The Mad Monk & Not-So-Distant Mirror of Mark Twain (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.

Though you might not get the message from a campus stroll on a nice day, colleges really are the offspring of monasteries and convents, and profs still have an element of Mad Monk. Something inside us wants, needs, to hole up now and then, to let go of the cadences of ordinary life, to hunker down solo and unrelentingly indulge some vexatious curiosity or creative urge. For humanities types, our lairs and refuges are often makeshift and temporary: bland office unsafe from hallway buzz, a library back-room table where you can spread out for a few hours; or in a coffee-house, a sullen corner as far as possible from the Norah Jones and the Bon Iver. Eventually, however, you’ll get chased out, or spotted by friends who come over and tug you back into the everyday. 

Bruce Michelson is Emeritus Professor at University of Illinois, author of Printer’s Devil (2006) and Mark Twain on The Loose (1995), and winner of the 2018 Charlie Award from the American Humor Studies Association and the 2013 Louis Budd Award from the Mark Twain Circle of America.

For Mark Twain people, what a Quarry Farm residence supplies is better than just about any other sequestered all-out saturation we know how to contrive. Because on this visit I was in the house for only four nights, I can’t report massive progress on current projects, beyond several salutary jolts to my thinking and the heady delight of having, right there, a nearly-exhaustive, wisely-curated collection of published books about Samuel Clemens, his legacy, and his times. In that environment, new twists in your meditations about such matters can be nurtured, and any resource you might have forgotten about or missed completely is right there and ready.

Beyond all that, there’s the welter of important impressions that many residents at Quarry Farm have written about.  These are more diffuse, of course, and harder to summarize without lapsing into sentiment – but wow, do they matter.  One project in the foreground for me is called “Mark Twain Past and Present,” meant to be a book-length inquiry into what “Mark Twain” has signified in American culture through the past hundred years, and also how his story and legacy are transforming now, and likely to molt farther, as we continue to infuse that story with our own blood, to see in it what we need to know, as we try to carry this array of texts and archives and legends and collective memories into a tumultuous future.   

There’s so much underway in our moment for which Mark Twain provides a not-so-distant mirror: the meaning of travel; writing and the illusion of intimacy; the transformation of “writer” into “artist”; the nature of celebrity in America and the erosion or obliteration of private life. Because these are chapters I am soldering together, you can understand readily why these quiet and solitary days at Quarry Farm, where so much happened, where Sam and his family negotiated so many of these enigmas, do so much to bring clarity and exhilaration.