“The Mirror of Your Imagination” (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, 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.

Stephen Rachman is Associate Professor in the department of English, former Director of the American Studies Program and former head of Digital Humanities at Michigan State and former Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Literary Cognition Laboratory at Michigan State University. He is the co-editor and translator of Chinese Women Writers and the Environment (McFarland). He is the editor of The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz-Hugh Ludlow (Rutgers University Press). He is a co-author of the award-winning Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow (Oxford University Press) and the co-editor of The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (Johns Hopkins University Press). He has written numerous articles on 19th-century American literature, the history of medicine, cities, popular culture, and an award-winning Web site on Sunday school books for the Library of Congress American Memory Project. His most recent work on Mark Twain is “‘The £1,000,000 Bank-Note’: Mark Twain and the 19th-Century Monetary Imagination” Mark Twain Journal 59:2 (Fall 2021).

During his Quarry Farm residency, Professor Rachman participated in the 2023 Park Church Summer Lectures. You can view his talk with the link below.

  • Stephen Rachman, “The Monetary Imagination of Mark Twain: From the Nevada Mines to the £1,000,000 Bank-Note” (August 16, 2023 – The Park Church)

You are surely lucky to stay a while in this old home, to settle into the peace and pleasure of this place. It is a good space to relax, to work, to think and to write. If you visit in summertime as I did, then it is invitingly cool. “It is always cool on the hill,” Twain wrote in one of his letters. He contrasted it with the “sweltering hell” of Keokuk (not to be critical of Iowa in particular, but we can let that stand in for all the overheated places on the planet this summer.) Time travel a little while you are here, get into the pace of things. Enjoy the push-button light-switches and the corkscrew with a crank just off the dining room. Watch the birds traversing the lawn, the bats flitting in the evening skies, the caw of the crows and the knock of the woodpecker. You may even get a visit from Gray Greg or the other more elusive cat, Dr. Carmichael. You may even be visited by a group of poets, as I was one evening, who materialized on the porch to garner inspiration, and stayed a while as they wrote. As if to accommodate them, a small rainstorm came and went. I recommend the room above the porch (the Cuddy as I came to call it because it has sea-feeling up there). That is the best spot for storms—preferably with a book and a drink.

I came to see the house as having zones and each having a different feel, requiring different forms of appraisal and curiosity. The museum spaces: the dining room, the front parlor, and the library are fine and filled with period furniture. I felt that I should move with catlike quiet in these spaces, sitting a little more primly on the rose-colored upholstery of the sofa. I carefully removed a tome from these shelves and felt its fading gilt-edge against my index finger, admired the Morocco cover and the marbling inside, looked for pencil markings, the checks or question marks that Twain made while he read. The tiles around the fireplace are worth inspection, Aesop’s Fables, probably Minton tiles which were very popular in the Victorian era. You can imagine the fables that are sprinkled through Twain’s works spinning out from the one’s these tiles inspired. Perhaps like those found in The Mysterious Stranger.  These rooms are full of texts and as the cat in Twain’s fable says, “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination. You may not see your ears, but they will be there.”

The kitchen is modern enough and old-fashioned enough, too. You can use the microwave or poke around the old stove where Mary Ann Cord cooked. Sit at the table where she chatted with Sam, and he took his breakfast.

The library spaces upstairs are another zone, a space of research-convenience itself. Everything you might need to consult is seemingly at your fingertips. It feels like you are in conversation with a great chunk of scholarship, browse as freely or systematically as you like. Check out the standing desk, too, the ultimate in ergonomics.

Don’t neglect the grounds. If you can manage to leave the porch, wander off to the right and find the steps where Twain would make his way up to his study. You should also visit the transported hive of productivity on the campus of Elmira College, but to visit the steps that lead to the little overgrown promontory leave a different impression of something here but gone, the play of absence and presence, but for me, it was the sense that a good day’s work (or a hard one) is only a few steps away, waiting for you.