Visions of History 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.

Stephen Pasqualina is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Core Humanities program at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses primarily on American modernism and critical theory. His current book project, Mechanical Failure: Modernism, Technology, and the Mediation of History, examines the role of speed and visual media technologies in the US modernist historical imaginary. Work related to this project has recently appeared in Modernism/modernity, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, Public Books, and

Professor Pasqualina gave a lecture for CMTS for the 2020 Park Church Summer Lecture Series, entitled “Between Spectacle and Structure: Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialism” (Lecture Images)

The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar
from Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

I arrived in Elmira on July 21, exactly 137 years and a day after Mark Twain developed a children’s game that first piqued my interest in Quarry Farm. On July 20, 1883, Twain developed the game to help his daughters memorize the dates of English reigns from William the Conqueror to 1883. He measured 817 feet of what was then a roadway that ran in front of the porch and up toward his study, one foot for each year. Here is how he described the game’s layout:

From the house-porch the grounds sloped gradually down to the lower fence and rose on the right to the high ground where my small work-den stood. A carriage road wound through the grounds and up the hill … Abreast the middle of the porch-front stood a great granite flower-vase overflowing with a cataract of bright-yellow flowers … The vase was William the Conqueror. We put his name on it and his accession date, 1066.

At Twain’s now-iconic “work-den” was the present—the space in which he was then writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and in which young Clara and Susy Clemens could see the ongoing reign of Queen Victoria. As he described it in “How to Make History Dates Stick” (1914), this history roadway game allowed his daughters to place “eight hundred and seventeen years of English history under [their eyes] at once!”

Twain’s partial rendering of the roadway game, of which he wrote: “That isn’t the shape of the road—I have bunched it up like that to save room. The road had some great curves in it, but their gradual sweep was such that they were no mar to history.” From Mark Twain, “How to Make History Dates Stick,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine (December 1914): 5.

For that summer, Twain turned the space of the roadway into time, turning historical time into domestic space.

Before I visited Quarry Farm, I lacked a clear picture of Twain’s act of picturing (he included an admittedly inaccurate drawing in his essay). But while inhabiting the space for two weeks—scrutinizing his global travelogue and his critiques of imperialism, spending mornings and evenings taking in the serene surround from the porch where he reread his day’s work—I came to not only have a clearer picture of his children’s game but a deeper understanding of what it means to revisit the past at Quarry Farm.

My goal at Quarry Farm was to revise a book chapter on the role of technology in Mark Twain’s historical imaginary. I had published an article version of this chapter centered primarily on Twain’s theories of time—his investment in narratives of historical rupture, his turn toward a mechanistic philosophy of history, and his development of a mode of historical thinking that made visual the long durations of mechanistic philosophy in the instant of technological spectacle.

To complete my vision for the chapter, I knew I needed a more thorough engagement with space, particularly with how Twain visualized the transnational dynamics of imperialism. And so I spent my first week at Quarry Farm consumed in reading and rereading a wide range of Twain’s writings on imperialism, from the phonebook that is Following the Equator to the shorter works collected in Jim Zwick’s Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire (1992), one of the many invaluable sources I perused from the collection of primary texts and scholarship held in the upstairs library. I read through and filed away dozens of Twain’s letters held at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and special collections at Vassar College, collected in microfiche at the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College. I found myself hauling and devouring the contents of the upstairs library down to the beautiful downstairs library to the porch to the lawn, all in a restless attempt to absorb knowledge from the past and this deeply moving space in the little time I had.

And I kept thinking about the space of the roadway game—how the past literally takes place.

From the porch, I often thought I was witnessing the surround in much the same way Twain did two lifetimes ago. But I also sensed that even if the visual field was similar, the view must be different.

Mark Twain looking out of the Study window (1903)

Perched in his study designed to resemble a Mississippi steamboat pilot house, Twain looked out at the Chemung River, the river from which he remade the nation’s most iconic river in words. Visitors to Quarry Farm may feel a strong sense of belatedness (every corner seems to whisper or shout “Mark Twain was here”), but since the beginning, the hill has always been a space of remembrance, reliving, and revision. From the roadway game to Huckleberry Finn to Connecticut Yankee, Quarry Farm has operated as a space apart for remaking, rewriting, and re-envisioning other times and places.

I visited Quarry Farm at what one might call a historical moment, because of the pandemic and because of an international reckoning with anti-Black violence and historical memory. In our debates and dismantlings of monuments, what is being revised, reconsidered, and sometimes toppled is not “history” as such but the forms in which the past has been remembered—from other places and times, with other interests, from other eyes, within the spaces of other presents.

Amid a global pandemic, in a consequential election year, and in the midst of humanitarian crises, 2020 feels like a moment of rupture, exceedingly distant from everything prior. And yet we remain bound to the past, tied to its stories, its heroes, and its monuments, forced to grapple with how or if these fictions have a place in our own present.

Quarry Farm sometimes felt far afield from the social world from which these crises emerged. But they were there, too, with me even as the only voices within earshot were the singing birds, with me as I dug through the words of a long-dead author.

The view from Quarry Farm today

When I looked out from the porch, I thought I saw as Twain did. But that vision wasn’t Twain’s at all; to see what Twain saw isn’t to see as he saw. To inhabit the past as Twain did is not to occupy that seemingly timeless, majestic view but to search for new visions and revisions of the past, some obscured as the Chemung River is, others made visible by the acts of scholarly inquiry and creativity composed by the eyes that have the chance to look out from that historical porch.

When I arrived at Quarry Farm, Steve Webb reminded me that this is a space to be lived in, not a museum. I learned during my residency that the vital work of preservation at Quarry Farm is less about maintaining a hallowed past than creating new visions of history, just as Twain once did.