain scholarship. It’s hard to know where to begin. Part of the CMTS mission is to provide support for young Twaniacs like Mac. But, of course, any attempt to organize that enormous body of critical works reflects the peculiar preferences of the author.

So, with those caveats, I offer you my dozen “desert island” works of Twain scholarship:

Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers

There are many Twain biographies and as many controversies surrounding them, starting with the authorized Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) by Albert Bigelow Paine. Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens & Mark Twain (1966) won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Next month the corpus will get even bigger, with the publication of the first volume of Gary Scharnhorst’s The Life of Mark Twain. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But, if I had to choose just one, I would opt for Powers’s, which offers a great combination of accuracy and approachability.

 

Mark Twain’s America (1932) by Bernard DeVoto

DeVoto offered one of the first academic assessments of Twain’s career and it is difficult to imagine what Twain Studies would look like without his work.

 

Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (1962) by Louis Budd

The Mark Twain Circle of America’s award for scholarship is named for Budd, with good reason. Budd captures the range of Twain’s political and social commentary, rescuing from it an intricacy and a coherence which few other scholars have managed to express.

The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn (1998) by Jocelyn Chadwick

Twain’s positions on race are too often reduced to one book and even one word in said book, but the relationship between Jim and Huck deserves its central place in Twain Studies, which also cannot elude the controversy produced by this novel in the intervening centuries. Many have written on this subject, and written well. Chadwick offers a undiluted survey, as well as her own fresh perspective.

 

Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) by Laura Skandera-Trombley

While critical debates about gender in Twain’s life and work haven’t the longevity or the publicity of those concerning race, they have become central to Twain Studies in recent decades, thanks in large part to Susan K. Harris’s The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain (1997), Linda Morris’s Gender Play in Mark Twain (2007), and this work by Trombley, who won the Louis J. Budd Award this past year.

 

Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (1997) by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Fishkin has made several substantial contributions to Twain scholarship, including editing the Oxford edition mentioned above, but I would speculate that her unconventional mix of professional and personal narrative in Lighting Out provides as holistic a view of Twain Studies as can by found in a single work.

 

Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973) by Hamlin Hill

Hill, along with John S. Tuckey, combatted the mythologizing of Mark Twain during the Cold War era by drawing attention to the author’s satiric, irreligious, and anti-imperialist late phase.

 

Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain & The American Publishing Revolution (2006) by Bruce Michelson

Twain’s capacity for reflecting and capitalizing on the peculiar circumstances of the Gilded Age is a theme in many of these works. Michelson captures Twain’s mastery of emerging mass media. Judith Y. Lee’s Twain’s Brand (2012) is also excellent in this respect.

 

Cosmopolitan Twain (2008) Edited by Ann Ryan & Joseph B. McCullough

Twain developed deep connections to numerous places in the U.S. and abroad. This collection explores the impact of many of those locales on Twain’s ethos. I am, naturally, partial to the essay on Elmira by my predecessor, Michael Kiskis.

 

Mark Twain and Metaphor (2011) by John Bird

This is a challenging book. Bird employs an unconventional blend of critical methodologies to make a nuanced and rigorous argument that engages many branches of Twain Studies scholarship.

 

Of Huck and Alice (1983) by Neil Schmitz

Remember what I said about personal preferences? There are definitely more popular studies of Twain’s humor – for instance James M. Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966) – but Schmitz’s interweaving of Twain’s Mississippi writings with Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, and Krazy Kat left an indelible impression on me.

Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007) by Tom Quirk

Quirk traces the development of Twain’s attitude towards mankind over the course of his entire career. The linear narrative which interweaves biographical detail and private writings with insightful readings of all the major works, as well as Quirk’s humble and humorous narrative voice, makes this another strong candidate to start your journey in Twain Studies.

“Mark Twain & Libation”: A Talk By The 2017 Louis J. Budd Award Winner

On Saturday, August 5th, the Mark Twain Circle presented the Louis J. Budd Award to Laura Skandera Trombley at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. Dr. Trombley is a Professor of English at University of Southern California, as well as former President of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is also author of two books on Sam Clemens’s relationships with women, as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. Ann Ryan, in presenting the Budd Award, says Dr. Trombley is “nothing if not spicy and untraditional.” What follows is the paper she presented at the conference, titled “Mark Twain & Libation,” which may tempt you to search out the small-batch bourbon produced especially for the conference by Finger Lakes Distilling.

I’d like to dedicate this paper to the Caldwell gang of 5: Ann Ryan, Gary Scharnhorst, Michael Kiskis, and Tom Quirk. All solid drinkers.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a miner’s cabin and a “jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door.” Upon hearing his visitor’s name, “Mark Twain,” he bitterly retorted: “You’re the fourth – I’m going to move.” “The fourth what?” said I. “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours – I’m going to move.” “You don’t tell me!” said I; “who were the others?” “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Holmes – consound the lot!” Three hot whiskeys later, Twain convinced the cranky miner to tell his tale of the seedy Mr. Emerson, fat Mr. Holmes, and the disfigured prize-fighter Mr. Longfellow – all were cheats, thieves and drunken idiots. Upon finishing his sad yarn, the miner repeated: “Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in 24 hours – and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to the littery atmosphere. Twain replied: “Why, my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage; these were impostors. The miner investigated me with a calm eye for a while; then said he, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?”

This famously unsuccessful after dinner story, that William Dean Howells later recounted in My Mark Twain, took place on December 18, 1877 at Boston’s Hotel Brunswick. The dinner, to which 58 male writers had been invited – ladies could only attend the after-dinner speeches – included seven opulent courses washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret, and Burgundy; so much alcohol in fact that the next day the Women’s Christian Temperance Union passed a formal resolution objecting to the dinner. The Boston Transcript pronounced the speech “in bad taste,” and similar newspaper verdicts followed. Howells wrote Clemens on Christmas Day that “every one with whom I have talked about your speech regards it as a fatality.”

Clemens’ self-referential opening to his speech lauded his own literary achievement: “I am reminded of a thing which happened to me thirteen years ago, when I had just succeeded in stirring up a little Nevadian literary puddle myself, whose spume-flakes were beginning to blow thinly Californiaward.” A bold oratorical move considering that this evening organized by The Atlantic Monthly was to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday and, in a larger sense, to pay homage to the New England Brahmin writers Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, the most distinguished American men of letters of that generation, all of whom were in attendance.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a bar and finds “Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the little old dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Boomerang, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smily – Rev. Leonidas W. Smily – a young minister of the gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of this village of Boomerang. I added that if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smily, I would feel under many obligations to him. Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair – and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”

There is a transmutation of sorts taking place between these two ostensibly similar stories. Yet the crucial difference is one of audience and intention. Miners could laugh at themselves; Brahmin New Englanders less so. Clemens was trying to establish himself as a writer in “Jim Smiley.” In his speech, he was asserting he was of the same stature as his elders.

“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published by The Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, just twelve days shy of Clemens’ thirtieth birthday. This bar fly tale took Clemens over eight months to write; he took so long that he missed the deadline for a book of sketches Artemus Ward was editing. Printed and reprinted, the story was Clemens’ entrée into a more literary space than journalistic and has always been considered a pivotal moment in his writing career. The genesis for “Jim Smiley” came from the three months Clemens spent drinking during the winter of 1864–65. Part of his time was spent in the Gillis family cabin on Jackass Hill. Clemens knew Steve Gillis from Nevada, where Steve worked as a typesetter on the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise and was Clemens’ drinking buddy. In San Francisco Clemens signed a straw bond for $500 after Steve got in trouble with the police for intervening in a bar fight. Clemens then spent nearly a month drinking in Angels Camp. That Clemens would choose a saloon as the setting for his story should come as no surprise considering where he had spent the last four years of his life. Soon after arriving in Nevada in 1861 with his brother Orion, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and quickly grew tired of the brutal living conditions. In 1862, he started sending writing samples to the Enterprise and was offered a job as editor earning twenty-five dollars a week. This was a significant move upwards since the Enterprise was, per Dan DeQuill and Enterprise employee, the “most flourishing newspaper on the Pacific Coast” where a “tribal wave of gold rolled in upon its proprietors.” Virginia City, elevation 6,000 feet, was a boomtown consisting of miners, alcoholics, millionaires, gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws, and saloons – more than fifty saloons – all sitting on top of the Comstock Lode. In one year, the population exploded from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. During the time Clemens lived there it was the richest, roughest, murderous, and drunkest place in North America.

In January of 1863, Clemens abandoned his earlier pseudonyms, “Sergeant Fathom,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh,” in favor of a new “nom de guerre”: “Mark Twain.” As has been noted before by Guy Cardwell, Paul Fatout, Horst Kruse, and Gary Scharnhorst, among others, the name Mark Twain has less to do with the muddy waters of the Mississippi than the clear water of high proof whiskey. Scharnhorst notes that in August 1864, only about a year and a half after Clemens began using his pseudonym, in an article for the Alta California, Albert Evans asserted that his “soubriquet was given him by his friends as indicative of his capacity for doing the drink for two.” Multiple newspaper accounts about his pen-name appeared in the spring of 1866. An article in the Nevada Daily on February 22, three years after “Mark Twain” had first appeared in print, explained “Mark Twain” was miner’s slang for ordering two shots of liquor on credit. A large piece of smooth slate would hang on the wall behind the bar where the bartender would chalk two slashes next to the regular’s name and call out “Mark Twain.” And Clemens’ growing bar tab would be on view for all to see. Clemens’ usage of the phrase in his newspaper columns was perfectly timed in that it not only reflected his current hard-drinking lifestyle and alcohol saturated audience, but created a definable persona he would populate for the rest of his life. His choice created a satirical, instantaneous, man-to-man connection with his hardened, swilling audience. Billed under his new name, he attracted crowds on the Western lecture circuit who had read the article about the genesis of his name, who obviously were in on the joke, and who came wanting to see an alcohol-soaked Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope. They were not disappointed. Clemens knew and, without objection, leveraged the fact that his audience expected the man who was described in newspaper accounts as taking two “horns consecutive, one right after the other, and when he come in there and took them on tick, Johnny used to sing out to the barkeep, who carried a lump of chalk in his weskit pocket and kept the score, ‘mark twain,’ whereupon the barkeep would score two drinks to Sam’s account – and so it was, d’ye see, that he comes to be called ‘Mark Twain.’”

Clemens had a life-long fondness for “the drink” (as my mother would say) and in those early years when his career was just beginning he not only frequently wrote about imbibing but also enjoyed a dissipated lifestyle. In January 1866 Albert Evans wrote in the Gold Hill (Nevada) Evening News about Clemens’ arrest for public intoxication in San Francisco, referring to “a stench which is only second in horrible density to that which prevails in the Police Court room when the Bohemian of the Sage-Brush is in the dock for being drunk over night.” This wouldn’t be his only stint in the hoosegow (as my father would say). One year after “Jumping Frog” was published, Clemens departed San Francisco bound for New York. He spent his time visiting city sights and writing about them in letters to the Alta California. In March 1867, he telegraphed the Alta asking to be hired as a paid correspondent on the Quaker City, a sidewheel steamship used by Union forces in the Civil War. The Captain of the ship, Charles Duncan, recalled years later that Clemens was one of the first people to contact him about the excursion. The Captain was repulsed by Clemens’ appearance and demeanor: “tall, lanky, unkempt, unwashed individual, who seemed to be full of whiskey or something like it, and who filled my office with fumes of bad liquor. He said he was a Baptist minister from San Francisco and desired to travel for his health.” Captain Duncan retorted that he didn’t “look like a Baptist minister or smell like one either.” While waiting for the ship to sail, Clemens gave a well-received talk at the Cooper Institute and spent his nights engaging in more risqué conduct. One evening, he was jailed for the night because he claimed to have intervened in a street brawl (why he was out “with a friend” at midnight remains a mystery) and the police insisted upon arresting the thwarted peacemaker. Clemens had now achieved the rather dubious distinction of having been jailed for public drunkenness on each coast.

Four days before the sailing, he visited Harry Hill’s Variety Theatre at Houston and Crosby Streets. Known as an “evil” and “vile house” and a gathering place for prostitutes, gamblers and criminals, it featured male wrestling and female bare knuckle fighting. In his Alta article, “Mark Twain” portrayed himself as an innocent who believed the establishment “was where the savants were in the habit of meeting to commune upon abstruse matters of science and philosophy – men like Agassiz and Ericsson and people of that stamp.” Instead he watched a male dancer dressed in a Highland costume outfitted in only a “short coat and short stockings. This was apparent every time he whirled around. However, no one observed it but me. I knew that, because several handsomely dressed young ladies, from thirteen to sixteen and seventeen years of age, went and sat down under the foot-lights, and of course they would have moved away if they had noticed that he was only partly dressed.” His final evening in New York was spent drinking over the course of many hours “several breeds of wine” and trying to sober up enough to pack his trunk. While on board the Quaker City, he met Charles Langdon, the younger brother of heiress Olivia Langdon, who Clemens would marry in 1870.

Clemens’ marriage to Olivia affected his own sense of self-worth, as well as deeply influencing how he desired others to view him. Seven years after marrying up into the first family of Elmira and publishing the bestselling book of his lifetime Innocents Abroad, Clemens apparently decided that having a pen name that was a miner’s drunk joke was no longer appropriate for the distinguished writer persona he was busily adopting. He didn’t want to be known as just a humorist, instead he was on the path to becoming more refined and “serious” author. On June 9, 1877, the Alta published a note from him explaining that “Mark Twain” was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write for the New Orleans Picayune. When Sellers died in 1863, Clemens claimed he adopted his name. Yet, Sellers didn’t die until 1864 and he also never used that name. Six months later, after rewriting the history of his name, Clemens gave his after dinner talk in Boston. While including himself among the Brahmins, he was drawing upon the southwestern tradition of storytelling with liquor providing the entrée as well as the punchlines while reminding everyone about the brilliance of his short story. A stunning act of simultaneous hubris and self-doubt. He wanted to shove aside the old social order but he also wanted to be a member. As insecure as he was, he wanted to both conquer and belong. Had his inebriated audience laughed, possibly Clemens’ ardent desire to be accepted by this group would have been achieved. He had whitewashed his name; the time had come for these stalwarts to applaud his writerly talents. They didn’t laugh. Instead, as Howells tells us: “There fell a silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy. Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or at his plate. . . . I stole a glance at him, and saw him standing solitary . . . with his joke dead on his hands.” Clemens would defiantly claim decades later in his Autobiography that he would do the same again, and told Isabel Lyon, his secretary who gifted vibrators to him for their “electrical” benefits: “those fine Boston men were a generation ahead of Mr. Clemens – & he didn’t see more of them than just to go up to Boston for their “seventy” birthdays. For himself there are only Mr- Howells and Mr. Aldrich – and he surprised me into recognizing the truth by telling me that he hasn’t had much of a literary friendship with men.” In Clemens’ final years he would disavow “Jim Smiley,” calling it “a villainous backwoods sketch,” just as he had rejected the original association with his pseudonym. The miner’s line, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?” may have been one of the most truthful questions Clemens ever raised in public and one he never managed to reconcile.

Well all this angst and drama is likely to drive sane people to drink! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Twain scholars walk into a bar – see you all there later.

Thank You.