Writing, Roosting, Roistering: Two Weeks at Quarry Farm (A Quarry Farm 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.

I had been fortunate enough to stay at Quarry Farm before, but only for two days when I was in town to give a “Trouble Begins” lecture in May 2018. So I was delighted to be granted a two-week Quarry Farm Fellowship from late July to early August 2019; knowing the place just a little bit, I looked forward to it all spring and summer. Because I work in a graduate program that offers a summers-only option, I have taught a five-week-long graduate course each of the last ten summers, which means that I tend to get very little of the uninterrupted summer research time that academics find so precious. So I set up my Quarry Farm Fellowship as a two-week writing workshop for myself in which I could finally think about and write for my book project—tentatively titled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880—all day long instead of the usual 15-minute snippets of stolen time here and there. During my time at Quarry Farm, set in the woods atop the hill overlooking Elmira, I was finally able to see the forest from the trees in my book project. Up until now I have been writing small sections to present as conference papers (or “Trouble Begins” lectures). During my residency I was able to take stock of what I had already done and make plans for tying it all together.

Professor Thompson’s work space on the Quarry Farm Porch

I did have a job to do while I was in Elmira: a “Trouble Begins” lecture about Twain’s 1873 letters to the New York Tribune about Hawai’i. If I’m honest, I spent more time working on the lecture than on the book as a whole. It’s an honor to be asked, and I didn’t want to disappoint the healthy crowd that came to Park Church in Elmira, where I had the privilege to lecture on the spot where Thomas K. Beecher delivered his sermons from 1854 to 1900. Afterwards, Jenny Monroe gave us a tour of the building, including the billiards parlor that Sam Clemens attended more faithfully than he did chapel services.

Aside from preparing the lecture, my two weeks at Quarry Farm felt like two separate, but equally productive and meaningful, one-week stays: the first alone and the second with my wife Sara Stewart, who joined me for the second week to work on her own book project. During that first week alone on the farm—though I did make pilgrimages to see friends in Corning and Dansville and went to see Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb play jazz bass at a local watering hole—I enjoyed the quiet and the plugging away at my project, rediscovering the joy in research and writing, and doing it all on my own schedule and at my own rhythm.

Professor Thompson’s wife, Sara

The second week brought new delights, sharing with Sara the loveliness of Quarry Farm and the awe of writing where Clemens wrote, looking at photos of him in posed the same rooms we were in, superimposing our times and lives onto his own as a kind of palimpsest. I had expected that kind of wonder. What I didn’t count on was the joy of spending a week together as writers. Sara is a film critic, so she’s always writing. But even when we get to work together at home, we’re usually just sprinting towards her deadline that day or my advisee’s dissertation defense or a stack of papers to grade. At Quarry Farm, on the other hand, Sara worked not on a story for a newspaper or magazine but her own book project while, only a few feet away, I was reading not a student’s dissertation proposal or next week’s readings for class but Twain scholarship from the upstairs library. We enjoyed being writers together, typing away on separate tables on the porch, or one on the porch and one in the library, checking in with each other, talking things through, reading each other’s work. A year ago Sara was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent colon resection surgery, followed closely by a tough six months of chemotherapy. We spent loads of time together, of course, at home during her treatments and afterwards, during the slow way back. But writing together—she on a fierce and funny book about her experiences during treatment that would do Twain and Fanny Fern (our other comic talis-woman) proud—on the Quarry Farm porch felt like the co-authoring of a new, brighter chapter.

Sometimes we would knock off and go take a hike at a nearby gorge, declare a happy hour on the porch and fix gin and tonics, or fumble our way through folk songs on our ukuleles in the parlor. When we did that I imagined all the faces in the family photographs on the walls frowning imperceptibly. We made a pilgrimage to Twain’s study at Elmira College and his (and Susan Crane’s) gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery. Sara wandered through the house and barn, studying up on Crane and Twain lore. One night I read “Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn” out loud to Sara as we lay in bed; I like to think the Quarry Farm ghosts approved the selection, and I know that “Cat,” Quarry Farm’s gregarious resident feline, would countenance it, in appropriately salty language.

Professor Thompson and “Cat”

Like Jim Baker, Sara and I studied the vocabularies of the various creatures at Quarry Farm. “Cat” greeted us each morning as we emerged to the porch with my morning coffee, and often plopped down on a chair next to us as we wrote, read, and organized. A red fox commuted back and forth between the woods and a neighboring farm, gorgeous and up to no good. One night, as I sat on the porch listening to a light rain, the fox scampered onto the porch, a couple feet away from me. We were very surprised to see each other, and it scampered off again just as quickly. I decided that “Cat” carries the spirit of Mark Twain and the fox the spirit of Sam Clemens. Near dusk, young deer frolicked in the hollow below, and then exited stage right when it was time for the bats to begin their aerial routine. After dark, we heard various unfamiliar but certainly ungrammatical vocabularies in the nearby woods as the stars emerged for their evening constitutional. On our last night at Quarry Farm, we hauled camp chairs down the hill and took in the Perseid Meteor Shower. I heartily congratulate Quarry Farm caretaker Steve Webb on his curation of this daily show. I’d see it again.