Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Distance Lends Enchantment To The View

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The grey-green Daffodil shoots still break the surface of the cold brown earth. 

The birds still sing.

A dog still begs and plays and snores, waiting for the next chance. 

A caretaker is, by nature, a social distancer

 “Distance lends enchantment to the view,” said Mark Twain. I’m positive that he wasn’t referring to a pandemic when he thought about this concept but when I look at it through this lens it does, ever-so-slightly, relax the tight beating muscle in my chest. The same muscle that usually operates at a slightly below average pace is now beating like the handle of an espresso machine. 

As if we all haven’t had enough. The burgeoning authoritarian oligarchy that is the America of late is so divisive that we are tempted to look at a pandemic as a political issue. If there is one thing that should bring us together (figuratively) — the silver lining, the lemonade — it’s that this is a human issue and a window to see how vulnerable and related and temporary we all are; it’s a chance to see how undeniably the same we are and drop the arbitrary borders that exist in the minds of the fearful. 

Mark Twain once wrote in his notebook, “All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

He could not have been more wrong and more right all in one sentence. Blinding ignorance and confidence — fueled by the American God, money — are, much as they were when Twain made his note, the foundation for political power. But the moment that the conversation turns to something absolutely human, our supposed leaders are exposed as completely impotent. Success is often as short lived as whimsical ideas and impulsive speech and whole lives spent seeking wealth and power are just nanoseconds of human history — distance lends enchantment to the view.

The birds still sing.

Blame, of course, is the knee-jerk reaction of the inflated child — it was definitely someone else’s fault; apparently now it’s China’s turn. Pride is the dying engines of the plane spiraling towards the earth, confidence allows the spiraler to declare that he is uncrashable and ignorance believes that gravity only applies to all the other poor suckers out there. 

But gravity is setting in. Like finding a stranger in your arms when the infatuation wears off. One who only cares how a tragedy makes himself appear is incapable of empathy. The country is waking up to the nightmare. The money is gone, a lack of leadership is frightening and we want to feel better and at the same time know the challenges we’re about to face. We want to brace ourselves with a foundation of wisdom. 

I do see the irony in speaking about blame while seemingly blaming someone for this unfortunate situation. I am not blaming the President for a pandemic. I’m just noticing the looks on the faces of many who were infatuated with him as they come to, feeling the shame of a poor choice like a hung-over morning, coming to terms with being duped. 

It’s okay. We can all understand the excitement of going for the wildcard. But it didn’t work out. There is no time for judgment. Our problems are bigger than this and we must move on. As a community we have to put distance between us and the noise of a corrupt and deliberately confusing administration. When heat is applied the real leaders tend to bubble to the surface while the vapid clowns are released like gas.

As we seek direction with this global, human problem lets listen to the people who have spent their whole lives researching these topics like scientists and doctors. Let’s take a deep breath and be thoughtful. Let’s not watch the movie Contagion — holy sh*t that freaked me out! And let’s elevate ourselves somewhere up in the sky like birds that still sing because distance lends enchantment to the view. 

I am not trying to imply that I know anything. In reality this is an exercise in self-reassurance and hope that even though our physical distance is required our connection as human beings, existing on a living planet, is stronger now than ever.  

Today I will go out into nature. I will play basketball with my son. I will pull in deep, thoughtful breaths of the early spring air. All because the grey-green daffodil shoots still break the surface of the cold brown earth, the birds still sing and a caretaker is, by nature, a hopeful distancer.

Silent Work in Elmira: Letters from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection


Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.

Susan Crane

Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to reproduced these letters with permission from the Ohio History Connection, where they are part of the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection. This resource is also made possible by the Chemung County Historical Society, especially archivist Rachel Dworkin, and local historian J. D. Iles, host of Hidden Landmarks on WETM.

I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.


Wilbur H. Siebert

In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.

As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.

That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.

Jervis Langdon
Jervis Langdon

A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.

As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.

If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.

Rachel & Silas Gleasons

Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.

William Still

These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”

Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.

Our most comprehensive telling of this story, so far, is the “Gospel of Revolt” episode of the C19: American In The Nineteenth Century podcast, which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Selection from a map of Underground Railroad networks in New York State, created by Wilbur H. Siebert for his book. The full map available here, courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

The following letters are reproduced with the permission of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (August 27, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 14, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 23, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 26, 1896)

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See the two photographs of John W. Jones to which Crane refers beneath the letters, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.


John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (December 17, 1896)

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John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (January 16, 1897)

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John W. Jones, circa 1850 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)
John W. Jones, 1896 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)

The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert (Macmillan Company, 1898)

The Underground Railroad: A Record, Revised Edition by William Still (People’s Publishing Co., 1878)

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: A House of Fiction

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

There are big flakes flying and school is called off. My car is safely in the barn and there’s a small monkey bouncing around the living room downstairs. I’m not sure how one person can make that much noise but since I make none at all I can only assume he’s noising for the both of us. What an absolute joy.  

The small stretch of Crane Road where Quarry Farm is perched will be the last road in the hemisphere to be plowed. And since it’s only 9 AM, and the storm is projected to go on until 9 PM, I will be here accumulating record amounts paternal rapture until sometime in early April or maybe until the actual Rapture — if you believe in that kind of thing. As tired as a snowplow in February might be, it doesn’t seem absolutely insane that it’ll be coming, eventually. I have faith. 

Fiction can be a wonderful thing. What fun would it be to use satellite data for predicting the weather when you can use a groundhog? How could we trick our children into being good without Santa Clause? And how could I follow my dream of being creepy and working from home without Huck Finn? There are so many ways that fiction makes our life better. I suppose the only downfall to fiction is when people take it all too literally. 

Like that time I told a scholar that the house was haunted — because it’s more fun that way — and she took me so seriously that she stood frozen in the kitchen for two hours, eyes darting around following every little sound that the old farm makes, petrified by the creaky, boomy, howling vocabulary that the 150 year-old house naturally acquires without any supernatural help.

She was lucky that I happened to pop over to tell her where the recycling bins were. I realized she was terrified and reassured her that I was kidding about the ghosts. It’s a good thing too or she might’ve spent her whole residency frozen in the kitchen completely unable to do her work…or recycle. 

Another time I was showing a new scholar around the house.  He made the highly original joke: “Is that Mark Twain’s microwave?” Then he took my fictional laugh as a genuine laugh and made me follow him around the house and take pictures of him as he pointed at every modern object and howled with laughter, “Mark Twain’s printer” and “Mark Twain’s couch” and “Mark Twain’s toaster” and so on, and on, and on. With the joy of a toddler squeezing everything he could from the tired joke. The poor thing dripped from between his fingers like a dead banana. I showed him where we kept the trash bins. His recycling had become problematic. 

Sometimes fiction can blend in with life in ways that’ll trick even the skeptics. One night I was reading The Call of The Wild to my noisy monkey before bed. We were somewhere in the great blue north, full moon reflecting on the endless white expanses, with a dog that was feeling a mysterious pull out away from camp and into the dark magic night. He could hear the wolves howling and felt a need to be among the pack. Just then a pack of coyotes must’ve made a kill right outside the house because they started howling and barking and cackling in stereo all around us like a living soundtrack to the story.

My pulse quickened and I began to read faster and feel the words as repeated shots of adrenalin. The little nightlight cast my animated shadow across the ceiling as the ravenous coyotes devoured their prey. I was worried for the boy as to what kind of sleep he would get, if any, in the midst of this immersive experience. Hell, I was worried about myself. I almost couldn’t read anymore. Then the little nightlight went dark without explanation and the coyotes howled as the book fell to the ground and I clutched the bedframe to lean in to check on my son only to realize he was softly snoring. He’d missed the whole thing. I sat frozen for a while, with my eyes darting around, following every little sound that the old farm made. 

The Earth has turned and it’s 4 PM. The snow is high enough to make the dog appear that she has no legs. We’ve had our sledding and our hot cocoa and our lunch. The boy has taken all my threats and noise ordinances as fiction. The branches of the black winter trees are lined with a thick white coat that blinded me in the forty seconds when the sky went blue and the afternoon smirked, eyes shining, at the impermanence. The full moon is due later and I hope it’s clear enough to light the endless white expanses. I hope people find their way. I hope small children tire themselves out and dream. And I hope stories can offer meaning without demanding to be true. 

The Crane House Speaks (A Quarry Farm 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.

The main house at Quarry Farm speaks. It sighs in the morning when I sit with my journal and tea overlooking Elmira in the valley below. When I switch from page to screen, the radiators hiss and pop. Their clatter and the calling geese are the only sounds in my silence. The squeaky kitchen door greets me from my afternoon woods walk. I leave my boots at the door and settle into the study for reading and one warmer whistles a welcome. This is my second stay at Quarry Farm and I’ve learned the way of the house by its hum. It’s helped me find my own writing rhythm too. It’s November and I’m tucked away on East Hill for a two-week fellowship.

My writing process has always been to binge. In Washington, DC my days are filled with teaching, attending department meetings, writing letters of recommendation, serving on committees: the labor of university that fuels and delays my creative work, but none of that reaches me at Quarry Farm. As a fellow, my job is to write or as I call it, to make. On the first day I manage only three pages but they are a pivotal scene in my novel-in-progress. When I’m stuck, I read from the books I’ve brought or wander through the house for a volume I didn’t know I needed. Since my first stay at Quarry Farm, the internet speed and capacity has vastly improved so I keep my laptop offline to counter the ambitious improvements from the Center for Mark Twain Studies. If I’m researching detail, the study is stocked with resources, including a capable computer with a lightning connection to the outside world I’m keeping out.

Much of my work is rooted in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, which I share with Samuel Clemens. In my debut novel, Flood, set 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 is a story of identity and how we construct narratives, especially those based on false assumptions. I wanted to avoid the familiar “Can you go home again?” in favor of the more ambivalent “What happens if you have to?” Like the Mississippi River that once ran backwards, Laura Brooks, Flood’s protagonist, flows in a dangerous direction through her past as she seeks to recalibrate her future. Like Mark Twain’s work and social criticism, I examine race, class, and ideologies of rural communities. I’ve come to Quarry Farm to work on Flood’s sequel and see how a modern Becky emerges on the page. I can’t help but find the view of Elmira in the valley below and the Chemung River matching the riverbanks and bluffs I was born and raised admiring in Hannibal. Sam and I are in on a secret.

By my third day, I have a plot map for a short story and a newly drafted sample chapter which I will take apart and rewrite four more times in the coming week. The ability to stay in work and to hold the pieces in my head as I move from study to kitchen to fields allows ideas and words to percolate until the steam from the boil must meet my page. The time, space, and place at Quarry Farm is ideal for the deep work necessary for scholars and creatives alike.

When the house can hold me no longer and I’m out of groceries, I drive to Elmira for provisions, art, and research. I explore “Mark Twain’s Elmira” at the Chemung County Historical Society and spend hours learning about Women’s Suffrage and the NAACP’s presence in the community. The generous docent at the Arnot Art Museum teaches me about the ties between the Arnot and Langdon family and she is patient with my many questions. I bring my journal so I can scribble on a bench in the gallery in the beauty of this collection. 

On the last day of my two-week residency, I send the sample chapters to my agent and the revised manuscript proposal to my editor—it’s the amount I’ve been trying to juggle in my academic days for an entire year—and it’s done. I’ve begun three new projects and they must now marinate until I can clear my calendar again for the gift of time.

Susan Crane understood that a writer needs solitude and support. She had dinner ready and a community to bolster Sam’s spirits when he returned from a day writing up the hill in his studio. As an artist informed by scholarship, Quarry Farm inspires me and I listen. The rabbit holes of research I fall into become a phrase for a future poem, a line of dialogue I hear imagining a hallway conversation between Sam and Livy, or a scene that might make its way into my next novel. I like to think that the Langdon-Crane crew might be pleased that a fellow girl from Hannibal made her way up to East Hill to write in Mark Twain’s footsteps.

Melissa Scholes Young is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of the award-winning Flood (2017).

“The Gospel of Revolt: Mark Twain in Elmira,” An Episode of The C19: America In The Nineteenth-Century Podcast, Featuring Hal Holbrook

Also available on iTunes and other podcast purveyors.

The Center For Mark Twain Studies is proud to announce the release of our first podcast project, a collaboration with C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists for their podcast, C19: America in the Nineteenth Century. The episode provides a tour through the history of Elmira, with stops at the Park Church, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Quarry Farm. Did you know that Mark Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, lobbied for the release of a young woman arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1853? That Mark Twain’s grave lies in a cemetery with numerous conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad? That Mark Twain’s eulogy was given by the first woman ordained in the state of New York? Our episode explores the largely forgotten and often surprising political history of this small town.

The episode was written and narrated by Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies, and co-produced by Joe Lemak, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Our C19 producer was Ashley Rattner of Tusculum University. It also features performances from Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, who spent 65 years touring Mark Twain Tonight! and is the focus of the new documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, available now on Amazon Prime Video and Apple iTunes. In our podcast, Holbrook plays a 71-year-old Mark Twain and is joined by his grandson, Will Holbrook, who plays Twain at 33.

We are also grateful to Quarry Farm caretaker, Steve Webb, and Larry Howe, President of the Mark Twain Circle. They provided music for the episode with their ensembles, The Compass Rose Sextet and Steve Webb & The Balance.

We hope you find time to give it a listen this holiday season. Let us know what you think!

150 Years of Innocents Abroad: The American Vandal in Venice

EDITOR’s NOTE: August of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We celebrate the occasion with a series of short essays by Twain scholars who have done extensive research and writing about the travel book and the voyage it describes.

Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except Heaven and Hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”

Mark Twain, Letter to W. D. Howells (May 20, 1891)

Well, perhaps Twain changed his mind about travel later in Following the Equator (1897), having discovered the cultural diversity and charm of India, particularly the clothing and color of Ceylon.[1] When I traveled to Venice, Italy during a sabbatical in April of 2017, at about the same age of Twain in his journey around the world, I wanted to experience what I could of Twain’s first visit to Venice. I wanted to find the charm and the culture of Italy and see for myself the decline of Venice. I hardly had the time to experience the clothing and color of Venice, because within a week of my arrival I delivered a talk at the University of Venice before faculty and students.[2] I tried to tailor my discussion toward Innocents Abroad, which all had read closely in terms of Twain’s chapters on Venice.    Everything I said to this Venetian audience was of the abstract type one gleans from reading without knowing. I probably said something to the effect that the culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, first through his satire on art, second in his recognition of the decline of Venice as a global force, third in his reflections on Italian lifestyle as a tranquil unity of nature and civilization, and finally in his acceptance of some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. I do know I tried to cover the history of the text, some of the insights about the excursion on the Quaker City cruise ship, some of the comparisons made between Europe and America, and some of the comments made on the decline of Venice along with its historical charm and glory.  Twain writes a good deal of material that might annoy a modern Venetian, so I looked at Innocents Abroad for material that would demonstrate the charm and glory of Venice for my audience. Twain himself does mute his observations that Venice has become something of a mausoleum for tourists:

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water’s edge rose long lines of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves…Music came floating over the waters – Venice was complete. It was a beautiful picture – very soft and dreamy and beautiful

Innocents Abroad, 218-219

This glittering vision of Venice is one that I had to find, and did, on a charming island, San Giorgio Maggiore, which I had almost all to myself, within sight of the St. Mark’s Square.[3] Twain finds Venice to be a place for ghosts, as did I some nights while on my private island:

Yes, I think we have seen all of Venice…We have stood in the dim religious light of these hoary sanctuaries, in the midst of long ranks of dusty monuments and effigies of the great dead of Venice, until we seemed drifting back, back, back, into the solemn past, and looking upon the scenes and mingling with the peoples of a remote antiquity…A part of our being has remained still in the nineteenth century, while another part of it has seemed in some unaccountable way walking among the phantoms of the tenth.

Innocents Abroad, 216

The culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, though I took some time understanding how the Italian lifestyle could mirror a unity of nature and civilization while in Venice, and I really did not see for several years how Twain might accept some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. Twain clearly had some difficulties with organized religion, and outright hostility toward Catholicism, so changing my mind took time, the time I needed to think about the Venetian excursion I had made. I believe that Twain found common ground between the secular world of Venice and its long historical religious perspective. It’s there in Twain’s words. But I as a traveler needed to experience how that might work. One can still visit Venice and be impressed with the merger of art, religion, and architecture. Twain writes of the chiesa (church) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari:

Among a long list of churches, art galleries, and such things, visited by us in Venice, I shall mention only one -the church of Santa Maria dei Frari. It is about five hundred years old, I believe, and stands on twelve hundred thousand piles. In it lie the body of Canova and the heart of Titian, under magnificent monuments…In the conventional buildings attached to this church are the state archives of Venice. We did not see them, but they are said to number millions of documents. “They are the records of centuries of the most watchful, observant and suspicious government that ever existed – in which every thing was written down and nothing spoken out.” They fill nearly three hundred rooms. Among them are manuscripts from the archives of nearly two thousand families, monasteries and convents. The secret history of Venice for a thousand years is here – its plots, its hidden trials, its assassinations, its commissions of hireling spies and masked bravoes – food, ready to hand, for a world of dark and mysterious romances.

Innocents Abroad, 235-236

This dark Venice is not something I found at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, but I did stand awed by the overwhelming grandeur of the place, by its scale, and by its presence as one of the chief monuments to the Catholic religion in Venice (among the other 56 or so churches that I have on my to-do list, having evaluated only about 16 of those that Hemingway, James, Howells, Hawthorne, Pound, and others visited[4]).  The State Archives of Venice are still near the Frari, though not public; some material is online. Twain writes a good deal more about Frari (as it is generally referred to now) and I can only add my own tourist’s amazement to his.  Twain’s merger of the secular history of the Machiavellian Venice with the religious importance of Frari emphasizes the sense that Venice challenges the tourist as a mystery that can only be solved by way of continued meditation on how art reflects religion.

Religion in Italy means a daily awareness of the imminent death of the physical being, with a promise of an afterlife of eternal glory, with the promise of redemption and salvation. One is saved from sin by continual reflection on one’s relationship with God; Mary, Christ’s earthly mother, is a key to that daily prayer. Virtually every chiesa or church in Venice reminds the worshipper of that promise. The general design of a Catholic church depends on the cruciform shape, a transept crossing a longer nave, the building’s shape resembling Christ’s cross. The ceiling often represents Heaven, a tower pointing toward the afterlife. Most Venetian churches demonstrate the wealth of Venice in its prime, with art symbolic of the unity of purpose between the earthly and the divine (economic dominance and religious zeal); Tintoretto’s Last Supper in the chiesa of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, aside from being a didactic religious portrayal, captures the sense of the worldly domain (resembling a Venetian inn, with servants) watched over by a heavenly realm (a radical use of light, with God’s servants, angels, overhead). I have no evidence that Twain saw that kind of symbolism in his travels. Twain recognized that daily devotion to one’s faith but found organized religion of any kind a hindrance to the human spirit, relying in part on a devotion to his family and to places he called home; he openly mocked the religion and the art of Venice:

As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals. And for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred – and rags and vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth.

Innocents Abroad, 258

Twain ridicules great art when it represents an imperialist culture that exaggerates its own importance, an art that fails to recognize the vernacular values of life, the vernacular vandal that Twain often represents in his own work. But then there’s that pause in his words, the “princeliest land on earth,” that “one vast museum of magnificence and misery,” a backhanded compliment to the competence and capacity of a country that can sacrifice so much for the sake of art. Twain complains about the acres of paintings by Tintoretto, yet he admires it. In A Tramp Abroad (1880), he even comes around to openly praising that monumental painting in the Doge’s Palace, presumed to be the largest oil painting in the world, Il Paradiso.  (There’s a larger one now in India, painted by Sandeep Sinha, completed in 2018.)  I found, and later recognized fully, the integration of art with family and religion by being in Venice, by being in Carlo Goldoni’s home (playwright, his home now a shrine and museum), by being enveloped by the small museums that dot Venice (the Querini Stampalia Foundation Museum, for example) that capture the sense of living at home while living within art.

Twain first toured Italy in 1867, returning with his family in 1878, later in 1892-93 living at the Villa Viviani in Florence, and his last lengthy visit at the Villa di Quarto in Florence in 1903-04, where his wife Livy died. Italy had, over about seventy years, begun to find its place in the global marketplace of ideas and politics, becoming a more or less unified country by 1871. Twain, however, found Venice in 1867 a political mirror of the potential disunity of the aftermath of the American Civil War, a perilous and complicated period of time for America. Italy is something of a mirror for America at that point, an America mired in racism and doubt. The 1867 trip to Venice, in particular, suggests that the corruption and decay of Venice, long considered a major and global force, could well be the fate of an America on the verge of becoming a global power. He begins to modify that position in 1878, and finally accepts a new vision of Italy in 1893 as the potential future of an America that, while still struggling with its past, can yet find a unity of nature and civilization. He may have found that unity already in Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York:

“But we are housed here on top of the hill, now, where it is always cool, & still, & reposeful & bewitching.”

Letter to W. D. Howells (June 14, 1877)

Quarry Farm represents the kind of Italian vista that he and his family later enjoyed at the Villa Viviani, and he perhaps recognizes how well Italy can be a place of tranquility, having enjoyed that tranquility in America.  

Twain’s contrasting image of the glories of the Doge’s palace in Venice with the desperation of those who suffered under the rule of the Venetian government emphasizes his revulsion at what Venice has become:

The walls and ceilings were bright with gilding, rich with elaborate carving, and resplendent with gallant pictures of Venetian victories in war, and Venetian display in foreign courts, and hallowed with portraits of the Virgin, the Saviour of men, and the holy saints that preached the Gospel of Peace upon earth – but here, in dismal contrast, were none but pictures of death and dreadful suffering! – not a living figure but was writhing in torture, not a dead one but was smeared with blood, gashed with wounds, and distorted with the agonies that had taken away its life!

Innocents Abroad, 224

This museum that Venice has become suggests that the emergent capitalism of the era will produce faceless individuals, people without identities, a crowd of tourists who lack a purpose within this new world of global commercialism, tourists who lack empathy of those prisoners of the long-gone Venice. These lost souls represent the new modern citizens, citizens who have no appreciation for the past or for what culture means. This Venice creates tourists without purpose and becomes a museum that shows an appropriation of culture without a real meaningful context. Venice, once a commercial and vital city state, is now a vast souvenir shop. The search for the authentic experience for Twain illuminates the decline of American commercial enterprises, the Grand Tour of Europe becoming a way to export the robust and corrupt American system of exploitation and the inflated sense of Empire that England imagined for its global domination. Twain sees what has happened to Venice and imagines what it would be like for America to disintegrate in the same way that Venice had.

However, Twain is charmed by the tranquil social life that he imagines Italy represents. Venice is a city of art; paintings are everywhere; the 56 churches all contain art; even the people of Venice seem to be part of an artist’s palette. Perhaps the light of Venice and Italy changed his perspective on how he might live out the last years of his life, surrounded by members of the Angelfish Club at Stormfield. But Venice also represents a lost vista, one that had power as a commercial and vital city state and now has become a vast souvenir shop, a powerless icon of politics, a magnificently ruined city-monument, a collection of tourist sites and museums. 

Quarry Farm, for a time, recaptures that lost vista, a restful and secure place for the simultaneous acts of vacationing and working. Nature surrounds the family with a fusion of a civilized wilderness and a view of the urban landscape that can provide a social environment esteemed by the Clemens family, reminiscent of the idealized Italian vistas that his family will enjoy. Later, Twain returns to the play on words that “Innocents/Innocence” conveys. In a letter dated October 7, 1908 to Dorothy Quick, one of his Angelfish, he suggests that she might visit him in at home in Redding, Connecticut, then called “Innocence at Home”: “We are putting glass in the arches of the loggia now, & turning it into a winter parlor, so that we can sit there with our knitting & watch the snowstorms” (MarkTwain’s Aquarium, 218).[5] It was a house that reflected the architecture of Italy, a reflection of Livy’s death in Florence and more likely the earlier memories of Villa Viviani. “Innocence” evokes the memory of Twain’s first travel book, The Innocents Abroad. “Innocence” is also a common concept in the letters he writes to his young members of the Angelfish Club. He writes, for example, that he has followed the suggestion of Marjorie Breckenridge: “the house has two names: ‘Innocence at Home’ for the Aquarium girls, and ‘Stormfield’ for the general public” (December 1, 1908).  

I was certainly innocent in my stay in Venice. I came to see what Twain had intuitively captured, that the city has a duality of souls, one seemingly mired in the past and one that continues to celebrate the secular reality of its religion. The memories that haunt me now are those I did not know I had, that I lectured a group that knew Venice all too well, and that I needed to reflect on my experience there for a long two years before I got what Twain found in just a few days in that city. His was an insightful journey, one I am beginning now to appreciate.  I accept the decline of the city, but now I am also finding Twain’s words about the actual experience of travel also true:

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed.

Innocents Abroad, 218

Harold H. Hellwig is Associate Professor of English at Idaho State University and author of Mark Twain’s Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind (2008)


[1]Susan Gillman in “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales” writes that Twain’s travel book and a number of dream tales, which includes The Mysterious Stranger, “invoke and adapt the notions of spirit communication and disembodied space-and-time travel…as a means of revisiting the old terrain of U.S. slavery and linking it to the newer global imperialism, the worldwide nationalism, nativism, and racism of the late 1890s” (194). Gillman writes that when Twain goes to Ceylon “we have clearly arrived at the very center of the voyage, Twain’s own paradoxical heart of darkness, where this remote orientalized land of dream and romance merges, both pleasurably and disturbingly, with memories of Twain’s boyhood in the antebellum South” (202). However, Twain’s “heart of darkness” becomes a testament of faith that the racial differences that exist will, with an effort of memory, disappear within the context of a timeless moment when these differences will vanish.

[2]“Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad: Among the Monuments of Time.” Presented to the faculty and students at the University of Venice. April 10, 2017. Ca’ Bernardo, Sala B. Organizzato da Daniela Ciari Forza. Universta Ca’Foscari Venezia. Dipartimento di Studie Linguistici e Culturali Comparati.

[3]I was enabled in my stay in Venice by way of being a resident at the Vittore Branca International Centre for the Study of Italian Culture, sponsored by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, April 3 through April 27. I spent a good deal of time at the Nuova Manica Lunga (library system with an emphasis on the history of Venice, literature, music, theatre and opera; the relations between Venice and the East, and Venice and Europe).

[4]Nathalia Wright, in American Novelists in Italy, Michael L. Ross, in Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of FlorenceVenice, and Rome (with a focus on British writers), and Van Wyck Brooks, in The Dream of Arcadia, are among those who discuss some of these Italian travelers. Single-figure critics include Dennis Berthold’s American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and Cultural Politics of Italy. Venice represents for most a combination of the secular and the religious, for Twain a central locus of meaning on art, nature, and family.

[5]Twain is pleased with the “roomy Italian villa which John Howells has built for me on lofty ground surrounded by wooded hills and valleys, and secluded by generous distances from the other members of the human race” (Autobiography, Volume 3, 239).  

Works Consulted

PRIMARY SOURCES

A Tramp Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1880.

Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 1. Ed. Harriet Elinor Smith, et al. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2010.

Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 3. Ed. Benjamin Griffin & Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2015.

Innocents Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1869.

Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1897.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Beauchamp, Gorman. “Mark Twain in Venice,” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought.” 38.4 (Summer 1997): 397-413.

Buzard, James. “A Continent Of Pictures: Reflections On The ‘Europe’ Of Nineteenth-Century Tourists.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America 108.1 (1993): 30-44. 

Gillman, Susan. Dark Twins:  Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

—–. “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales.” The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, 1995. Cambridge UP.

Madigan, Francis V.  “Mark Twain’s Passage to India: A Genetic Study of Following the Equator.”  Ph.D. diss., New York University 1974.

Salmoni, Steven. “Ghosts, Crowds, And Spectacles: Visions Of Venetian Travel In Henry James’s Italian Hours.” Journal Of Narrative Theory 35.3 (2005): 277-291. 

2020 Quarry Farm Fellowship Deadline Fast Approaching

The Porch at Quarry Farm

Click here for a PDF of the 2020 Quarry Farm Fellowship Application Guidelines

The Center for Mark Twain Studies offers ten Quarry Farm fellowships for 2020 to any scholar working in the field of Mark Twain Studies at any career stage, giving Fellows the opportunity to work on academic or creative projects at Quarry Farm, the family home of Twain’s sister- and brother-in-law, Susan and Theodore Crane. Twain and his family lived at Quarry Farm for over twenty summers. During this time, in an octagonal study located about one hundred yards from the main house, Mark Twain wrote the majority of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry FinnA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other major works.

Fellows are consistently struck by the beauty and quiet of the home and its surroundings, an environment inspiring in its own right and especially conducive to writing and research. CMTS has been gathering testimonials from scholars directly related to their personal experiences at Quarry Farm. These testimonials can be found HERE.

Reflecting the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Quarry Farm Fellowships foster and support scholarship and creative works related to Mark Twain, including, but not limited to, his literature, life, family, associations, influences, reception, and significance. The fellowship selection process aims to assist scholars and artists in producing work of highest distinction and cultivate a diverse community of scholars across backgrounds, specializations, and ranks.

TEN QUARRY FARM FELLOWSHIPS WILL BE OFFERED IN 2020:

A Chair from the Langdon Mansion, currently in the Library at Quarry Farm
  • Three one-month residencies, including housing at Quarry Farm and a $1500 honorarium for each residency
  • Seven two-week residencies, including housing at Quarry Farm and a $1000 honorarium for each residency
  • At least one month-long and two two-week fellowships will be reserved for graduate students, contingent faculty, and faculty three or fewer years removed from completion of their Ph.D.
  • At least one fellowship will be reserved for creative writers

Applications must be submitted to [email protected] or to Dr. Joseph Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, at [email protected]. Applications for 2020 will be accepted until November 30, 2019.  Applicants are notified when applications are received, and are notified of the fellowship competition outcome by January 31, 2020.

More information about the 2020 Quarry Farm Fellowships can be found HERE.

Writing, Roosting, Roistering: Two Weeks at Quarry Farm (A Quarry Farm 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 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.

Professor Thompson’s work space on the Quarry Farm Porch

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.

Professor Thompson’s wife, Sara

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 language.

Professor Thompson and “Cat”

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.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: The Last Cigar of The Next Caretaker

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The grass is green with light brown wisps and corduroy stripes from the mower. Cloudlike groups of wild Phlox flowers, light purple and white, float amongst the thick hedgerow. The trees are robust and line the open grassy area creating a kaleidoscopic wall as the leaves shift and flutter in the breeze. There is quite a cacophony of birds and insects, yet the noise somehow suggests peace and quiet. There’s a lightning rod on the little house out back. It has been there for years and is fresh and white and ready. The sun is shining. Today probably wont be the day. The dog softly snores in the corner. A fly occasionally tries for an escape but only bounces across the screen. 

Caretaker Steve Webb Spins Yarns For Schoolchildren in Front of Quarry Farm

I am mindless and staring and trying not to scroll, to go for an escape, to bounce across the screen myself. I am searching for motivation. I wonder what Mark Twain did on Saturdays.

If I was more motivated I’d look it up (there is a copy of Mark Twain Day By Day upstairs, after all), but instead I’ll just sit here and consider taking up cigars. The thought of filling the room with the thick blue smoke makes me a little queasy though. 

Years ago, maybe six, we were walking through the forest here that surrounds Quarry Farm. Tim, the previous caretaker, was telling me stories about the place, about John T. Lewis, about trees and animals and the whole Clemens family. He’d developed a real affinity for smoking and collecting cigars while working here so we were each smoking a Gurkha. He explained to me that they were “special-edition” stogies that he’d been saving for the perfect occasion. We were celebrating the changing of the guards as I was to begin my stint as Caretaker and he was excited about starting a new job out West. 

I’d never smoked a cigar before but was enjoying the hell out of it and considering adopting the habit full time in my new job. We smoked and walked and a euphoric buzzy feeling took over my body. My cheeks started to cramp from smiling. What’s in this thing? I thought as I slowly rotated it in my hand examining the structure. The smoke spiraled like an ascending spirit into the canopy above. 

“See that chimney over there?” asked Tim. I assumed he was talking about me but when I looked up from my cigar I saw a stone chimney standing lonely amongst the trees off to the left of the trail. There was moss in the cracks and mortar working its way around the rocks like it had been slowly pulling on a costume, over the past hundred or so years, in an attempt to assimilate with its woodland home. 

“Yeah.” I exhaled trying to act like my feet were still on the ground.  

“We believe that was the home of John T. Lewis…” I was fixated on how Tim always said “we” when he was talking about Twain scholar stuff. I wondered if I’d say we all the time too when I became the scholarly caretaker. I missed Tim’s whole explanation. We walked on. I was hoping there wouldn’t be a test. 

The trails seemed endless and winding and I wondered how he knew where we were. Now I know: a few years of trail walking and you figure it out. It becomes smaller. There’s an open field about a mile out. And since people like to use football fields to measure things I’d say that the field is at least five football fields (I haven’t been to a football game since ninth grade so “give-er-take.”) We stood on the edge of the forest looking out onto the huge expanse of tall grass and wild flowers, purple and yellow and baby blue, and all I could think was: Is this legal? Our cigars were about half their original size by then and if we made it back alive a celebration would definitely be in order—another cigar! I took a big affectatious puff. I’ve got this Twain stuff down, I thought. 

Fallen Tree in The Woods Behind Quarry Farm

“You know you’re not supposed to actually inhale right?”

“Oh. Yeah. Totally.” Uh oh…

We made our way back through the woods. Tim kept talking and I kept trying to act normal but I could feel that my timing was off: laughing when there wasn’t a joke, joking when there wasn’t a laugh and a general sense that maybe I didn’t have what it takes to be a scholarly caretaker after all. My cigar had burned out. I was unconsciously squeezing the remaining third between my thumb and pointer finger like I was trying to pop the head off a chicken. 

Tim and I were old friends. We met in high school and were then college roommates. He recommended me for the job. Tim is a very smart man. He was a perfect fit for the job and is still legendary in the Twain community. Because we’d known each other so long I could tell he was lookin’ at me funny. I think he started to notice that my eyes were no longer in communication with each other. I tried to control them but they’d gone chameleon and were googling all over the place. I may have gone green too. 

“You okay man?” 

“Yeah.” My voice came out an octave higher than normal. The breeze made the sweat on my forehead feel cold. My posture had rounded over and I could see both Tim and Mark Twain shaking their heads in disappointment. 

“You should probably give that thing a rest.” He looked down at the corpse of a cigar in my hand.

“Yeah,” I said again but in more of a whisper this time. All I could think to do was to let go. The “special-edition” Gurkha fell in slow motion and hit the ground in the shade of Tim’s palpable cringe. 

I stumbled off the trail through crackling sticks and dead leaves to spackle the forest floor with what remained of breakfast and the entirety of lunch. I imagined Tim giving a tour to the new Caretaker: “We believe that to be the remains of the guy we thought was good enough to be the next Caretaker.” The two would look at each other with mock seriousness, burst out in laughter, and walk on, leaving me like an old stump in the trail of their “special-edition” Gurkha smoke. 

I pulled myself together and made my way back to the trail. With puppy-that-got-into-the-trash shame I looked at Tim. His smirk had bushwhacked completely through his big biker beard. 

“You okay there sport?” 

“Yeah” came out like a sigh. 

We started back toward the house. He put his hand on my back like an encouraging baseball dad. 

“Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it, kid.”

“Yeah.” I exhaled, resigned and still a little green. 

Now that I think about it, I’m going to let that “special-edition” Gurkha be my first and last Cigar and figure out something else to do on this beautiful Saturday. We believe that Twian enjoyed lots of things when he didn’t feel like working: reading, walking, whiskey, talking, inventing games for his daughters to play. I imagine if I sit here long enough lightning will strike. 

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.