The Quietest Place (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

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 the privilege and honor of serving as a fellow at Quarry Farm last month. As many of you know, there’s nothing else to compare to a stay at Quarry Farm. For most of my stay I was there alone; it’s the quietest place I’ve ever spent time, even in contrast to my relatively quiet house in Berkeley. At home there is always ambient noise in the background, distractions, and tasks needing attention. At Quarry Farm, the quiet is seductive, always inviting one to sit and think, to take a book off the shelf and read, to listen not only to the birds but to one’s own thoughts.

Linda Morris is Professor Emeritus at University of California, Davis and author of GENDER PLAY IN MARK TWAIN (2007) and WOMEN’S HUMOR IN THE AGE OF GENTILITY (1992).

I am working on a new, ambitious essay about Susy Clemens, about whom I have written in the past, but whose essence has always eluded me. There’s so much material to take in and digest, and so many unanswered questions. Surrounded by myth, by a degree of sentimentality because of her untimely death, and by the force of her father’s reminiscences about her, it’s hard sometimes to find Susy in the mix. And there are gaps. Whatever happened to the many letters written by her Bryn Mawr friend, Louise Brownell, whom Susy loved passionately? Louise kept all of Susy’s letters, which are in the archives at Hamilton College, and it clearly was not a one-sided correspondence or relationship, but Louise’s letters are gone. Where are Clara’s letters to Susy, written while the family was on the “Equator” journey and Susy and Jean stayed behind with Aunt Sue at Quarry Farm?  I had the time and the inspiration to contemplate such questions, and to seek answers. 

One full day and a half I did nothing but steep myself in Livy’s letters as presented in Barb Snedecor’s compelling dissertation. Livy’s letters gave me a whole new perspective on Susy; I had read a number of them before, but that was nothing compared with reading letter after letter, with no interruptions except dinner and nightfall. Nothing in my “normal” life as a retired professor offered such luxury, even living within walking distance as I do from the Mark Twain Papers. Because I was returning to the subject of Susy after several years away from it, I brought all my notes and copies of primary material with me in my suitcase, and I spent almost one full day sorting through all the material and re-reading deeply enough to re-kindle my interest in the complexity of Susy. But the riches of the library at Quarry Farm are such that there were ever more avenues to explore, and I did, every day.

I also was fortunate to be there when spring began to break out. The forsythia was in full bloom, but the major trees were just beginning to bud out with their little yellow-green leaves, which each day become more visible and more glorious. Walking up to the site of the study, then on up into the woods beyond drew me almost every day, but I had to remind myself to look up high into the trees to see the springtime unfold. And so I did.

Towards the end of my stay I was scheduled to offer a lecture in “The Trouble Begins” series. I’d done this before, many years ago, but I had forgotten how attentive the audience can be. They stayed focused the whole time, and at the end asked excellent and engaging questions. It’s a very special audience, mostly folks from the town, not academics, but people who seem to have a genuine, perhaps long-standing interest in the Langdons and Sam Clemens and family. It was especially pleasing to me because the lecture was held in the barn, whereas before I had spoken on the campus, which had its own charms. When I had occasion to read from the Autobiography in which Twain said he had written the piece in question one day up in the study when he should have been doing something else, I felt not only my own sense of marvel glancing up toward that familiar hill, but a small thrill in the audience. How were we so lucky to be here, right here, over 120 years later? If you’re ever asked to present a paper in the series, I urge you to do so, and by all means apply for a Quarry Farm fellowship for an opportunity to do serious study and thinking and writing about Mark Twain. The place is magical.  

CMTS is Proud to Announce Our 2019 Class of Quarry Farm Fellows!

Each year the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College welcomes a new class of Quarry Farm Fellows. These fellows receive a 2-4 week residency at Quarry Farm, as well as a stipend, to pursue research related to Mark Twain and his circle. If you are interested in applying for a Quarry Farm Fellowship, be on the lookout for the 2020 application, which will be posted here in the coming months. In the meantime, please join us in congratulating the ten scholars who will visit us this year.

Mark Baggett

Mark Baggett is Associate Professor of English and Law, Samford University and Cumberland School of Law. His teaching and research concentrates on American humor; American language and literature, particularly Mark Twain; Southern literature; and law and literature. His recent research on Twain’s use of legal rhetoric is an outgrowth of his teaching legal writing, now “Lawyering and Legal Reasoning,” at Cumberland since 1987. He contributed articles on legal issues in the Mark Twain Encyclopedia and is working on a book-length project on Mark Twain and the law, building on interdisciplinary research on Twain’s broad appropriation of legal rhetoric.

I propose to contextualize Twain’s legal fictions in nineteenth century movements and practices within the legal profession. Using Twain’s criteria for judging Shakespeare’s literary greatness in “Is Shakespeare Dead?”—whether Shakespeare was a lawyer who knew the “trade language” of the law—I will start by tracing the sources of his extensive knowledge of legal rhetoric. Twain’s engagements with the law are well documented, from his apprenticeships in legislative language, to his career covering court trials on the Territorial Enterprise, to his legal burlesques such as “Ye Sentimental Law Student” (the first use of the pseudonym “Mark Twain”), to the court trials in practically all of his longer works, and to his lifelong work on the copyright law. From the side of legal scholarship, however, there have been few applications of legal theory and practice to Mark Twain’s work and few, if any, full-length and studies of his attitudes toward the law. I hope to use the resources at Quarry Farm to explore the legal and political cultures that informed his life and work, and to study the degree to which his representations of the law reflect his attitudes toward the law and the American legal system and history. I propose to add a postscript of the ways the law continues to shape Mark Twain studies, including the evolution of the copyright law in recent decades, the persistent issues of censorship, and the reception of the legal community to Twain and his works.

Nathaniel Cadle

Nathaniel Cadle is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University.  He is the author of The Mediating Nation:  Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State, winner of the 2015 SAMLA Studies Book Award, as well as essays on subjects ranging from the anti-imperial politics of W.E.B. Du Bois to the teaching of American literary realism.  In addition to a 2019 Quarry Farm Fellowship, his current research project is supported by a 2019-20 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

My current book project examines an important but largely forgotten literary movement at the turn of the twentieth century known as the Romantic Revival.  The renewed popularity of such old-fashioned, “romantic” genres as historical novels and sensational fiction caught the publishing industry off guard and gave rise to the first bestseller lists, which helped industry insiders keep up with rapid changes in taste.  While the implausible plots and one-dimensional characters of romance seem antithetical to the aesthetics of realism—Henry James doubted that any nineteenth-century author could inhabit the minds of characters who lived centuries earlier, and William Dean Howells dismissed the movement as an exercise in false nostalgia—nearly every major American realist wrote at least one romance, including both James and Howells.  By contextualizing these romances written by realists within the wider Romantic Revival, my project demonstrates a coherence among novels that are often dismissed as outliers in a given author’s body of work.  During my time at Quarry Farm, I will finish my chapter on the historical romances of the 1880s and 1890s, including those by Mark Twain, with particular attention paid to Twain’s seemingly singular Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Lawrence Howe

Larry Howe is president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, Professor of English and Film Studies at Roosevelt University, and editor of Studies in American Humor.  He is the author of Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority and co-editor with Harry Wonham of Mark Twain and Money: Language, Capital, and Culture.

“Mark Twain and America’s Ownership Society: Property and Its Discontents” applies strategies of New Economic Criticism to expose ambivalences between Samuel Clemens active embrace of the ideal of property in American culture and Mark Twain’s more jaundiced view of the responsibilities and consequences of ownership. Working through both details of Clemens’s life and of Twain’s writings, the project seeks 1) to advance our understanding of Mark Twain’s insight into the economic basis of American culture; 2)  to correct some long-standing myths about Samuel Clemens as a failed businessman; and 3) to expose the complex rhetorical intersections of literature and economics.

Don James McLaughlin

Don James McLaughlin is an assistant professor of English at The University of Tulsa specializing in 19th-century and early American literature. He earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania in July 2017. He completed his dissertation “Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature” under the direction of Heather Love, Max Cavitch, Nancy Bentley, and Chi-ming Yang. The dissertation (now first book project) provides an intellectual history of phobia in American print culture as a medical diagnosis, political metaphor, and aesthetic sensation in the 18th and 19th centuries. In January 2016, an essay from the project was published in The New Republic, titled “The Anti-Slavery Roots of Today’s -PhobiaObsession.” Two additional essays from the project are currently forthcoming in Literature and Medicine and J19: The Journal of 19th-Century Americanists. In 2018, Penn English awarded Don James the Diane Hunter Prize for Best Dissertation submitted during the 2017/18 academic year. In the summer of 2018, Don James was awarded the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society to support completion of his first book. His research has also been supported by a Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellowship from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Penn Humanities Forum.  

During my residence at Quarry Farm, I will be writing a chapter in my first book project, titled Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature, on Twain’s unfinished manuscript 3,000 Years among the Microbes, written in Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1905. This chapter puts Twain’s manuscript in dialogue with two major shifts in medical thought at the end of the nineteenth century: (1) the rise of microbiology, introducing a new discourse for articulating the relationship of bacteria and viruses to infectious disease, established largely by Louis Pasteur’s successes in vaccination; and (2) the emergence of an international psychiatric discourse revolving around mysophobia, meaning a dread of filth and contamination, which coincided with and drew momentum from the triumph of the germ theory of disease. Written from the perspective of a cholera germ named Huck who has infected a tramp named Blitzowski, 3,000 Years meditates on both discourses, exploring microbiology’s ramifications for human understandings of biology, agency, and subjectivity, while also pursuing a mysophobic aesthetic: a state of readerly repugnance generated by the landscape of infection and bodily functions, which Huck and his microbe friends have made their home.

Lisa McGunigal

Lisa McGunigal is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the English Department at the Pennsylvania State University, where she received her Ph.D. specializing in late nineteenth-century American literature. Her current book project argues that popular entertainments and cultural performances influenced the formation of American realist novels. She has published on the shared performance strategies between Mark Twain and the character of Huck Finn in The Mark Twain Annual and has an article forthcoming this year in American Literary Realism on the place of the literary salon in Henry Adams’s work.

“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; he also wrote marginalia within poetry collections that he owned. I plan to contribute to the fields of Twain marginalia, Twain as editor, and his relationship with poetry by building an article around his poetry collections within his personal library. Focusing on grammar and writing style, Twain offers a commentary laced with snark. I will connect this approach to other instances of Twain writing between and within the lines of “bad” poetry.” 

Linda Morris

Linda A. Morris is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of California, Davis.  Her book-length studies include Women’s Humor in the Age of Gentility:  The Life and Works of Frances Miriam Whitcher, American Women Humorists: Critical Essays (Ed.), and Gender Play in Mark Twain:  Cross-Dressing and Transgression.  She has written a number of essays about Mark Twain, including “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?”, “The Sources of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” (with Ronald Jenn), “Gender Bending as Childs’ Play,” “Identity Switching in Huckleberry Finn,” “Twice-Told Tales:  Aunt Sally Phelps and the ‘Evasion’ in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “the Eloquent Silence in ‘Hellfire Hotchkiss’”, and an in-press essay on “Mark Twain and Sexuality,” for Mark Twain in Context.” Her essays on American women’s humor include “Good Food, Great Friends, Cold Beer:  The Domestic Humor of Mary Lasswell,”  “Domestic Manners of the Americans:  A Transatlantic Phenomenon,” and most recently “Roz Chast:  From Whimsy to Transgression.”  She was the recipient of “The Charlie Award” by the American Humor Studies Association, and “The Olivia Langdon Clemens Award” by the Mark Twain Circle of America. 

My project is to write a comprehensive, I hope definitive, essay about Susy Clemens.  While much has been written about Susy in passing, there has been no in-depth analysis of her life.  We know that Susy occupied a unique place in the Clemens family, both as a living, eldest daughter, and in the aftermath of her unexpected death, but I want to focus as well on Susy herself.  In assessing the impact of her death on her parents and sisters, I want to distinguish more fully those effects on her mother, Livy, and her father, effects that I believe have been conflated.

Germaine to this study will be the many stories about her as a precocious child, but also her bid for greater independence as a young woman.  Not incidentally, Quarry Farm plays a special role throughout.  I will examine her own writing, her biography of her father, “Papa,” her dramatic writing and acting, and her relationship with fellow Bryn Mawr student Louise Brownell. 

Walter Ritchie

Walter G. Ritchie, Jr. is an independent decorative arts scholar and architectural historian specializing in nineteenth-century American domestic architecture, interiors, and furniture.  He has written, lectured, and taught courses on a variety of decorative arts subjects, in addition to organizing decorative arts exhibitions for museums and researching and developing furnishings plans for the restoration of period rooms in historic house museums.  Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Mr. Ritchie held the position of director of furniture and decorative arts at several auction houses.  He also served as executive director and curator of a number of historic house museums. After earning a bachelor’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Carnegie-Mellon University, he pursued graduate studies in the history of decorative arts at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum/Parson’s School of Design Master’s Program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design.  Mr. Ritchie is currently researching and writing a book on the history, furniture, and interior decoration of Pottier & Stymus, one of the leading cabinetmaking and decorating firms in New York City during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Mark Twain included in his novel Life on the Mississippi a chapter titled “The House Beautiful,” in which he described in almost excruciating detail the furnishings and decorations typically found in the parlors of upper-class homes in the South.  While the image he conjured was accurate, his tone was disparaging and his use of the title, ironic.  The type of interior detailed by Twain was woefully out of fashion when he wrote his memoir about his personal experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  The title he sardonically chose for the chapter was no doubt adopted from a highly popular book that discussed the period’s most advanced theories regarding household furniture and interior decoration, The House Beautiful (1878), which advocated design principles that, if followed closely, would result in tasteful and aesthetically pleasing rooms characterized by simplicity, balance, and harmony.  By the time Twain published Life on the Mississippi in 1883, he was already intimately acquainted with the ideas associated with what came to be known as the “Household Art Movement,” allowing the tenets of design reform to guide the decoration and furnishing of his own home in Hartford, Connecticut.

Preliminary research into the maturation of Samuel and Oliva Clemens as “aesthetes” who followed the dictates of the Household Art Movement was inspired by my investigation and analysis of the surviving late-nineteenth-century furnishings and interior decoration at Quarry Farm in the summer of 2017.  A close examination of the Quarry Farm interiors brought to light many parallels with the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut.  Similar types and styles of furniture and interior architectural decoration, while simpler and less expensive than those in the Mark Twain House, are found in the rooms of Quarry Farm, indicating that there was most likely an exchange of ideas between the Clemenses and Susan and Theodore Crane about how to tastefully and artistically decorate and furnish the home.

The purpose of my project is to explore in greater depth how Samuel and Olivia Clemens familiarized themselves with the reform principles of the Household Art Movement.  As part of my research, I shall attempt to identify the published material—including periodicals, trade journals, and home decorating advice books—as well as the designers, purveyors of household furnishings, and actual domestic interiors that influenced the Clemenses’ development from mid-Victorian householders with commonplace tastes to sophisticated cosmopolites who adroitly created an aesthetically advanced home that reflected the most fashionable theories of the day. Consideration will also be given to the similarities between the interiors of Quarry Farm, as they appeared in the late nineteenth century, and those of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, and how ideas regarding the creation of “artistic” interiors were exchanged between the Clemenses and the Cranes.

Todd Thompson

Todd Nathan Thompson is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Assistant Chair of the English Department. He is also Treasurer-Secretary of the American Humor Studies Association. Todd is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in Scholarly Editing, Early American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Journal of American Culture, Teaching American Literature, and elsewhere. He currently is at work on a book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880.

Mark Twain cuts a large and persistent figure throughout Savage Laughter. First, I will analyze Twain’s jokes about cannibalism in Chapter 3, “‘Cheering for Ye, Cannibal’: The Politics of Boiled Missionaries,” which will feature cultural close readings of “cannibal and boiled missionary” jokes (and, sometimes, accompanying cartoons) that were ubiquitous throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. My analysis will demonstrate how such jokes express, and attempt to laugh away, anxieties about Pacific Islanders’ otherness, thus reinforcing stereotypes and reproducing the unease of contact. In making (and mocking) blanket accusations of cannibalism, the jokes juxtapose for comic effect Pacific Islander and Western epistemologies, as represented through alleged cannibalism and western travelers’ genteel (or similarly savage) reactions to it. But these jokes also allow their tellers and auditors to pithily, and without much risk, question cultural imperialism by comically celebrating the demise of missionaries. That is, there are two butts to every cannibal and missionary joke: the cannibal, whom we laugh at in disgust and terror at an inhumane act, and the missionary, who gets his comeuppance for cultural and religious imposition.

I will examine other elements of Twain’s travel writing in Chapter 4, “Pacific in Repose: Genial Travel Writing and the Lure of the Polynesia,” which focuses on the centrality of comic geniality to Americans’ visions of the Pacific and its inhabitants. This chapter explores how popular, humorous, travel writing about the Pacific by Herman Melville and his literary inheritors—including Twain, Edward T. Perkins, Conflagration Jones, and others—shaped a persistently jovial and inviting image of the Pacific Islands through their easygoing humor. Certainly all these humorists set out to puncture their readers’ preconceptions as much as they add to them; but even so, as their genial style lent to their depictions of the Marquesas, Tahiti, and Hawaii an alluring sense of comic repose that augmented earlier and more poetic depictions of the South Seas as an Eden. At the same time, I will argue, the good-natured self-searching of their authorial voices led them to challenge imperialist and missionary assumptions about “civilized” superiority over “savage” innocence. I will investigate the comic strategies these humorists deploy in their travel writings—particularly self-effacement, satiric levelling, comic foils, physical comedy, and sarcastic irony—to show how they leveraged the ambivalence of social humor to stoke Americans’ interest in Pacific Islands while (at times) defending Pacific Islanders from “other”-ing stereotypes that were intimately tied to Americans’ imperialist urges.

I will also treat Twain somewhat more briefly in Chapter 5, “‘Didn’t our people laugh?’: Humor as Resistance,” in which I consider Twain’s account of half-Hawaiian Bill Ragsdale’s subversive translations, and in Chapter 6, “Collecting the Pacific,” in which I perform a reading of Twain’s character Brown’s ruinous appetite for collecting specimens from the Hawaiian Islands. In addition to studying the travel writing of canonical figures like Twain and Melville, Savage Laughter investigates how and why American humor—most notably Southwestern almanac humor, Yankee humor, sea yarns, joke books, newspapers and periodicals, burlesque museum exhibits, and blackface minstrelsy—appropriated (imagined) South Seas geography and culture into its comic myth-making. It also seeks to analyze humorous moments in literary, missionary, and travel writing to detail the subversive power of Pacific Islanders’ comic resistance to imperialism.

Sunny Yang

Sunny Yang is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston, where she specializes in American and multiethnic American literature of the long nineteenth century. After receiving her PhD in English with a certificate in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, she was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University. She is currently completing her first book manuscript, Fictions of Territoriality, with the support of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Association of University Women.

Fictions of Territoriality examines how U.S. national boundaries and racial hierarchies were consolidated and contested from 1844 to 1914. Analyzing legal and cultural documents from four sites of study (extraterritorial cities in China, the Panama Canal Zone, the Mexican Cession, and Indian Territory), the book uncovers the competing narratives about race and geography that structured both U.S. imperial governance and the alternatives proposed by anti-imperialists and writers of color. At Quarry Farm, Sunny will revise the first chapter of this manuscript, which centers on Ah Sin (1876),a convoluted frontier melodrama that Twain co-authored with Bret Harte. Though widely dismissed as a literary and financial failure (and even blamed for the demise of the authors’ friendship), the play has generated some critical attention because of the central role played by its titular Chinese character. While this scholarship has importantly situated the melodrama in contemporaneous American debates on race, it has interpreted Ah Sin through an exclusively domestic lens that foregrounds its critique of U.S. attitudes and policies towards Chinese immigrants. By examining Ah Sin alongside Twain’s commentary on Sino-American foreign relations (and specifically, the policy of extraterritoriality), my chapter reveals the transpacific concerns that animate the play and offer new insights into Twain’s complex anti-imperialism at this moment in his career.

Melissa Scholes Young

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novel Flood, winner of the Literary Fiction Category for the 2017 Best Book Award. Her writing has appeared in the AtlanticWashington PostHuffington PostNarrativePloughsharesPoet Lore, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of Grace in Darkness: D.C. Women Writers. She’s an Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.

Since Flood’s publication, I’ve been researching and writing on the topic of “Reimagining Becky Thatcher.” Often girls who grow up in  Mark Twain’s boyhood home, as did I, aspire to the portrait of Becky Thatcher in our town’s annual pageant, even when it doesn’t fit. In my debut novel, set in Hannibal, Missouri during and after the 500-year flood of 1993, I reimagine Becky Thatcher through a female friendship more akin to Tom and Huck’s famous mischief. Flood’s protagonist, Laura Brooks returns home to wrestle with the story she’s been telling herself in contrast to her family’s expectations. Her high school sweetheart, Sammy McGuire, is narrated through Laura’s limited point of view. Some readers have wished my characters would behave themselves better as they are often more comfortable with the ‘boys will be boys’ story Clemens celebrated in America’s Hometown. 

In 1895, Samuel Clemens wrote in his notebook: 

We easily perceive that the people furtherest from civilization are the ones where equality between man and woman are furtherest apart—and we consider this one of the signs of savagery. But we are so stupid that we can’t see that we thus plainly admit that no civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.

Are Clemens’ beliefs in equality reflected in his fictional portrayals of females? Especially lacking is Becky Thatcher, who was based on his first sweetheart and lifelong friend, Laura Hawkins. Becky is statically portrayed through Tom Sawyer’s adoring eyes. She flips her blond braids and alternates as flirt and damsel in distress. The redeeming quality that intoxicates a young Tom is Becky’s looks. Becky is stuck undeveloped on the page in a cameo starring Clemens’ youthful assessment of a permissive culture for boys and a strict society for girls. 

Of course the context of Clemens’ drafting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, almost twenty years before he penned his declaration of equality in his notebook, matters too. It is a nostalgic examination of his own childhood. His daughters were toddlers when he wrote it, and he was more interested in entertaining them with tame stories than in considering their futures as females in world that might not receive their talents with an equal appreciation. Clemens had work to do and his future characters, such as Eve, Joan of Arc, and Roxy, demonstrate his development. 

Clemens imagined a civilization where men and women are equal and my hope as a creative writer is that modern literature can create narratives that consider where we’ve been and what we hope to be through complicated characters that reflect our true potential and challenge readers to imagine a more just world, even as we live and write in a flawed one. My time in residence at Quarry Farm will allow more research into Becky’s portrayal in comparison to other contemporary characters in literature and to consider how this influence is reflected in my next novel. 

2018 Undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellows Interview Filmmakers Aaron & Adam Nee About Their Adaptation of Tom Sawyer

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first time, in 2018, we welcomed undergraduates interested in American Literature and Mark Twain to apply for a modified Quarry Farm Fellowship, which included a short stay at Quarry Farm to support a research or writing project. Our first recipients were Mona Beydoun and Samantha DeRosia. Samantha graduated from Eastern Michigan University this past year, while Mona will begin her senior year at EMU in the Fall. The project they are collaborating on involves Band of Robbersa 2015 adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. The Nee Brothers hosted a screening of the film at Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. With a little help from CMTS, Mona and Samantha were able to arrange an interview with the filmmakers. Below you will find a transcript of that conversation, as well as some commentary from Mona and Samantha about their project and, following the interview, about the experience of being an undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellow. Enjoy!

Samantha DeRosia: In the spring of 2017, I took a travel course on Mark Twain with about 15 other students, which brought me to Elmira and Quarry Farm for the first time. The professor of this course was Dr. Joseph Csicsila, who is a Mark Twain scholar and has been to Quarry Farm as a scholar on multiple occasions. It was during this initial trip, because of the materials that we were reading and viewing and the experiences we were having, that my colleague and I came up with the idea for our paper. It was also during this trip that we learned about the fellowship and the opportunity to stay at Quarry Farm and be able to more intimately study Mark Twain and other scholars’ work on him.

Mona Beydoun: Dr. Csicsila showed us the film Band of Robbers, directed by the Nee brothers at the end of the trip. The immersive experience with Twain I had building up to the film helped me appreciate the intelligent and clever way the Nee brothers dealt with the characters of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The film brought the material into the 21st century while maintaining the Twain experience: a blend of humor, cultural commentary, and a sense of adventure. I found Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a sad story with a disturbing ending. The film, however, landed in a very different place. I became interested in the conversation that was happening between novels and film, the conversation about cultural, and perhaps even religious, transcendence. The travel course gave me my first experience with literary analysis outside of the classroom. I was driven to write through my own personal interest, inspired by the experience I had had at Quarry Farm and Elmira College.

Samantha: Being able to speak with the Nee brothers enabled us to ask questions that were specific to their intentions behind the details that we were analyzing in our paper. Getting these answers enabled us to also make more, and deeper, connections within the film and Twain’s work ensuring that our paper was not simply making speculations. Our conversation also helped us focus our paper more because we were able to take into considerations what the Nee brothers’ initial intentions were.

Mona: Our interview with the Nee brothers added depth to our understanding of Mark Twain’s work. It became clear very early in our conversation that Adam and Aaron put an incredible amount of thought into their decisions. They understood how essential it is balance their respect for Twain’s work with the need to explore his themes in a modern setting.

The interview took place on July 7, 2018, 8:30 p.m. EST 

Mona: Could you start by telling us about your introduction to Mark Twain’s work? How did you first meet Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer?

Aaron Nee:Through our dad reading it to us. Our earliest memory is as little kids sitting on a shag carpet listening to him read it aloud to us, both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Adam Nee: We were six and nine.

Samantha: When we were watching Band of Robbers, it seemed to us that it is a mash-up of both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The plot aligns more with Huck Finn. Out of all of Mark Twain’s work, what specifically compelled you guys to make this movie about the two characters?

Mona: What do you feel makes them worthy of study?

Aaron: That’s two good questions. I think there are several different ways to answer that. The first component of your question: the mash-up of the two books was actually a big part of just figuring out how we were going to make this movie. There was a lot of conversation centered around [the question]: “Is this more of a Tom Sawyer story or more of a Huck Finn story?” Is Tom the lead? Is Huck the lead? Who’s driving this? Whose arc is going to be the most pronounced? Which of these books are we going to draw more elements from or draw the basic plot structure from? Early on, the idea was actually to make it into a TV show, which would be much more drawn out. But when we decided to make it into a movie, then we had to make some really tough choices about how to focus it. In terms of the inspiration of making it, maybe Adam should you about what first triggered the idea to him. As we start digging into it we can maybe go into how we made the choices we did.

 Adam: I was acting in New York and I had just moved out there. I was 20 and I auditioned for an Adventures of Huckleberry Finn movie and it was very true to the book. Even the action lines of the script were verbatim Mark Twain writing. So it’s like they had just done a really tight edit of the book and made it into a script. I was a huge fan, we grew up on it, like Aaron said, and I’ve always loved Mark Twain so I was really eager to audition for the movie to play Huckleberry Finn. But I was already 20-years-old and so I was way too old to play this 13-year-old boy. But, I still somehow got the audition. So I went into the audition, everyone else in the lobby is five years younger than me, the director’s kind of looking as me like “Why are we seeing this guy?” I’m doing the audition, and I’m doing this terrible accent. I had this moment when I could see myself in that room and how absurd it felt to be this grown man who was sort of trying to be a teenage boy because of how much I love that material. I walked out of that audition just reflecting on it and the insanity and thinking, “Well that would actually be kind of funny if Huckleberry Finn was a grown up, saying the same things, doing the same stuff.” That was just the beginning it. I’m sure I talked to Aaron about it sometime around then. That was 10 years before we made the movie. Like Aaron said, it percolated over the years so much.

At first I was really excited about telling the Huckleberry Finn and Jim story in a modern way. And then, after digging into both books, I got so excited about Tom Sawyer’s voice as a character because he’s this incredible character who is truly the bad guy of the story, but is played as the hero. He’s the lead of the story but he’s really the antagonist. He’s the one inciting all of the problems that happen to these characters. We talked to a producer about doing it as a TV show and we had written a pilot, which is the first episode of a show. We had written an hour-long version that was more dramatic. We had written a half-hour version that had more of the pawn shop robbery kind of humor. As we were getting into it we hit this point in our careers where we had been developing a lot of shows and a lot of different movies that hadn’t gotten made so we were like we just need to go out and make something and this feels like the right thing to do. So that’s where it became a thing of “What version of this story can we tell in 95 minutes?” What things about these characters can we focus on? And to us I think a big thing became the question of: if you read these books and you imagine 10 years later, 15 years later, these guys and this relationship stays the same, what happens? This is not sustainable for a lifetime. You can’t have someone like Tom Sawyer getting someone like Huckleberry Finn in trouble over and over and over again like he does without it leading to a kid in jail. Real problems are going to come from that [relationship]. So we thought “Oh, this would be interesting if it was a breakup story.” Where you have Tom and Huck have to come to terms with the fact that it’s an abusive relationship in a sense. Huckleberry Finn needs to break up with the abusive friend.

Aaron: One of the numerous answers we have to that question of why tell this story (because there were really so many different reasons that fueled and inspired the idea) is…the thing about childhood fantasy is that it becomes difficult as you’re becoming an adult to figure out what of these things do I get to hold onto and what of them do I have to let go? What of these, if I keep holding onto it is just going to destroy things and what of these things are good and should be cherished? This is such a great piece of material to do that because of who the characters are already and because of the nostalgia we already associate with that material and childhood and childhood fantasies. It was a great way to explore that theme, not because it’s already built into those characters when you start moving them toward adulthood, but because it is an iconic picture of childhood for so many of us as we’re crossing into adulthood. You find out you can’t keep being Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It raises a lot of interesting and relevant questions.

There’s the Tom Sawyer that’s in the book, there’s the Tom Sawyer that people think they remember being in the book, and there’s the Tom Sawyer that just kind of pervades culture, that doesn’t have any real attachment to the book, that’s just sort of a cultural idea. In that respect he is such a picture of Americana and Americanism. Also, if you look at Twain and Twain’s own political commentary and social commentary, he uses his protagonist to do a lot of poking fun and criticizing rather than using his bad guys. Rather than “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my bad guys do that,” Twain says, “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my good guys do that.” Tom and Huck are still really relevant commentaries on the things that are great about America and the things that are not great about America. The hubris and adventurism and also the optimism and hopefulness and faith. You can see that Huck of acknowledging the problems with Tom but also romanticizes Tom, even though he can see the problems (more so in Huck Finn than in Tom Sawyer). We took that idea and just kept pushing it further and further, coming to adulthood. Whatever Tom represents, whether that’s Americana or childhood, you can be really attached to that but also realize there are some real problems and you can’t hold on to all of these things. Some of these aspects are really dangerous. That conflict that’s going on with him has a wider relevance. 

Mona: What aspects of either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn struck you most when reading about them or watching adaptations of them? I think a piece of that is most people go into the story with preconceived notions of who these characters are and then when you actually meet them, you have to come up with your own understanding of who they are and what they represent.

Adam: That’s one of the great things about Huckleberry Finn in general. He’s presented as the troublemaker. He’s the one that everyone is afraid of. And he’s set up as someone who is to be avoided. And Tom is set up as a good kid. One of the great things about Huck is he is the conscience of the material, especially in his book. His perspective can evolve while Tom Sawyer is more stuck in his ways. That’s what really strikes me with Huckleberry Finn. Aaron was talking about the reception of these characters. Huck is the one that is treated like the outsider troublemaker and he is the one who is the most heroic. He’s also so sensitive. He feels stuff and he wrestles with stuff and his conscience is weighing on him. That make it easy to love him and go on a journey on him.

That’s why we decided to have the story be told from Huckleberry Finn’s perspective. Which makes it feel like it’s more Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than Adventures of Tom. The reason we did that is because Huck is the one who has the heart, truly. He’s the heart of the story.

Samantha: What’s your interpretation of the ending of Mark Twain’s ending to Huckleberry Finn? What statements do you think the novel is making about society or the human condition?

Mona: The last 10 chapters of the novel feel different from the rest of the novel. Your play on that ending is very interesting.

Adam: We thought about it a lot when we were making it. Even as kids we were always frustrated with the fact that Huckleberry Finn learns all of these lessons and then on the Phelps Farm he is just going along with Tom Sawyer again totally at the expense of Jim. It felt like we had to, in making this in current times and making them adults, Huck has to stand up to Tom and say: “No. We have used this guy for our benefit. We have screwed him over. We need to stand up for him and do what’s right.” Even though what’s right in our movie is absurd. They take him out of a police cruiser and hold up police officers. That such an interesting question though. It’s something that we thought about a lot and always bothered me as a kid. You go on this whole journey with Huck and see him learn and change and grow as a person and you get to the end of the book and he just starts doing what Tom tells him to do. Even though you know he knows that this is a bad idea. They could just open the door and let him out and instead they’re doing all this crazy pirate stuff. That’s why in the movie we made it Huck’s idea to rescue Jorge and not Tom’s.

Aaron: Huck wants to rescue him but we do have Tom come up with the crazy plan. We made that decision that we’re taking this approach of bringing characters with these traits up to their tipping point. We knew we wanted to explore the idea of making them adults but then we started thinking about the implications. What we liked about that was that it does bring it to this make or break point where you can get away with a personality flaw as a kid but you can’t as an adult. Things like Tom getting shot, we made it life threatening and maybe even leave it open, maybe Tom didn’t make it. Also, we wanted to acknowledge at the end that Tom was like a religion to Huck. Even if you say, “I’m not so sure I believe in those things I believed in as a kid,” as he’s walking down this road you hear him reflecting on Tom and you realize he still can’t let Tom go. He still needs Tom to be the best. He still needs to believe that Tom is doing great in prison. There’s that side of us, even when you think you’ve broken free, you still need to believe it’s true. You need that Tom Sawyer out there and to think that that guy is always going to be okay.

Mona: Where you trying to make any larger social comments by including the character of Jorge the gardener as an undocumented Mexican immigrant?

Aaron: We went around and around and around about how we were going to handle Jim. One of the things that we were feeling early on was anything we tried to say was a parallel to slavery feels like it’s minimizing slavery and it’s convoluting the message. Trying to make slavery analogies would be really problematic. Jim was a character that everyone could just run all over and sweep him up into the consequences of an adventure and remain ignorant to what this is doing to this person. We also saw that in the fact that we were turning this into a story about becoming adults and coming into manhood, it would service the telling of the story to have someone who is a counterpoint to manhood.

You’ve got Tom’s idea of manhood which is holding a gun and being a cop and being powerful and getting the money. We wanted to turn Jorge into this character who first can be swept up into adventure without them having much regard to the implications of what they were doing to this person. Second, someone who can be a picture of actual manhood. Somebody who is making sacrifices to take care of the people that he loves. Stepping back and looking at society, we thought about who would be that character: a guy who doesn’t speak English. It’s really easy to not even regard that as another person in the room. The guy who is your gardener who you know that he’s around and you know that he’s doing things but you have no idea who his family is or where he lives. When we started writing that script I don’t know that illegal immigration was quite the hot button that it is now. 

Adam: He’s treated like a second class citizen and that’s the thing where we could do something. Obviously it’s not the same as being a slave. But our society is okay with disrespecting illegal immigrants. It’s culturally acceptable. We have this true American character in Tom Sawyer who just shits all over Jorge with no concern for the effects of it until Huck learns a lesson. It’s really Huck who learns the lesson.

He wasn’t always an illegal immigrant. We played with different versions of the Jim character and it’s hard when you really start thinking about that character and not telling the story from their perspective. You could make this movie five different ways and I’d definitely want to do a version where Jorge is the lead of the movie and Tom and Huck are the bad dudes. He’s the true hero.

Mona: The character of Jorge is one thing that I thought really brought Twain’s work into our time. We don’t have enslaved people anymore. But illegal immigrants are used.

Aaron: Simultaneously used and abused and then villainized. You get this person to do all of this shit that you don’t want to do and you don’t want to pay them for and you want to call them the villain that’s destroying our country and taking jobs away or whatever.

In addition to thinking about where to put this character in society we also thought that there was enough separation since slavery – we didn’t think audiences would think we were trying to say: “Here’s modern slavery.” I think that would have been a mistake to try and find modern slavery. Instead it’s: “Here’s where society has a marginalized class that we abuse and villainize in the same breath.”

Samantha: We watched the film shortly after reading the novel and we found that the ending was almost the opposite the ending of the novel. Was that intentional on your part?

Adam: Yea, definitely. Going back to what we were saying before about that frustration that Huck doesn’t learn a lesson in Huckleberry Finn. Now as an adult, having been in and out of jail, knowing he has to break up with Tom, he has to learn a lesson in this version of the story. And we had that freedom since it’s not a 100 percent verbatim portrayal. We definitely wanted to have a different ending.

Aaron: We kept Tom open. We weren’t specific in the same way that we feel like Twain isn’t super specific. [Twain doesn’t say] “Tom is an analogy for this thing.” We tried to let him be something that you could plant different ideas in. Whatever those ideas are – whether it’s American humorism and adventurism or rampant masculinity or abusive blowhard or it’s naive fantasies of piracy or egomaniacal everything’s-about-you – that you want to grab and place in Tom, we felt like it was appropriate in retelling the story as adults to take it to that point where it’s time to not be okay with that anymore. Mark Twain had a Huck who was conflicted about it but then went along saying that was the way it is. I think it’s time broadly in society to say we’re not okay with that anymore. We have to make a break from these things. We had to take Huck up to that point as he is becoming a man and an adult. He is faced with the question of “Am I going to keep going along with this?” and he says “No.”

Mona: We were watching the movie and there was the scene in the grass which is really intimate scene. Then there’s the final scene where you have Huck walking away down a winding road toward the mountains. When I saw that final scene that’s when I said we need to write a paper about this. 

Aaron: In that final scene in post-production we cleaned up some stuff that was in the background. We wanted it to feel like he’s in the middle of nowhere and that wasn’t actually true. But one of the things that we kept was this little flickering light that becomes apparent as the camera moves. We wanted to end on this image that invokes the idea: he’s setting off now, you can’t see where he’s going, and maybe he’s not going anywhere. Maybe this guy is going to die on the road or he’s going to go back to the way he was. But, leave that little flickering light out there that leaves this picture that shows that we think there’s something out there. We think that if you keep going there is something out there. We’re hopeful that he’s going to reach that light.

Mona: Twain’s ending to the novel: a lot of people say it’s this really beautiful image of white and black coming together. Some scholars say it’s a triumphant story about people coming together and overcoming slavery [and improving] race relations. We read it. We thought it was so negative. It has this pessimistic ending and it doesn’t seem hopeful about humanity. What are your opinions about Huck’s ability to transcend community. When we read the novel it didn’t feel like he was able to transcend community. He’s just sucked right back in. Just for context, by community transcendence we mean going above and beyond the community’s beliefs and ideologies.

Aaron: Our feeling was that there was a more cynical ending. There was more cynicism in Twain than there was hopefulness coming through. We wanted to push it toward this idea that if there is going to be any hope, Huck has to change. He can’t remain this static character. Like you said, he isn’t transcending. You can feel him having this inclinations toward that but his final actions don’t transcend.

Adam: In the book it really feels like it’s a time period thing too. Huck has the best intentions, but is still the product of his time. He can’t overcome the racism of his society. He still goes with the flow, unfortunately. In our movie, our Huck does too. I think that he might realize that he did something horrible to Jorge. but he still did it. 

Mona: It’s sad because he connects with Jorge because he speaks Spanish but then he takes advantage of Jorge because he speaks Spanish.

Adam: His redemption is also very American. This could be pointed at as a negative toward us because it’s the way we made the movie. But, his redemption with Jorge is very American because he says, “I’m going to give him a pot of money and that’ll solve the problems I made for him, the horrors I put him through, and also, the fact that he can never go back to America because he commited a crime.”

Aaron: I hope it comes through in the movie that we were feeling in the end that what we’ve got is kind of a naive fantasy. Huck is still being naive in believing that the pot of gold for Jorge is going to fix things. He’s trying to cleanse his conscience. His ongoing fantasies about Tom, that Tom is still going to be okay and Tom is still going to triumph. We made a smaller version of the not quite growing up. We tried to push it past what the book does, but then made a nod toward realizing that it’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to just let that stuff go and change and move forward and go off to an unknown new place.

Adam: We see it in society so much, even with the Civil Rights Movement. You see how long it takes for things to really change. It takes half a century. You say well this is where we are now and I certainly hope we are further a half century from now. Things take so long to change and it would be reductive for Twain or us to have a character who learns a lesson and no longer has any of the same negative instincts.

Samantha: We talked earlier about how in the movie Tom is represented as a toxic villainous character, rather than Huck. We want to know more about your understanding of this character and his connection to and influence on Huck.

Aaron: One thing is that we weren’t necessarily trying to plumb what Mark Twain’s intention with the character was, but instead just look at him. Our opinion is that’s toxic and that’s dangerous. Not 100 percent. We weren’t trying to say Tom is nothing but bad. There’s great things about Tom and one of our goals was to understand why Huck would need Tom. Why would Huck latch onto Tom? What is Tom providing that Huck needs? We wanted to have those good counterpoints present. We didn’t have to search for that. It’s there, it’s in the book. He’s fun, he’s funny, and he’s hopeful. He brings a kind of energy that can be very helpful. But he goes too far and is too detached from consequences. He has this blindness when it comes to what it does to the people around him. He just thinks about how his actions serve him and get him what he needs. Taking those aspects, we found ourselves realizing that this character can’t be anything but the antagonist.

Adam: I think that’s part of the charm of Tom, and perhaps people that you would consider a bad person. They would never imagine that they’d be thought of as the bad guy in the story. Tom believes he’s the hero. I think Twain’s Tom does and I think our Tom does. He thinks he’s the hero of the story and he just doesn’t see the consequences of his actions.

Aaron: With Tom, as a child, you can look at him and imagine a version where as he gets older he’s going to start to mature. We took the character and said, well, imagine he didn’t become more aware of the people around him and see what you end up with. I think you can draw any number of real world parallels between when you have an action that is innocent in one context but then you let it keep going and you can see the ramifications of that.

Mona: Do you think about Tom as a symbol for St. Petersburg and the community?

Aaron: We tried to not get latched into any one thing. I think it’s most effective in Twain’s reading that people can draw so many readings. It’s important to making our work last. If our work is so rigidly about let’s say St. Petersburg, than only people from St. Petersburg will appreciate it. The fact that he allows it to expand out and say that’s about my church or my country or the frat that I’m in. You can plug all sorts of different versions of that into it and you wouldn’t be abusing the material because it’s made itself open to many types of social ills that can arise.

There are things about Tom that we saw as really negative. But we tried with all of the characters, even Injun Joe, not to say this is our evil character. When you do that, your characters real suddenly become two-dimensional. They’re not very interesting or real because that’s not how we encounter these things in life. If you make a story where people have good intentions but they have things they’re blind to and they have their passions that are overriding their good intentions, then you have a really complex story that actually has social relevance because that’s more like the real things we struggle with. We were putting into Huck how easy it is to become that person that realizes, “Oh, I’m the one that’s creating all these troubles.” We wanted people to see in the movie “Oh no, I see myself in that.” Both of us saw the entire project as a little bit of a self-criticism.

Mona: The last thing we wanted to talk about was your interpretation of Huck. He’s so sympathetic and the audience falls in love with him.

Aaron: In one respect, you like him right off the bat because culturally we have an affinity for the underdog. I think I can speak for both Adam and I as storytellers. We became really invested in having a character in the sympathetic situation of realizing something that is meaningful to him is also bad for him. We wanted to show how hard it is to break away, to learn to keep the good things and let go of the bad things. For us that’s such a sympathetic dilemma. He became an easy character to care for and go along on that journey with.

Adam: Like I said before, I’ve always loved Huckleberry Finn. He’s probably my favorite literary character and I think it comes down to the fact that even though he suffers from some unfortunate character flaws, he is also adventurous and funny and kind and reflective and just a good character. He has so many different levels where he can be good and he can be bad. In so many ways Mark Twain started our career because we borrowed his amazing work and his amazing characters to make a movie we call our own. But in so many ways it’s Twain’s. We have an incredible debt to Twain’s character development that we could make our own.

Samantha: This was really insightful. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mona: Your answers were so thoughtful and so detailed.


Samantha: Being awarded with this modified fellowship gave me not only the specific resources that are only available at Quarry Farm, but it also gave me time, which was much needed. I believe that one of the purposes, and advantages, of this stay is to have the opportunity to sit down and write without any distractions. There is a reason why Mark Twain came to Quarry Farm in the summer to write, and that idea is reflected when scholars come to produce research and write about him. The atmosphere of the seclusion and also just taking the time to relax and experience the gorgeous view from the porch and the grounds are an opportunity that was not wasted on me during my time in Elmira. Having this specific time set aside to get work done was also very helpful because of the fact that I am working with another colleague to write this paper. Due to our different availabilities and locations, it is hard to set aside a chunk of time that large that enables us to work cohesively through our ideas.

During my time at Quarry Farm, I chose to stay in the Crane room, which, from one of the windows in the room, happens to have the same view as the one from the porch. It also has wonderful natural lighting, which definitely lends itself to the feeling of Quarry Farm being a summer house. Luckily, when I came in the first week of May, the weather had just begun to reflect spring, and I was told that the previous week it had been snowing. This meant that I was able to take advantage of eating meals and reading, and generally just spending as much time as possible outside on the front porch. I was also able to take walks around the grounds and up to where Twain’s study was originally located. Each of these experiences helped me understand what it might have been like for Mark Twain during his summer trips to the house. Our experience of the house itself was definitely authentic to the time period as well, due to the old fashioned light fixtures, and all of the furniture that was actually from Twain’s time period.

Even though I experienced Elmira in 2017 through my travel course, staying at Quarry Farm itself lends a completely different view of Elmira. This is also due to the fact that previously I was only given information and knowledge based on a classroom setting. Studying Mark Twain on my own terms, and within my own areas of interest, enabled me to provide more enthusiasm, but also a better and more complete understanding of what my time at Quarry Farm will mean, not only in my work but also in myself as a scholar. There are no other experiences quite like Quarry Farm in the fact that it has not been converted into a museum. It is an amazing experience to be able to live in a place that housed an author like Mark Twain and helped him produce work that students are still studying today. 

Mona: The Michael J. Kiskis Collection was one of my favorite aspects of Quarry Farm. The all-inclusive nature of the study space allowed for total concentration. Scholars can go into the space and simply work without distractions. The Mark Twain Center has stocked the area with everything a scholar might need, allowing him or her to make the work the focus. Long stretches of reading books and taking notes were broken up by lunches and dinners on the porch, walks through the wooded area behind the house, and visits to campus.

Sitting on the porch and thinking is perhaps just as productive as using the study space upstairs. Twain has described the beauty of the view from the Quarry Farm porch, the winding river and the blue hills. Relaxing on the porch and taking in the scene allowed me to think and contemplate without the pressure of writing. I often spent time sitting in the rocking chairs simpling reflecting on the work I had completed and my next steps. Traveling with my co-author was helpful because the porch gave us perspective as it served as a third space. While the porch is a part of Quarry Farm and the Mark Twain experience, it is outside of the high-stakes space of a designated work area.

I appreciated the amount of care that goes into making Quarry Farm a high-quality spot for scholarship. Steve, the caretaker, met us when we arrived after an eight-hour drive from Michigan. The house was well-maintained, and he was always a text or phone call away when we needed help. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Joseph Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and Dr. Matt Seybold, Elmira’s resident Americanist. Dr. Lemak was kind enough to give us tours of the Mark Twain exhibit in Cowles Hall and the Mark Twain study. My co-author and I had an insightful and fun lunch with Dr. Lemak and Dr. Seybold. We also had the opportunity to see the inside of the barn behind the house. Dr. Lemak and Nathaniel Ball, the Archivist and Curator at Elmira College, showed us around and talked to us about some changes they’d like to make. It is clear that everyone involved with the Center is constantly thinking about how they can improve.

It is this attitude that will keep Quarry Farm and The Center for Mark Twain studies relevant. Twain’s work will continue to be relevant to American culture for the foreseeable future. His themes of race, socioeconomic status, class, and power dynamics continue to be issues we grapple with today. It is up to organizations like the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira to give the public access to Twain’s literature and work. Programs like the “The Trouble Begins” lecture series allows for widespread engagement with the scholarship on Twain’s work. Academia is often kept at a distance from the public. It is clear that The Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Quarry Farm experience is focused on encouraging scholarship that keeps Twain’s work current and relevant to modern lives. Staying at Quarry Farm encouraged me to think about access and social relevance in literature.

“Adieu, Dear Friend”: A Tribute To Victor Doyno, the First Quarry Farm Fellow

Gretchen Sharlow is the Director Emerita of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies.  Two downloadable lectures from Victor Doyno are available at the end of Director Sharlow’s rememberance.  By showcasing Professor Doyno’s contributions to Mark Twain Studies and his support to CMTS, we hope to honor this seminal Twain scholar.


Victor Doyno died on November 16, 2016, at the age of 79. Dr. Doyno contributed significantly to the field of Mark Twain Studies, including as president of the Mark Twain Circle and advisor to the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies. He was respected and loved by Twainians worldwide.

Dr. Doyno earned a Bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio, a Master’s degree from Harvard University, and the Doctoral degree from Indiana University. He joined the SUNY – Buffalo faculty in 1969 and became Professor Emeritus in 2004. In tribute to his extraordinary dedication to students, he was honored with the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.


Doyno’s Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process (1991) was the first extended exploration of the writer’s methods of composition. His analysis build upon the editorial work he had done for the groundbreaking collection Mark Twain: Writings of an American Skeptic (1983). Doyno lent his editorial talents to Random House and Oxford editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and published numerous essays on Twain’s work, pedagogy, and academia.

Throughout his work, Vic argues that Twain stands as a central figure for the study of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Twain was not only a seminal U.S. literary figure, but also an object of broader cultural, political, social, and transnational analysis. He traveled nearly everywhere, interacting with influential world figures and writing about vital events. Who could be more crucial to our national formation?

It seems like yesterday, but it was thirty-two years ago, in the summer of 1984, when I welcomed Dr. Doyno to Elmira College and Quarry Farm for the first time. I had been asked by Dr. Herb Wisbey, then Director of CMTS, to “look after the fellow from Buffalo, who is coming to teach a two-week summer graduate course on Mark Twain.” (Herb wanted to spend some time at the lake. I was a volunteer.) So, I made Huckleberry muffins and arranged for some linen service from Elmira College for Quarry Farm. At that early stage, we barely had dishes at the Farm.

Victor was so gracious, friendly, and thrilled to be our first Scholar in Residence at Quarry Farm. The next morning, I escorted him to his classroom. Only seven people had registered for the course. I decided to join the class, mainly just to fill another chair. That decision changed my life!

Vic Doyno was far and away the best teacher I’d ever experienced. The text book his recently-published Writings of an American Skeptic. His enthusiasm and passion for Twain was contagious. He encouraged each of us to find an area of Twain studies, then develop a specialty; mine became the Cranes of Quarry Farm and all their Elmira associations. Thank you, Vic.

The Twain course in 1984 was the beginning of Vic’s long relationship with Elmira College’s Center for Mark Twain Studies. He became one of our most valued advisors and an active participant in seminars for faculty, conference planning sessions, panels, the Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series, and “just a phone call away” for wise counsel. This relationship continued for many years, as long as he was capable.

In recent years, we have missed him terribly. His death makes our loss and grief more poignant. His friendship, his many contributions to the field of Mark Twain Studies, and his direct contributions to the growth and development of the CMTS is a legacy to be cherished and remembered.


Two lecture from Victor Doyno for CMTS

Victor Doyno, “Writing Huck Finn” (September 1991)

Victor Doyno, “Twain Writes with Burning Ink: King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (August 2001)

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: It’s Definitely The Cat

Quarry Farm’s only year-round resident, Caretaker Steve Webb, provides us with occasional, not altogether reliable, updates from the premises. To paraphrase the friendly ghost with whom he shares his home, Mr. Webb’s dispatches include eminently plausible fictions, mildly exaggerated truths, and an exhaustless mine of stupendous lies.

The breeze pushed through the window screen just hard enough to float the curtains away from the wall and split them a few inches to reveal the blue sky. There was a trace of cool to the air that had arrived just before sunrise and would be gone in minutes. July had been relentless with its sticky, dogged heat. The news all around was that we desperately needed rain. I even set aside my selfish desire for burnt grass, which didn’t require mowing, and hoped for rain too.

It wasn’t the drought or the blink of a cool breeze that woke me that morning though. It was the silence. And it was the silence that got me up and quickly out of bed. If I’d heard footsteps over there in the big part of the house, the repeated thwack of the screen door, the patterned creaks of the trips packing people make up and down stairs, I’d have felt much easier. I would have closed my eyes and hoped for rain even while I slept a little longer; I’m that helpful.

I knew they had to be down south, somewhere in southern Pennsylvania, to pick up their cat, Sam Clemens, by noon. I knew it took three hours, and I knew that the cat, who meowed with a southern drawl, meant the world to them because that’s what they told me. If they didn’t pick him up by noon on Saturday he’d have to stay at the place where he was being boarded until Monday and Sam Clemens wouldn’t have it. It’s a known fact that cats hate Mondays (Davis). The only thing worse than a Monday for a cat is waking up in jail on a Monday when you were supposed to be sprung on Saturday.

Five days before, while I was dragging the carcass of a deer than someone somewhere shot and didn’t collect into the woods to be buried, the fit, salt and peppered scholar caught up to me. His eyes were wide with childlike wonder, in disbelief that he was walking the very same grounds where Twain wrote his greatest works. “A foretaste of heaven!” he proclaimed—which is how Twain himself described Quarry Farm. We took a moment together, in silence, to gaze over the rolling front lawn and off into the distant blue hills of Pennsylvania. A yellow Swallowtail butterfly flitted against the azure sky and lured my gaze to the Tiger Lilies where it selected the perfect flower, amongst a patch of at least a thousand, to stop and rest and drink the summer nectar. The carcass hadn’t been out in the sun long enough to bloat and smell. I, too, found myself drinking in the wonder of it all.

He went on to explain that he was going to donate a substantial amount of money to the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira upon his departure from God’s green Earth. I was grateful for the decision that he and his wife had made, assuring that the scholarship at Quarry Farm would be carried into the distant future. However, it didn’t change the way I treated him and his wife because I’m nice and they’re nice.

It was the least I could do to make sure they didn’t oversleep. I crept, as good caretakers do, around the outside of the house and peaked through the windows for signs of life. Nothing. A garbage truck roared through the eerie serenity, and I cringed at the beast as it lumbered to a stop out in front and shook the quiet, wooded road.  Two men hopped down from the elephant and picked up the cans that I left out yesterday, because yesterday was trash day. As they worked, they grumbled like I wasn’t even there. I felt a little wave of pride go through me. I had mastered my caretaker creep. I was nearly invisible.

I had to get down to business. These kind people needed to leave by nine to spring Sam Clemens from the big house, and it was already 9:12. Their car is still in the driveway, they haven’t packed it, and there is no sign of life anywhere downstairs. I’ve learned that it’s impossible for a person upstairs to hear a knock on the kitchen door; it’s just too far away in this maze of a house. I ran to the barn to fetch a tall ladder. My outlook was increasingly dark.

First of all: This particular couple was definitely a morning team. I’d heard them clumping around early every day all coffee’d up and chattering. I said this with a little attitude in the keep-myself-company-voice, not quite inaudible, but not comprehensible either. I’m the guy who forgets when he goes to the grocery store that he should probably stop talking to himself.

Second of all: They were definitely the responsible type. The gentleman tucked his shirt in all the time! There’s no way they wouldn’t have had the car packed and ready for a departure at nine o’clock sharp. The ladder butted up against the stucco wall right next to the upstairs bedroom window at the exact same moment the word “sharp” punched militantly from my mouth.

Thirdly: What about Sam Clemens!? I muttered loudly enough to draw attention if I was in the grocery store. They had said that Sam Clemens meant the world them. Is it possible that they were referring to the actual man? They drove all the way here to visit his grave and stay at his house. No, it’s the cat; it’s definitely the cat. I said in a decisive staccato.

At this point it was obvious, without question, they were dead.

I ascended the ladder slowly at first. Not only was I afraid of what I was about to see but this was my first time on the tall ladder since my little accident last fall. I had been about thirty feet up cleaning the sludge from the troughs after the beautiful fall foliage turned brown and coagulated in the gutters. Added to the soppy stew was a red squirrel that had consumed a few too many walnuts and got himself wedged in the downspout at least a few weeks prior. I could tell it had been a while because his tail had lost all its puffy, soft cedar glow and came to resemble a slimy black rat tail. I pulled on the tail, gently at first, then with increasing force until I was yanking on the little vermin. He popped free and I heard the satisfying sound of rushing water. I smiled for a very brief second and forgot I was holding a soggy dead squirrel. Then, as a reaction to the great force I applied to the rodent’s hindquarters, the ladder began to slide along the gutter in the opposite direction. I chucked the squirrel and started grasping for something—anything! The speed increased, the train was off the rails, and I was speeding toward the earth. (Insert some suspenseful music here, then a sudden stop. Pause for effect. Picture darkness.)

I opened my eyes shivering in the middle of the late-fall night. I sat up, checked my appendages and shook my head. I struggled to my knees then to my feet and did a hunched over, ninety-eight-year-old shuffle into my house and went straight to bed. When I woke up two days later I was completely fine, one hundred percent normal and ready for action. I do have the slightest fear of ladders now. And I tend to mix up my times. Oh, and I talk to myself excessively, in italics. But besides a couple of the most miniscule blips I couldn’t be more normal and less traumatized by that horrific, terrifying fall.

Back on the ladder for the first time in months my little phobia grew into a fear of what I was about see, then it morphed into sorrow, and finally into full blown panic. I was frozen midway up. Now staring distantly, through the rungs of the ladder, through the wall, through the house, through the movie of my mind I recalled the conversation…

The reality of this situation was too much for me to swallow all at once. Not only had I lost my first two scholars but also I was sure to be blamed for their murder. My own voice broke the hypnotic trance I was in and I took another step up the ladder. Like a mantra I began to say: I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I’m not a murderer. I leaned over to the left to look in the bedroom window. It was a long lean. My right leg lifted to balance me and I put a hand against the wall to try and steady myself. It was an awkward flail but I was able to keep my comforting mantra going. I’m not a murderer; I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I peaked in their bedroom window and saw nothing but a neatly made bed.

I my mantra gleefully as a reaction to the corpseless room. I turned my head to descend the ladder and saw four running sneakers at the bottom, connected to four legs, connected to two Mark Twain scholars—sweaty from a run—with four very wide eyes.

I was so ecstatic I hopped halfway down the ladder and said, perhaps too closely, because they seemed a little skittish: I’m so happy to see you guys–I knew I wasn’t a murderer! They looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about. But I’ve grown accustomed to these academic types, more brains than common sense, if you know what I mean. So I didn’t take it personally when they turned and ran. It was obvious that they just wanted a strong finish to their workout.

I went inside and hopped in the shower—I figured it’d be relaxing after such a stressful morning. I felt so blessed that, besides a deer and a squirrel, nobody had to die and productive, inspired scholarship could continue, for yet another day, here at Quarry Farm. The water began to run cool, and I turned the knob off with a little squeak.

I got out, pressed the towel to my face, and looked out the window in time to see the back end of their car tearing out of the driveway, a cloud dust billowing behind them. Off they went, the socially awkward academics, in a big fat hurry. It’s the cat. I said to keep myself company. It’s definitely the cat.