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.
Linda A. Morris is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis. She has written extensively about women’s humor in the 19th and 20th century America, including a book-length study on the writer Miriam Whitcher (“The Widow Bedott”), and essays on Mary Lasswell and Roz Chast. Her work on Mark Twain includes her book Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing and Transgressions, and essays on Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and “Gender Bending as Child’s Play, Aunt Susy Phelps in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and “Hellfire Hotchkiss.” She was the 2017 recipient of “The Olivia Langdon Clemens Award” by the Mark Twain Circle of America, and the 2018 recipient of “The Charlie Award” by the American Humor Studies Association.
Professor Morris gave a lecture for the 2019 Spring “Trouble Begins” lecture series. Her talk, “Writing About Sexuality: Mark Twain’s Private Work Made Public,” can be found 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.
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.