EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.
117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”
Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.
The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”
Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”
This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,
“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)
The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!”
Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.
As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:
“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)
This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.
Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.
Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”