Twainadventures: Life and Learning at Quarry Farm (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.
Mika Turim-Nygren is an American Literature Faculty member at Bard High School Early College DC, part of the Bard College network. Her current book project concerns 19th-century American dialect literature, and the relationship between racialized dialect and the formation of a national literature, both in the American context and beyond. Her published work related to this project includes “Twain’s Modernism: The Death of Speech in Huckleberry Finn as the Birth of a New Aesthetic,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, and “Bret Harte’s Birtherism: Dialect Literature and the Fiction of Native-Born Citizenship,” which is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 legal issue of nonsite.org.
Her 2021 Park Church Summer Lecture, “Twain’s Modernism: The Death of Speech in Huckleberry Finn as the Birth of a New Aesthetic” can be found here.
When I first learned I would be coming to Mark Twain’s summer home, Quarry Farm, as a 2021 fellow, I decided to document my experience there, day by day, much like Twain himself once did in the letters he wrote from high atop the Quarry Farm hilltop. In true Twain spirit, there’s nothing elaborate or ornate to these memoranda— just a record of what I was learning, wondering, and noticing in Quarry Farm’s delightful archives and environs. Here’s how Twain himself described the glorious outlook:
The farm [Quarry Farm] is perfectly delightful this season. It is as quiet and peaceful as a South Sea Island. Some of the sunsets which we have witnessed from this commanding eminence were marvelous. One evening a rainbow spanned an entire range of hills with its mighty arch, and from a black hub resting upon the hill-top in the exact centre, black rays diverged upward in perfect regularity to the rainbow’s arch and created a very strongly defined and altogether the most majestic, magnificent and startling half-sunk wagon wheel you can imagine…I don’t know whether this weird and astounding spectacle most suggested heaven, or hell. The wonder, with its constant, stately, and always surprising changes, lasted upwards of two hours, and we all stood on the top of the hill by my study till the final miracle was complete and the greatest day ended that we ever saw. Our farmer [John Lewis], who is a grave man, watched that spectacle to the end, and then observed that it was “dam funny.”Mark Twain, letter to William Dean Howells, Quarry Farm, August 9, 1876
Now, it’s rare for Twain to indulge in such effusive Romantic rhetoric as he does here — so if this doesn’t convince you of the “marvelous,” “majestic,” and “magnificent” nature of Quarry Farm, nothing will! At the same time, we see that Twain can’t resist undermining his own earnest sincerity with a quick jab of a punchline at the end. But what I love about the phrase “dam funny” is that Twain was clearly both amused by the way John Lewis summed up the “spectacle,” and at the same time impressed by how entirely apropos Lewis’s words actually were. How better to encapsulate this splendidly “weird” vision of a panorama at once reminiscent of “heaven” and “hell”? As someone who studies dialect, and especially the role of racialized dialect (John Lewis was a Black man) in helping writers like Twain create a literary language that was recognizably and distinctly American, this passage really does it for me — all the pathos of Twain’s genuine affection for Quarry Farm, all the mystery of his intense fascination with Black talk and the power it possessed on the page. More than anything, I feel honored to have had this time to immerse myself in Twain’s prose and surroundings, and eager to incorporate my research into my future scholarship.
Twainadventures, Day One: Arrival Edition
One thing I learned upon arrival is that Twain was buried right here in Elmira, in 1910. He lies in Woodlawn Cemetery alongside his beloved wife Livy (Olivia), whom he buried himself six years before he passed away. Her gravestone bears the German phrase, “Gott sei dir gnädig, O meine Wonne!” (Let God be merciful to you, oh my joy!) All Twain’s parodies about “the awful German language” notwithstanding, it looks like the language did mean something heartfelt to him in the end. The Clemens had all learned German together in preparation for a winter in Munich in 1878–9, so it makes sense that he would associate it with his most personal and private connections.
Right nearby, in the same Woodlawn cemetery where Twain and Livy are buried, lies John Jones, who escaped slavery and then helped something like 800 others do the same, operating the biggest “station” on the Underground Railroad between Philly and Canada. Such efforts were bankrolled in part by coal and lumber magnate Jervis Langdon, Twain’s father-in-law, who once declared that the family’s “coach and purse” would always be at the service of the runaway slave. Matt Seybold, Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College calls Jervis Langdon a “philanthrocapitalist” for this reason — someone who uses their personal wealth to invest in causes and projects they believe in, much like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet today.
Regardless of what we might think of the advisability of philanthrocapitalism as a political model, it’s fascinating to think of the influence that Jervis Langdon might have had on Twain. It must have been quite the wake-up call. After all, as Twain himself put it, “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” Indeed, in many ways, Twain was quite lucky to have Jervis Langdon as a father-in-law. For one thing, Langdon never opposed Twain’s marriage to Olivia, despite their marked difference in social status. For another thing, when Langdon passed away in 1870, he bequeathed a large portion of his fortune to Olivia, allowing the young couple to live much more handsomely than they would have otherwise been able to afford — as we can see quite clearly in the rich and lavish furnishings of Quarry Farm, which was bought and outfitted by Jervis Langdon himself!
One thing I find myself wondering about is the provenance of this adorable little bookcase under the stairs. Is it original to Twain’s time? Did Twain read there? Did his children? It just strikes me as the perfect euphoric antidote to Harry Potter’s sad little cupboard. A reading nook for one, solitary, sequestered, serene.
One thing that’s beautiful around here is the view. Quarry Farm overlooks a peaceful little pond, and apparently in summers the Clemens family would throw open the parlor’s pocket doors and truck the furnishings out on the terrace, rugs, armchairs, chaises and all. What a fabulously bohemian image.
Twainadventures, Day 2: Kitchen Edition
Upon arrival, I learned from the very kind caretaker, Steve Webb, that this unassuming little quartet of chairs marks the actual original breakfast table where Twain would start his days chatting with John Lewis and Mary Ann Cord (of “A True Story, Told Word for Word as I Heard It” fame). Such a strange, eerie sensation of transhistorical presence, almost like Barthes’s punctum, to sit where he sat — and eat where he ate! My moment of beauty for today comes from Twain himself: a lovingly lavish description of his all-time favorite foods from childhood. Me being me, I instantly started scheming a Twain-themed dinner party. “Crying Clemens Cornbread” would make a great menu item, no?
In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals — well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken, roast pig, wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie-chickens; biscuits, hot batter cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot “wheat bread,” hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter-beans, string-beans, tomatoes, pease, Irish potatoes, sweet-potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, “clabber”; watermelons, musk-melons, cantaloups — all fresh from the garden — apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler — I can’t remember the rest. The way that the things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheat bread, and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread, but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it. The North seldom tries to fry chicken, and this is well; the art cannot be learned north of the line of Mason and Dixon, nor anywhere in Europe. This is not hearsay; it is experience that is speaking.Mark Twain, Chapters from my Autobiography (XIII)
I find myself very curious not only about this absolutely stunning grand dame of a stove (“Our Favorite №14”!), but also about its charmingly midcentury successor, which features a dual-door oven, separate knobs for left (narrow) and right (wide), as well as typewriter-style BUTTONS for changing the heat setting on the hobs (high, 3, 2, low, warm, off). I have never seen that in my life! I wonder how old it is, and how they managed to keep it in good repair so long.
Twainadventures, Day 3: Queer Edition
Quarry Farm’s parlor is the most similar to it would have been in Twain’s day, with all the stuffy Victorian splendor of tufted settees, carved gilt frames, leather-bound books, and faded daguerreotypes. Don’t let the appearance of propriety fool you, though, Twain could write dirty! Today I learned that, in addition to writing a “pornographic farce” set in the court of Queen Elizabeth about a monstrously smelly fart (entitled “1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors”), which Twain had printed up anonymously on tea-stained, faux-antique paper for maximally scandalous effect, Twain also penned a story titled “How Nancy Jackson married Kate Wilson” about an explicitly lesbian relationship! Well worth a read, both of them.
One thing I find myself wondering about: Twain had to have been familiar with feminist activists (which were apparently extremely abundant and active in Elmira), but what about same-sex female cohabitants (as in the so-called “Boston marriage”)? Did he know any unmarried, strong-willed, professional women with unusually close female friends?
Twainadventures, Day Four: Genocide Edition
So what I’ve actually been spending most of my time here studying and thinking about is Twain’s intense antipathy towards Natives — which as Matt Seybold aptly points out, disturbs many Twain scholars far more than his use of racial epithets. After all, a Black character like Jim is at least humanized by the narrative, whereas about the “red man” Twain writes,
He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible… truly he is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator’s worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses.Mark Twain, “The Noble Red Man,” 1870
Given that this was the era of forced displacement and brutal US-tribal warfare, the “joke” about extermination being the charitable option lands rough indeed. One thing I learned from Kerry Driscoll’s landmark work Mark Twain Among the Indians is that Twain’s great-grandmother, Jane Montgomery Casey, survived the 1781 Montgomery Massacre, an attack by Natives on the Kentucky frontier in which both her father and her brother were shot before her eyes. But I’m actually wondering how much of Twain’s anti-Native vitriol is actually purely literary in nature, as in an extension of his campaign against James Fenimore Cooper and the reified Romantic rhetoric of the “noble savage.” I wonder if there’s any record of Native peoples reading or responding to Twain at the time. In the road yesterday, spotted this snake who also seems to have met a gruesome end. Seemed eerily apropos.
Twainadventures, Day 6: Writer’s Edition
One thing I learned today from reading Mark Twain’s letters was that his brother, Orion, was a wild-eyed schemer and dreamer who refused to be nailed down to one plan at a time. I can’t help wondering whether he would’ve been a burner in our day (I mean, just look at that beard!). This is how Twain describes him:
I can’t “encourage” Orion. Nobody can do that, conscientiously, for the reason that before one’s letter has time to reach him he is off on some new wild-goose chase… I cannot conscientiously encourage him to do anything but potter around his little farm and put in his odd hours contriving new and impossible projects at the rate of 365 a year — which is his customary average. But one can’t “encourage” quick-silver, because the instant you put your finger on it it isn’t there. If I ever become able, I mean to put Orion on a regular pension without revealing the fact that it is a pension. That is best for him… If he had money he would share with me in a moment and I have no disposition to be stingy with him.
In a later letter, he hits on the perfect analogy for what it’s like to have forbearance for Orion’s infinitely changeable nature: “I don’t see why a kaleidoscope shouldn’t enjoy itself as much as a telescope.” And after all, as critics have rightly pointed out, Twain himself was prone to childish whimsies (like his obsession with collecting alpine flowers) and wild get-rich-quick schemes (like his regrettable investment in the Page typesetter machine) — so perhaps he and Orion were more akin to one another than Twain might have liked to admit!
Another thing I found myself wondering about (as I perched there in Mark Twain’s octagonal office, right below the photographic portrait of him doing the same) was Twain’s relationship to his own writing . He calls himself a “natural procrastinaturalist” (amazing!) yet seems to pride himself on never missing a deadline. And then you get this where he’s describing his writing process (which just turns the whole notion of Twain the irreverent humorist and casual dilettante on its head!):
I have manuscript enough on hand now, to make (allowing for engravings) about 400 pages of the book…but I find myself so thoroughly interested in my work, now (a thing I have not experienced for months) that I can’t bear to lose a single moment of the inspiration. So I will stay here and peg away as long as it lasts. My present idea is to write as much more as I have already written, and then cull from the mass the very best chapters and discard the rest… When I get it done I want to see the man who will begin to read it and not finish it… When I was writing my last book, my daily stunt was 30 pages of manuscript and I hardly ever got beyond it; but I have gone over that nearly every day for the last ten. That shows that I am writing with a red-hot interest. Nothing grieves me now — nothing troubles me, nothing bothers me or gets my attention — I don’t think of anything but the book, and I don’t have an hour’s unhappiness about anything and don’t care two cents whether school keeps or not. It will be a bully book.
I’ve been talking a lot lately with friends about what kind of relation we wanted to have to our own work, post-pandemic, and I’ve got to say, reading this description from Mark Twain — this is it. This is how I want to feel about my work as an independent scholar all the time.
Twainadventures, Day Seven: Elmira Edition
Just finished giving my scholar-in-residence talk here in Elmira! There is something really touching about thinking back and remembering how terrified I was the first time I gave this talk as a grad student — and how much easier it’s gotten to give now. (And how much easier to follow, for that matter!) Feeling really grateful for the opportunity, and for the kind community members of Park Church who came out to listen.
One thing I learned is that Park Church, which hosted the lecture, was built to house the rapidly burgeoning congregation of the radical preacher Thomas K. Beecher (brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame). Apparently Beecher and Twain were not only close friends but used to sneak off to have a beer and play billiards together. Park Church carries on the tradition of the Twain lectures in order to pay homage to the community’s longstanding social justice mission. As I mentioned earlier, Elmira was such an abolitionist hotbed that it became the biggest station on the Underground Railroad between Philly and Canada. It’s endlessly fascinating to think of how this environment shaped Twain’s
One thing I’m wondering is how I might make it back here. I have a feeling I’m really going to miss this place.
Many thanks to Joseph Lemak, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies; Matt Seybold, Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College; and Steve Webb, caretaker of Quarry Farm and musician extraordinaire, for making it all possible.
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