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
“Why should we be interested in Grace King and her letters?” Steve Courtney asked me at the 2019 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. “Because she was a respected fiction writer and historian in her time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). And because she was a friend of Mark Twain and his family, for goodness sake! Hers is a fresh southern voice too little known, even by Twain scholars. There are nuggets of the personal lives of each of the Clemenses here, and this collection has never been gathered in one place in this way. King’s letters are not digitized, and many have not been transcribed previously. What a keen observer and letter writer she was. As examples, a meticulous description of food served at a Clemens dinner and her declaration from the splendid guest suite that she felt ‘like Beauty when the Beast left her alone in the palace,’ a line that is quoted during tours of the house.”
Steve Courtney of the curatorial staff at Mark Twain House was helping me launch A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. He had written a foreword on how I made contact with the house just as he was reading King’s biography and her published notebooks. My book covers essential years from 1885 to Twain’s death in 1910, the period of King’s development as a writer and over the course of Twain’s zenith and nadir. In the letters, she tells delicious tidbits about Twain’s quirks, jokes, and stories, his warm generosity to her, and his loving ways as husband and father. Grace King and Olivia Clemens reveal remarkable confidences in their exchanges, and the personalities of Susy, Clara, and Jean shine through in uninhibited letters to their special friend, “Teety.”
Grace King first met the Clemenses in 1887 when she was
visiting their neighbor and her mentor, Charles Dudley Warner, with whom Twain
had written The Gilded Age: A Tale of
Today (1873). The new acquaintances immediately began to spend much time
together reading, talking, traveling, playing games, and sharing meals. The
Clemenses invited Grace to spend a weekend with them that year and then a month
with them in 1888, where the friends became more devoted to each other. The
couple even brought Grace to New York so she could offer the dramatization of her
first story, “Monsieur Motte,” to Augustin Daly, an impresario that Twain knew.
Then in 1892, Grace King and her sister Nan visited the Clemenses for another
several weeks at the Villa Viviani outside Florence, Italy. In between these
visits, Grace, Livy, and the girls, especially, kept track of each other’s
lives, ailments, sorrows, and pleasures in unfiltered letters with sometimes
quite startling revelations.
I first encountered King’s letters at the Hill Library at
Louisiana State University while researching my previous book, Southern Ladies and Suffragists. I knew then
that I’d return to those fascinating morsels of life, literature, and family in
New Orleans. The next round of transcribing brought me to her friendship with
Twain, about which I then knew little, and to the discovery of a cache of her
letters to the Clemenses at the Mark Twain Project at University of California,
Berkeley. Bob Hirst became my partner in uncovering all those letters, some of
which, he told me, had been sitting there since the late 1960s waiting for
someone to be interested enough and able to decipher what was apparently
considered a difficult handwriting. I was delighted to assume that role. The rest was pleasure and discovery, with each
new letter unfolding another scene in the drama.
I intended from the beginning to include all of the Clemens
letters. To tell Grace King’s own story, I chose excerpts and near-complete
letters from the hundreds of family letters and wove them into a
contextualizing narrative that allows her own voice to sing through. She tells
how when she meets Twain, the writer of her deceased father’s favorite Innocents Abroad, she is thrilled; when
he parodies her literary nemesis George Washington Cable, with whom Twain had toured
and performed in 1885, she becomes further devoted. The sections of complete
letters of each of the Clemenses to and from Grace allow the saga of family and
friendship to be central to the story. These are interspersed with only narrative
enough to keep the reader grounded.
Grace cultivated Livy’s friendship as well as Twain’s; she
was no threat to wives of famous men. Instead, they seemed to have welcomed her
as a smart, amusing, informed, and charming southerner who was good company, a
reasonable card player, and an appreciative guest. Grace and Livy shared
intense interest in food, fashion, manners, religion, business, literature, and
more. Grace attended the regular “Brownings” at the house, when Twain read and
performed Robert Browning’s poems. They played his favorite Hearts into the wee
Many of the letters come from and tell little details about life at Quarry Farm, where the girls enjoy baseball games and moonlight rides, and in Hartford, about their lessons and performances and autographs of favorite stars of the theater, which Twain himself helped Clara gather. Livy writes about his intense writing at the farm and invites Grace to spend a month with the family in Hartford in October, 1888. She assures Grace that Mr. Clemens asserted that she would cause no disruption in the writing he planned, although he discouraged visits from male friends during that period of work. Grace became enfolded in the family during that month, when Twain voted Democratic in the presidential election, when Livy comforted Grace in her mourning for her maternal uncle, and when friendships deepened. These details might enhance some entries in the Twain Day by Day, which fascinated me when I spent time at Quarry Farm last year to speak in the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Trouble Begins lecture series.
The letters take readers through joys and sorrows,
especially during loss of both families’ members. Brief notes are as poignant
as are formal announcements of deaths. Even when Clara alone is left of the Clemens
family, she and Grace King exchange a few letters of affection. They see each
other once more, in New Orleans in 1915, when Clara’s husband Ossip
Gabrilowitsch performs with the city’s symphony.
Twain’s fascination and sympathy for animals is abundantly clear in the countless depictions of animals in his writing. One of my favorite manifestations of Twain’s love of animals, however, isn’t a literary example, but an architectural one: the cat doors built into his Octagonal Study. The cat doors allow me to identify with the iconic author on a personal level as I conjure up a delightfully relatable image of him exactly as I am at the moment – writing with my beloved cats surrounding and draped upon me. That Twain loved animals is common knowledge. But what may surprise even Twain fans today is that he didn’t only love animals, he advocated for their rights.
Twain’s sympathy for animals can be traced throughout his entire life, a fact he attributed to his mother’s influence, and his wife Livy and their daughters were all avid supporters of animal welfare causes. It took a more radical branch of the animal welfare movement, though, to draw Twain’s public statements of protest: the practice of vivisection, or scientific experiments on live animals. During Twain’s lifetime, vivisection became increasingly common, especially in universities, where “modernized” physiology laboratories touted their facilities for conducting animal experiments and theatrical lecture hall demonstrations on animals were the new norm. Twain became increasingly conscious of the use of animals in experiments, and he railed against the practice in his 1899 letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society, which was published and circulated on both sides of the Atlantic as a pamphlet for the anti-vivisection cause. Characteristic of the author’s usual outrage over the exploitation of the vulnerable in society, Twain’s letter took a radical philosophical stance, refuting the notion that animal testing was justifiable as a means to advance medical science.
“I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”
A few years later, apparently at the suggestion of his animal-loving daughter Jean, Twain wrote the short story that solidified his public support for the cause, “A Dog’s Tale.” As the last published work Twain wrote in Quarry Farm, “A Dog’s Tale,” published in December 1903 in Harper’s and the following year as a book, is a fitting culmination of the many productive summers he spent surrounded by the beloved cats, dogs, farm animals and wildlife of his Elmira, N.Y. retreat. The story is told from the perspective of a loveable mother dog, Aileen Mavourneen, who earns an honored status in her family by rescuing a baby from a nursery fire, only to have her own puppy killed by her unfeeling vivisector owner in an unnecessary experiment in his home laboratory. In “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain condemns vivisection as an act of betrayal. As the sympathetic family servant who buried Aileen’s puppy, laments, “Poor little doggie, you saved his child.”
After the publication of his letter to the Anti-Vivisection Society and “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and he was not alone in that role. His contemporary Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, the author of over 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays, also joined the fight against vivisection. From the 1890s until her death in 1911, Phelps devoted herself to the anti-vivisection cause. In addition to writing novels and short stories that protested vivisection, Phelps contributed several pamphlets and three speeches to the Massachusetts Legislature in support of a bill to regulate vivisection in that state, and she lobbied for legislative reform with lawmakers. Phelps was such a prominent advocate for animal rights that the New York Times featured her stance in a 1908 article about the vivisection controversy: “Ten thousand things learned, if this were possible, from vivisection, would not justify the intolerable and unpardonable torture to which animals have been subjected by this brutal practice.” Phelps, while in agreement with Twain on wanting to abolish vivisection completely, nevertheless supported legislation to regulate the practice, with the hopes of lessening the suffering of animals in laboratories.
Despite the nuances of their activist stances, Twain and Phelps both used their fiction as a vehicle to generate sympathy for animals and support for the anti-vivisection campaign. As Phelps’s most significant contribution to the cause, her novel Trixy highlights the degrading effect of vivisection on humanity and especially on the medical profession. The vivisector characters of both “A Dog’s Tale” and Trixy are portrayed as elite class “gentlemen of science” who perform unnecessary experiments on animals for the sake of professional glory, and who are desensitized to the suffering of living beings. The dog characters of both stories are the kind of loyal, trusting, and loveable companion animals that were cherished in the Victorian pet keeping culture (and today), which makes the stories of their betrayal by humans especially heart breaking.
Although neglected by scholars and readers for many years, Twain’s contributions to the anti-vivisection campaign are finally getting the attention they deserve, in large part thanks to Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s volume, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, published in 2010. Phelps’s writing for the cause, which has been out of print for over a century, warrants recovery, as well. Trixy speaks as much to readers today as it did in Phelps’s and Twain’s era, because it presents a progressive and capacious model of compassion that crosses boundaries of species and social status. In Trixy, Phelps anticipates posthumanist philosophers today who challenge species-based divisions and hierarchies.
Animal rights activists today will appreciate Phelps’s strategic choice in highlighting not only the suffering animals, but also the bonds between animals and humans, and they’ll recognize the power of storytelling as a key strategy in transforming readers’ attitudes about the status of animals in society. In many ways, I see social media profiles of rescue dogs as a modern day version of the narrative strategies popularized by Twain and Phelps. In Twitter posts told from the point of view of rescue dogs, adopters share updates about their dogs’ happy lives, loving homes and relationships, and carefree adventures. With their focus on telling stories of dogs and their emotional experiences and interactions with people, activists who focus on nonhuman animals’ stories pick up where Phelps and Twain left off over a century ago.
Trixy and “A Dog’s Tale” take us back to a time when the use of animals in laboratories had just become commonplace in the U.S., especially in universities. These stories offer us a glimpse into the authors’ prescient ideas about the enduring effects of that new norm, and they reflect the authors’ passionate devotion to the rights of nonhuman animals. At the same time, they also offer readers today a progressive vision of love and compassion across the species divide.
“Who comes so near to meeting the conditions of a real friendship as your dog? His devotion surpasses the devotion of most women. His affection outvies the affection of any man. He gives everything; he asks nothing. He offers all; he receives little. He comforts your loneliness; he assuages your distress; he sacrifices his liberty to watch by you in sickness; when every one else who used to love you has neglected your grave, he will break his heart upon it. Who fails you in faith? Your dog is loyal. Who deserts you? Your dog never. Who gashes you with roughness, or bruises you with unkindness? Your dog offers you the tenderness that time and use cannot destroy. You have from him the expression of the uttermost, the unselfish love.”
from Trixy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
A more expanded discussion of these remarks, especially the Twain and Phelps anti-vivisection connection, can be found in my Introduction to the new critical edition of Trixy being published by Northwestern University Press. The volume also includes Mark Twain’s story “A Dog’s Tale” in the appendix. To find out more and received a 25% discount, check out this flyer.
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center for Mark Twain Studies through a Quarry Farm Fellowship, which provided me with valuable research time and inspiration for this project.
Emily E. VanDette is a Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia. She was a Quarry Farm Fellow in 2017.
Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.
The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.
But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.
Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!
Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.
It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.
View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.
As with other recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Dave Chappelle (who receives the prize this Sunday at the Kennedy Center) has a few basic things in common with the award’s namesake. The most obvious, of course, is his keen sense of humor. Like Twain, Chappelle has honed his natural talent into a phenomenal career in comedy. Aside from performing 1,600 sold-out concerts around the world since 2015 alone, the Kennedy Center notes that Chappelle is “the mastermind behind the 2003 sketch comedy hit, Chappelle’s Show— one of the highest rated programs on Comedy Central. The show earned three Emmy nominations and went on to become the best-selling TV show in DVD history.”
Also like Twain and other prize recipients, Chappelle’s success is not merely based on a knack for telling jokes; it’s rooted in a mastery of comic storytelling. Where many comedians string comedic bits loosely together during a stand-up routine (no easy task in itself), Chappelle follows Twain’s lead by crafting longer, multi-layered narratives. Through a deceptively simple, conversational style, steeped in common (often vulgar) language, such comic narratives provoke laughter while exploring sensitive truths.
Few other Mark Twain Prize winners have found themselves so often embroiled in the cultural firestorms that Twain himself continues to ignite. The Twain Prize’s first recipient, Richard Pryor, shares this distinction with Twain and Chappelle, along with a storytelling style that’s intertwined with his notoriety.
Pryor’s volatile comic genius is credited with creating, as Stefan Kanfer puts it, “a new kind of comedy (in the 1970s)—a hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted view of life seen from the underside.” It’s in the “hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted” heart of Pryor’s comedy where his narrative-style intersects most closely with that of Twain and Chappelle, especially when it comes to their comedic attempts to unravel the Gordian knot of race relations in America.
Fishkin noted that, “As a 15-year-old, Twain spent a lot of time with ‘Jerry,’ a slave who ‘daily preached (satirical) sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile with me for the sole audience.’” Twain confesses that his “mother beat him for associating with Jerry, but ‘to me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest man in the United States.’” Fishkin suggested, according to the Los Angeles Times, “that Pryor’s storytelling, like Twain’s, grew out of the same tradition of satire and subtlety, using humor drawn from their life experiences, wielding stories like weapons to destroy preconceptions and stereotypes.”
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite all the racial controversy swirling around it today, is perhaps Twain’s greatest satirical weapon in this regard. In Mark Twain: Social Critic, Philip S. Foner states that aside from “the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar, it was clear…that the (offended) authorities regarded the exposure of the evils of slavery and the heroic portrayals of the Negro characters as hideously subversive.”
This point is illustrated in Mark Twain Tonight!, when Hal Holbrook performing as Twain tells the “hideously subversive” story of Huck’s friendship with Jim, a runaway slave (while also demonstrating how Twain’s popular career as a stage performer helped to pave the way for the modern stand-up scene):
In accepting the Twain Prize, Pryor acknowledged his comedic camaraderie with Twain: “I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.” Although, as Kanfer says, “was a savage, equal-opportunity satirist (targeting) white racism, his fellow African-Americans, and—finally and most severely—himself,”he used his razor-sharp humor to cut into stereotypes and expose our shared (albeit deeply flawed) humanity. In this clip from the 1977 pilot of Pryor’s short-lived TV series (which, like Chappelle, he sabotaged because the way Hollywood tried to confine him didn’t feel right), Pryor is joined by John Belushi and, perhaps most surprisingly, Maya Angelou in a poignant sketch about an alcoholic’s broken dreams.
Chappelle does not shy away from the uglier aspects of racism that Twain and Pryor tackle. Perhaps the most famous example is a bitingly funny Frontline parody about a blind white supremacist who also happens to be black, a skit that co-writer Neal Brennan called “abrasive in the best possible way.”
Chappelle’s comedy, however, tends to be more good-natured in debunking the absurdities of racial prejudice. In another skit ridiculing racial stereotypes and music, Chappelle conducts a satirical experiment that calls to mind Twain’s religion experiment in “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (also known as “The Lowest Animal”)—only where Twain’s caged religious believers tear each other apart over theological differences, Chappelle reaches a more optimistic conclusion:
As much as Chappelle and Pryor have used humor to bring us together, it’s sad to realize just how bitterly divisive race remains in this country well over a century after Huckleberry Finn was published. It even seems at times that Twain may have overstated the liberating power of comedy when he wrote, “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”
However, Twain also observed, “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
Fortunately, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and other comedians honored with the Mark Twain Prize have embraced Twain’s calling as a humorist “to excite the laughter of God’s children” in this earthly realm, where laughter may not blast our sorrows to rags and atoms, but it certainly helps make everything human seem a lot less pathetic.
The fall portion of the 2019-2020 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies features four lectures, with the first event set for 7:00 p.m., on Wednesday, October 9 in The Barn at Quarry Farm. All four lectures are free and open to the public.
lecture, “Mark Twain Invades Washington,” will be presented by Alan Pell
Crawford, author and independent scholar. Before he was a famous novelist, Mark
Twain lived and worked in the Nation’s Capital, first as an aide to Senator
William Stewart of Nevada—he was quickly fired—then as a lobbyist and
Washington correspondent. These early experiences gave Twain a unique
perspective on American politics, and in later years he became a fierce critic
of war and imperialism. Having had his profits as an author reduced by pirated
editions of his works, he returned to Washington late in life to testify before
Congress for copyright protection for authors. People still read his trenchant
writings on politics, with good reason. They still speak to us. “Fleas can be
taught nearly anything that a Congressman can,” Twain wrote in What
is Man? and Other Essays. In Mark Twain, A Biography he
is quoted as saying “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member
of Congress. But I repeat myself.” What would he say today?
Pell Crawford is the author, most recently, of How
Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain, published in
2018. His previous books include Unwise Passions: The True Story of a
Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America and Twilight
at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. A former Senate and
House staffer, Pell Crawford has been a residential scholar at the Robert H. Smith
International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and George
Washington’s Mount Vernon. He has written for the Wall Street Journal for
25 years and been published in the New York Times, the Washington
Post, National Review, the Weekly Standard and Vogue.
He lives in Richmond, Virginia.
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.
Beneath the digital edition of Drinking With Twain, I have provided some commentary about Kelsey and his co-author, Laurel O’Connor. Whether or not you are inclined to read such commentary, I warn you that this pamphlet, though certainly worthy of the curiosity of Twainiacs and local historians, should not be regarded as an especially reliable source of biographical information about Samuel Clemens or his associates. There are a few outright falsities, as well as numerous claims which are difficult, if not impossible, to corroborate. This does not prevent Kelsey’s memoir from being entertaining, or relevant to scholars. But it should be treated with healthy skepticism. It is one resident’s reflection, after a span of nearly forty years, upon the social climate of Elmira in the later stages of Clemen’s residency here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For best reading, launch full-screen mode from the toolbar at the bottom of the reader. This readeronly allows for documents of up to 30 pages. The final four pages of the manuscript can be found in another reader at the bottom of this post.
Frank Edward Kelsey was, much like Samuel Clemens, endowed with the entrepreneurial energy of the Gilded Age. He moved freely between trades and across territories, seemingly motivated as much by cosmopolitan curiosity as by fortune-seeking. He died not far from where he had been born, in Battle Creek, Michigan, but in the interim he resided for extended periods in at least four other states and periodically worked as a salesman and promotor, exploring the entirety of the U.S. by train and later by car.
Kelsey moved to Elmira from Goshen, Indiana sometime between early 1890 and the middle of 1892. He was still a young man, not yet 30. His furniture factory, The Elmira Table Company, was incorporated on November 15, 1892, but he had clearly been in town for some time prior making preparations and overseeing construction. The Elmira Table Company remained in continuous operation until 1913, when it was purchased by a rival. The factory shuttered soon thereafter. Kelsey had presumably sold his position many years earlier. His family left the Elmira area sometime between 1898 and 1900. During his relatively brief residency, he managed to get himself elected, in 1896, as the first mayor of the village of Elmira Heights, a hard-fought election that was decided by only ten votes. Clearly an active member of the New York Republican Party, that same year he was sent as a delegate to the RNC convention in St. Louis.
Kelsey’s residency in Elmira had only minimal overlap with Clemens’s. In 1890, for the first time since 1873, the Clemenes did not spend the whole summer at Quarry Farm. They did not arrive until mid-August and then only because Olivia Lewis Langdon had fallen ill. They returned in November, and Livy remainder until after her mother’s death, but Sam spent only a few days before returning to Hartford. The Clemenses did not return for another visit to Elmira until the Summer of 1892, and even then, Sam was only in residence at Quarry Farm for a couple weeks before embarking to Europe. The following Summer they planned to resume their usual long residency. Livy and the girls arrived in late March or early April, and Sam followed them at the beginning of May, but business, namely the Panic of 1893, again interfered with his plans. Sam left for New York City after only a week at the Farm and did not return until October, and then for only a weekend. Sam made two more weekend trips to Elmira, mainly on business, in 1894.
For the first time in six years, Sam Clemens and his family did have an extended residency at Quarry Farm from mid-May to mid-July 1895, though this was still nothing like the six or seven month stretches they routinely stayed during the 1870s and 1880s. As Clemens would not return until after Kelsey moved away, this seems to be the last time he could have spent any considerable amount of time “drinking with Twain.”
Given these dates, Kelsey may have met Samuel Clemens on no more than a small handful of occasions. His pamphlet is likely far more dependent upon the second-hand stories he heard from those who frequented places like Klapproth’s tavern when Clemens was really a “regular” during the preceding decades. There are several places in the narrative where Kelsey reveals his ignorance about the man he claims to know well. Perhaps most glaringly, he claims that Clemens brought “colored servants” with him from Missouri. It is a ridiculous claim. Clemens had not lived in Missouri for well over a decade before he set foot in Elmira. The idea that he was followed around by doting African-Americans, presumably former slaves, is part of a broader pattern of casual racist fantasy in Drinking With Twain.
But while I think we should have grave doubts about Kelsey’s personal relationship to Clemens, his contention that aspects of the social culture in Elmira reflected the enduring influence of Clemens and his circle is easier to swallow. Most of the people and places Kelsey describes are part of the historical record. In some cases, like Lew Shilden’s, Kelsey provides a more detailed account which usefully supplements other sources, like the Elmira Star-Gazette, which, in 1902, wrote the following:
Kelsey’s reflections also provide a tentative answer to a minor mystery of Samuel Clemens’s biography. There is strong evidence that well into his thirties, Clemens had a drinking problem. He was arrested for public drunkenness at least once and many of his Western friends and acquaintances testified that he “got drunk oftener than was necessary.” He never succeeded in getting himself fully “on the wagon,” but after his engagement to Livy, there is sparse evidence that his drinking interfered with his domestic or professional life. It seems reasonable to speculate that something changed in Sam Clemens’s relationship to liquor after 1867. Kelsey’s outline of Twain’s supposed “philosophy of drinking,” as well as the expectations for behavior at Klapproth’s and other Elmira establishments, is a substantive and persuasive explanation of this change. The rules Kelsey alleges Clemens and his associates followed are in keeping with many of Twain’s public and private writings on drinking, including humorous aphorisms, like, “Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance.”
The co-author and so-called “raconteuse” (gifted female storyteller) of Drinking With Twain, the pseudonymous Laurel O’Connor, is, according to Barbara Schmidt, an actress and writer from Battle Creek, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones.
Mrs. Stones became familiar with Mr. Kelsey when she was still Mrs. Connor, specifically during her brother, Jimmy Reed’s, prolonged battle with tuberculosis, which he succumbed to in March 1935. O’Connor reports that both she and her brother, each of whom also worked for local newspapers, took “little odd jobs of writing for [Kelsey].” It’s unclear why exactly Kelsey was employing freelance writers, aside from the composition of Drinking With Twain, which did not begin until after Reed’s death. Kelsey was the business manager of both the Battle Creek Journal and Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press from 1911 to 1915, but his direct involvement in the newspaper business seems to have ended long before his friendship with the Reeds began.
It seems possible that some of the awkward Confederate romanticism, including overt racism, which runs through Drinking With Twain could have come from O’Connor/Stones. In her introduction, she alludes with pride to a great-grandfather, who was an “admirable drinker” and “the first Attorney General from the State of Mississippi.” She is referring, presumably, to Thomas Buck Reed, who was actually the third Attorney General from Mississippi, from 1821 to 1826, as well as a U.S. Senator from 1826 to 1829.
O’Connor also mentions another great grandfather, who she describes as “a glorious rogue who rode a white charger with magnificent dignity and doffed his tall black hat to every pretty petticoat.” This is probably Thomas Hurst, the Virginian plantation owner whose daughter, Elizabeth Lee Hurst, married John Hampton Reed. Their son (and Laurabell’s father) James Hall Reed migrated to Battle Creek after serving as a doctor for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. There he met and married Josephine Norton. O’Connor shows much more pride in the Southern side of her family than in the Nortons, who could trace their ancestry back to the original settlement of Battle Creek. At the time of her mother’s death, in 1962, Laurabell Stones was reported living with her second husband, Frank Stones, in Des Plaines, Illinois.
There are two more things worth mentioning about Frank Kelsey’s career, which had many twists and turns. In the early years of the 20th century, Kelsey left the furniture business and became a full-time promoter, first for the Battle Creek Breakfast Food Co., which would produce several of the most popular cereal brands of the era and eventually be acquired by Kellogg’s. Battle Creek Breakfast Food had facilities in Buffalo (NY), Chicago (IL), Dayton (OH), and Quincy (IL), in addition to Battle Creek, and Kelsey was a frequent visitor to these cities.
He claimed to have invented Battle Creek Breakfast Food’s signature product, Egg-o-See, the most popular cereal of the first decade of the 20th century and the brandname which became Kellogg’s Eggo‘s toaster pastries. His foundational role in the company was reported in, among other papers, the Elmira Star-Gazette.
Over the next several decades, Kelsey would work as a promotor for several more companies, both large and small, including the Royal Fireless Cooker Co., Chevrolet, and, as he acknowledges in Drinking With Twain, Paris, Allen, & Co., the distributors of Old Crow Bourbon Whiskey. Kelsey’s professional relationship with Paris, Allen, & Co. throws into question his claim that Old Crow was Mark Twain’s preferred American whiskey, a claim which has not been corroborated elsewhere.
Kelsey clearly went through periods of boom and bust. Like Clemens, his fortunes were once swept away by a financial crisis. In 1929, he declared bankruptcy in Detroit. During the same year, the Star-Gazette wrongly reported that he had died. However, Kelsey recovered, living another 20+ years, and building a successful tax consulting firm in Battle Creek.
If you have more information about Frank E. Kelsey, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones, or Drinking With Twain, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would love to hear from you ([email protected]).
Thanks are due to both Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com and Nathaniel Ball,Elmira College archivist, for their help in researching and preparing this manuscript.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As of last month, it has been 150 years since the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We are marking the occasion with a series of short essays from Twain scholars who have written about the travel book and the voyage it describes.
The Innocents Abroad changed everything.
In context with the vast and often energetic public dialogue built around American travelers to the Old World, it signaled a shift of sensibilities that matched a growing self-awareness—a confidence, a brashness—within the American collective psyche. Twain throughout the text reveals in numerous ways his understanding of a changing national identity, and his narrative announces a new cultural force of American emergence that would demand attention. In the closing pages, he captures the overall tone quite efficiently as he describes the symbolic posture of the American tourists as they moved from site to site: “The people stared at us every where, and we stared at them. We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.”
The narrative engages with a formidable range of travel writing tropes and successfully takes readers on a rollicking tour of a world in transition and does so with a voice both reverent and scornful, staid and boisterous. Readers, then and now, find more rewards, per pound, in The Innocents Abroad than any other work in his canon. That statement is open to debate, but I like my odds. To be sure, Mark Twain was not the first to mock elite devotion to European cultural icons or to manipulate touristic conventions; rather, he simply did it much better than anyone else. This statement is not open to debate; it is a nonnegotiable fact. Anyone with an inclination to adopt a contrary position should be forced to read a healthy sampling of the other travel books of the time. I’ve been there before.
The Innocents Abroad also changed everything for Mark Twain. At the time he secured his place among the “select” aboard the tour, Twain was in his early thirties and was as yet unsettled in a path for his life. Having earned modest and likely temporal successes as a journalist and sketch writer, he most certainly had plenty of indication of his writing skills and his ability to please audiences. With the Quaker City Pleasure Excursion, he found (stumbled upon) a perfect platform to transform himself into an author of undeniable potential and with a clear path to a lucrative future working within a writing genre that would perfectly match his talent and temperament.
While waiting to depart from New York aboard the Quaker City, Twain wrote to his mother: “All I do know or feel, is, that I am wild with impatience to move, move–Move! Half a dozen times I have wished I had sailed long ago in some ship that wasn’t going to keep me chained here to chafe for lagging ages while she got ready to go.” Twain was bothered by the weather delays in the ship’s embarkation, and that frustration underpins the irascibility of the letter, but the statement also implies a larger issue: his impatience to get on with his life. Indeed, Twain was ready to “move,” lamenting that he had not “sailed long ago.” He may have chafed at the too-long delays, but as the history of this first journey to the Old World would play out for Twain, the Quaker City was most certainly the right ship at the right time. Moreover, for American readers, it carried aboard the right man.
His letters during the Quaker City Pleasure Excursion created a sensation back home, finding appreciative audiences on both coasts. Once back home, he culled together those letters and added a substantive portion of new material and completed the narrative that would if not guaranteed his future most certainly clarified its trajectory. With the ultimate publication of the full narrative in 1869, Mark Twain’s career, if you will pardon the pun, set sail. For the next forty years he maintained a place at the center of American literary energy and popular culture relevance. The Innocents Abroad made possible the Mark Twain for whom so many readers have harbored deep devotion for the ensuing 150 years, and it stands as a marvelous representation of his mastery of language and wit.
Inexplicably, however, The Innocents Abroad remains woefully underrepresented in anthologies and classrooms, and, as a result, far too many potential readers have yet to encounter it. A travel narrative firmly entrenched within its historical context while also demonstrating a keen intuition for the coming age, it remains lively for modern readers, and it plays well in the classroom. In celebration of the nineteenth century’s best American travel book, I would like to highlight a few passages to as representative of the balance of the text and as a glimpse into what makes traveling with Mark Twain such a fine experience.
In the passage below taken from Chapter 12 while the merry band of tourists are in Paris, Twain provides a sharp—tongued dissection of the arrogance of people he calls “the Old Travelers.” There is no better illustration of the refreshing contrast that Twain was offering his readers in stark opposition to the standard fare of travel writing:
The Old Travelers–those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know,–tell us these things, and we believe them because they are pleasant things to believe, and because they are plausible and savor of the rigid subjection to law and order which we behold about us every where.
But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate, and drivel and lie. We can tell them the moment we see them. They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled. Then they open their throttle-valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know any thing. They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast! But still I love the Old Travelers. I love them for their witless platitudes; for their supernatural ability to bore; for their delightful asinine vanity; for their luxuriant fertility of imagination; for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!
The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 12
The next passage is part of perhaps the most popular sequence in The Innocents Abroad, the running joke that captures Twain as fun-loving and a bit raucous and mischievous. Thirty years later, as Twain reports in his final travel book Following the Equator (1897) which derived from his around the world lecture tour, audiences in Australia called out a simple question which was a request of sorts: “Is he dead?” Twain claims in Following the Equator that he did not understand the reference or the underlying intentions of the shouts. This is a shame, but in any case, the episode is a nice testament to the staying power of the sequence and its core humorous quality:
We have made it interesting for this Roman guide. Yesterday we spent three or four hours in the Vatican, again, that wonderful world of curiosities. We came very near expressing interest, sometimes–even admiration–it was very hard to keep from it. We succeeded though. Nobody else ever did, in the Vatican museums. The guide was bewildered–non-plussed. He walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in any thing. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last–a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him: “See, genteelmen!–Mummy! Mummy!”
The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
“Ah,–Ferguson–what did I understand you to say the gentleman’s name was?”
“Name?–he got no name!–Mummy!–‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Yes, yes. Born here?”
“No! ‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?”
“No! not Frenchman, not Roman!–born in Egypta!”
“Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy–mummy. How calm he is–how self-possessed. Is, ah–is he dead?”
“Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!”
The doctor turned on him savagely: “Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for Chinamen because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us!–thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to–to–if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out!–or by George we’ll brain you!”
We make it exceedingly interesting for this Frenchman. However, he has paid us back, partly, without knowing it. He came to the hotel this morning to ask if we were up, and he endeavored as well as he could to describe us, so that the landlord would know which persons he meant. He finished with the casual remark that we were lunatics. The observation was so innocent and so honest that it amounted to a very good thing for a guide to say.
There is one remark (already mentioned,) which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes–as long as we can hold out, in fact–and then ask: “Is–is he dead?”[i]
The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 27
This nicely crafted scene subverts all expectations of normal, gentile behavior for tourists, and the interaction serves as a proper vehicle for Twain to slice away at pomposity and all forms of arrogance and condescension so firmly embedded in basic touristic interactions. Twain and his fellow sinners, “lunatics” according to the guide, refuse to play along with such social norms and are intent on not performing as “Old Travelers.” This is fun segment for readers, which is the primary reason it was able to earn interest with audiences thirty years after its publication, but, as so much of Twain’s humor overall, it slyly undercuts the power of those who would demand conformity to the rules of society as a way to assert control. How do you fight such entrenched power? Well, in this case, you dismantle it by simply by “exhausting their enthusiasm” for asserting it. Is it dead yet?
Although the two fun examples above fairly represent the overarching theme of The Innocents Abroad and suggest the types of episodes that have made the narrative so pleasing to readers, I hasten to add that Twain does not dismiss the potential benefits of travel. This first travel book is also filled with moments of reverence and true enthusiasm from Twain himself. At the beginning of his career and as a result of his first substantive travel abroad, Twain gains a transformative experience that shaped him for the remainder of his life. The Innocents Abroad changed everything because the five-month tour changed Twain, setting him on an odyssey of discovery for the next forty years.
In the closing pages of The Innocents Abroad, he writes perhaps his most important observation: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” This is beautiful and ever-hopeful statement asserts the core conceit of travel: when we travel, we can grow and expand our minds and our hearts and gain appreciation of a vast and complex world around us. Travel affords us that opportunity like nothing else. Mark Twain grabbed at the chance to move, and he never stopped.
Jeffrey Melton is Associate Professor of American Studies at University of Alabama. He is author of Mark Twain, Travel Books, & Tourism (2002) and co-editor of Mark Twain On The Move (2009). He has also published numerous essays on Mark Twain, American humor, and travel writing.
In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins Lecture Series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The lectures are now held 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. In the of each year, the lectures are held at the Park Church. All lectures are free and open to the public.
The Trouble Begins Lecture Series is sponsored by the Michael J. Kiskis Memorial Fund. The sole purpose of this fund is to support scholars and scholarship at Quarry Farm. If you are interested in contributing to this fund, please contact Dr. Joseph Lemak at [email protected]. The Trouble Begins and the Park Church Summer Lecture Series are also made possible by the support of the Mark Twain Foundation and the Friends of the Center.
Wednesday, October 9 in the Barn at Quarry Farm (7 p.m.)
“Mark Twain Invades Washington”
Alan Pell Crawford, Independent Scholar
“I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch of hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it)” Mark Twain, Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, March 7, 1868
Before he was a famous novelist, Mark Twain lived and worked in the Nation’s Capital, first as an aide to Senator William Stewart of Nevada—he was quickly fired—then as a lobbyist and Washington correspondent. These early experiences gave Twain a unique perspective on American politics, and in later years he became a fierce critic of war and imperialism. Having had his profits as an author reduced by pirated editions of his works, he returned to Washington late in life to testify before Congress for copyright protection for authors. People still read his trenchant writings on politics, with good reason. They still speak to us. “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can,” Twain wrote in What is Man? and Other Essays. In Mark Twain, A Biography he is quoted as saying “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” What would he say today?
Alan Pell Crawford is the author, most recently, of How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain, published in 2018. His previous books include Unwise Passions: The True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America and Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. A former Senate and House staffer, Alan has been a residential scholar at the international Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He has written for the Wall Street Journal for 25 years and been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Review, the Weekly Standard and Vogue. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Wednesday, October 16 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus (7:00 p.m.)
“‘He ain’t a-comin’ back no mo’: Huck Finn as an American Myth”
Tim DeRoche, Redtail Press
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a rousing adventure, a realistic depiction of American boyhood, a satirical critique of American society, and a foundational text for all of modern American literature. But part of what makes the story so transcendent and enduring is that Huck Finn is also a myth. In this story of two fugitives fleeing down a river, Mark Twain taps into universal themes and tropes that recur in fairy tales, folklore, and religious narratives. That’s one reason that American writers and filmmakers have been retelling this story – both overtly and covertly – for the last 100 years. Seeing Huck Finn through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s universal “hero’s journey” helps reveal why the book has been so important in the formation of the American psyche but also why the ending can feel so unsatisfying. As the prototype for a particular American myth, Huck Finn will be retold over and over as long as our society persists – perhaps even longer.
Tim DeRoche is the author of The Ballad of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the Los Angeles River. Featured on CBS Sunday Morning in May of 2019, the book has been called “satirical, funny, thrilling, hopeful, and human” by the Mark Twain Forum. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Tim DeRoche emigrated to California to attend Pomona College, where he studied English literature. A graduate of the PBS Producers Academy at WGBH in Boston, he also holds a certificate in feature-film screenwriting from UCLA. He served as executive producer and writer of the children’s science series Grandpa’s Garage, produced by Turner Learning for Georgia Public Television. Tim has written for the Washington Post, Education Week, School Administrator, and the Los Angeles Business Journal. His new nonfiction book Separated By Law will be published in 2020 and takes a close look at the policies and laws that assign American children to schools based on where they live.
Wednesday, October 23 in the Barn at Quarry Farm (7:00 p.m.)
“‘We found we had a little cash left over..’: Sam and Livy’s Hartford Dream House and Its Architectural Roots”
Pieter Roos, Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.
Just as would be the case today, Sam and Livy Clemens embarked on an adventure in building a new house. Like any young couple, having the dream, selecting an architect, and seeing a project through to the finish is always a challenge. Sam and Livy spent a substantial portion of her inheritance on the house, and their love for it was life-long, even after they left it. At the time of its completion, the Hartford Courantremarked that the house was the newest marvel of Hartford, a city replete with large and expensive works of domestic architecture. Their architect, Edward Tuckerman Potter, designed a house that was undoubtedly stylish and thoroughly contemporary, but while it fell within the general early precepts of the Stick Style, it was not in the mainstream, and still stands out today in its individuality. A few year’s after the initial completion, the Clemens’ engaged Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated artists to take the interior up to a whole new level. We will look both at the Clemens’ personal journey in construction and the architectural roots of a remarkable and iconic building and what made it the singular example of the Stick Style that it became and remains today.
Pieter Nicholson Roos has served in the museum field since 1984, working all over the Northeast. In 1999 he became the Founding Executive Director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, a preservation and museum organization that administers some 82 historic properties. In 2016 he created the groundbreaking “Keeping History Above Water” conference, the first national discussion of the impact of climate change on historic preservation. Since 2017, Pieter has served as the Executive Director of the Mark Twain House and Museum. During the last two years, programming has doubled, and $2.8 million has been raised to enhance programming and operations and to preserve the campus and the house. Pieter has written and lectured extensively, teaching at both Harvard University and Brown University. In 2017 he was the recipient of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission’s Fred Williamson Award for Professional Excellence and the Doris Duke Preservation Award.
Wednesday, October 30 in the Barn at Quarry Farm (7:00 p.m.)
“Sociable Sam: Mark Twain Among Friends”
Judith Yaross Lee, Ohio University
Samuel Clemens joked in one of his lectures that he had met “uncommonplace characters . . . Bunyan, Martin Luther, Milton, and . . . others,” but it’s not stretching much to say that he knew just about everyone famous between the Civil War and World War I. By 1892, his social network had grown so large that eleven-year-old Jean Clemens, impressed that her parents had received a dinner invitation from Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm II, remarked, “Why papa, if it keeps going on like this, pretty soon there won’t be anybody left for you to get acquainted with but God.” Yet sociable Sam Clemens was more than a famous guy who knew other famous folks: from the start of his career as Mark Twain, his writings grew from and through interactions with others. This illustrated lecture traces the impact of that sociability on some of his most important works.
Judith Yaross Lee, Distinguished Professor Emerita at Ohio University (Athens, OH), studies American humor and other popular discourses in interdisciplinary historical contexts. Among the 5 books and 60 articles that she has published are Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), showing how Mark Twain pioneered contemporary practices in stand-up comedy and comic brand management, and Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (1991), the first analysis of this major comic performer and writer. Current projects include Seeing MAD: Essays on Mad Magazine’s History and Legacy from Cover to Fold-In (co-edited with John Bird) and a revised history of American comic rhetoric, American Humor and Matters of Empire, also the theme of a 2020 Quarry Farm Symposium.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature 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.
I had been fortunate enough to stay at Quarry Farm before, but only for two days when I was in town to give a “Trouble Begins” lecture in May 2018. So I was delighted to be granted a two-week Quarry Farm Fellowship from late July to early August 2019; knowing the place just a little bit, I looked forward to it all spring and summer. Because I work in a graduate program that offers a summers-only option, I have taught a five-week-long graduate course each of the last ten summers, which means that I tend to get very little of the uninterrupted summer research time that academics find so precious. So I set up my Quarry Farm Fellowship as a two-week writing workshop for myself in which I could finally think about and write for my book project—tentatively titled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880—all day long instead of the usual 15-minute snippets of stolen time here and there. During my time at Quarry Farm, set in the woods atop the hill overlooking Elmira, I was finally able to see the forest from the trees in my book project. Up until now I have been writing small sections to present as conference papers (or “Trouble Begins” lectures). During my residency I was able to take stock of what I had already done and make plans for tying it all together.
I did have a job to do while I was in Elmira: a “Trouble Begins” lecture about Twain’s 1873 letters to the New York Tribune about Hawai’i. If I’m honest, I spent more time working on the lecture than on the book as a whole. It’s an honor to be asked, and I didn’t want to disappoint the healthy crowd that came to Park Church in Elmira, where I had the privilege to lecture on the spot where Thomas K. Beecher delivered his sermons from 1854 to 1900. Afterwards, Jenny Monroe gave us a tour of the building, including the billiards parlor that Sam Clemens attended more faithfully than he did chapel services.
Aside from preparing the lecture, my two
weeks at Quarry Farm felt like two separate, but equally productive and
meaningful, one-week stays: the first alone and the second with my wife Sara
Stewart, who joined me for the second week to work on her own book project. During
that first week alone on the farm—though I did make pilgrimages to see friends
in Corning and Dansville and went to see Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb play
jazz bass at a local watering hole—I enjoyed the quiet and the plugging away at
my project, rediscovering the joy in research and writing, and doing it all on
my own schedule and at my own rhythm.
The second week brought new delights, sharing
with Sara the loveliness of Quarry Farm and the awe of writing where Clemens
wrote, looking at photos of him in posed the same rooms we were in,
superimposing our times and lives onto his own as a kind of palimpsest. I had
expected that kind of wonder. What I didn’t count on was the joy of spending a
week together as writers. Sara is a film critic, so she’s always writing. But
even when we get to work together at home, we’re usually just sprinting towards
her deadline that day or my advisee’s dissertation defense or a stack of papers
to grade. At Quarry Farm, on the other hand, Sara worked not on a story for a
newspaper or magazine but her own book project while, only a few feet away, I
was reading not a student’s dissertation proposal or next week’s readings for
class but Twain scholarship from the upstairs library. We enjoyed being writers
together, typing away on separate tables on the porch, or one on the porch and
one in the library, checking in with each other, talking things through,
reading each other’s work. A year ago Sara was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent
colon resection surgery, followed closely by a tough six months of
chemotherapy. We spent loads of time together, of course, at home during her
treatments and afterwards, during the slow way back. But writing together—she
on a fierce and funny book about her experiences during treatment that would do
Twain and Fanny Fern (our other comic talis-woman) proud—on the Quarry Farm
porch felt like the co-authoring of a new, brighter chapter.
Sometimes we would knock off and go take a
hike at a nearby gorge, declare a happy hour on the porch and fix gin and
tonics, or fumble our way through folk songs on our ukuleles in the parlor.
When we did that I imagined all the faces in the family photographs on the
walls frowning imperceptibly. We made a pilgrimage to Twain’s study at Elmira
College and his (and Susan Crane’s) gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery. Sara
wandered through the house and barn, studying up on Crane and Twain lore. One
night I read “Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn” out loud to Sara as we lay in bed; I like
to think the Quarry Farm ghosts approved the selection, and I know that “Cat,” Quarry
Farm’s gregarious resident feline, would countenance it, in appropriately salty
Like Jim Baker, Sara and I studied the
vocabularies of the various creatures at Quarry Farm. “Cat” greeted us each
morning as we emerged to the porch with my morning coffee, and often plopped
down on a chair next to us as we wrote, read, and organized. A red fox commuted
back and forth between the woods and a neighboring farm, gorgeous and up to no
good. One night, as I sat on the porch listening to a light rain, the fox
scampered onto the porch, a couple feet away from me. We were very surprised to
see each other, and it scampered off again just as quickly. I decided that
“Cat” carries the spirit of Mark Twain and the fox the spirit of Sam Clemens. Near
dusk, young deer frolicked in the hollow below, and then exited stage right
when it was time for the bats to begin their aerial routine. After dark, we heard
various unfamiliar but certainly ungrammatical vocabularies in the nearby woods
as the stars emerged for their evening constitutional. On our last night at
Quarry Farm, we hauled camp chairs down the hill and took in the Perseid Meteor
Shower. I heartily congratulate Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb on his
curation of this daily show. I’d see it again.