Lecture on Mark Twain’s eager criticism of ‘bad’ poetry kicks off the Trouble Begins Lecture Series

“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.

Professor McGunigal’s lecture can be found HERE. Lecture images can be found HERE.

The “Quarry Farm” and “Antenne” Twain Marginalia Now Online

From the January 1985 issue of the Mark Twain Society Bulletin:

Twain marginalia from Tent Life in the Holy Land by William Prine

“When Sam Clemens married Livy Langdon he married into a family that loved books, bought books, gave books, read books and enjoyed discussing books. In addition to discovering a young lady who was beautiful, charming had a sense of humor and was cultured and wealthy, young Mark Twain found a bride who shared his love of reading. The Langdon family library, or the more than 1,000 volumes of it that remain at Quarry Farm, represents the purchases and gifts to each other of four generations of Langdons. It would be surprising if Mark Twain had not read some of these books in the many summers he spent in Elmira. Only recently has an examination shown that he wrote in as well as read some of the volumes belonging to his in-laws.

When Mary Boewe and her husband, Charles Boewe, the Rafinesque scholar, stayed at Quarry Farm … they examined the library looking for specific titles of books that they knew Mark Twain and Livy had read. They found extensive Clemens marginalia in three works by Lecky…”

The link to the entire article is found here. The discovery by the Boewe’s was the first of many.  Since the initial Lecky discovery, an additional forty-six volumes from the Quarry Farm library have been identified as containing marginal notes and/or inscriptions by Mark Twain.  Given that over three decades have passed, there remains no indication that the scholarly potential has been exhausted.  Within the last year, selections from the Quarry Farm library have been featured in the Mark Twain Journal (Fall 2018) and “new” marginal notes have been confirmed in Ida C. Langdon’s copy of Rubaiyat

In 1993, another set of books, this time from Mark Twain’s personal library at Stormfield, came to Elmira College through Robert and Katharine Antenne, descendants of the Clemens’ housekeeper, Katy Leary.  The Antenne’s donated 90 volumes, the majority containing inscriptions and/or marginalia from Mark Twain. 

As a cornerstone of the Mark Twain collection, these two collections of books are an important resource and curiosity for Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike.  Having been exhibited, used in presentations, and studied by many a scholar for many a publication, these volumes have begun to show signs of their extensive use.  In an effort to care for the originals and provide greater access for further educational and scholarly research, the pages of marginalia are being made available at the following address: https://nyheritage.org/collections/mark-twain-collection. The complete CMTS Mark Twain Archive can be found here, along with other research opportunities afforded Quarry Farm Fellows.

Enjoy!