Educational EntertwainmentMay 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
When Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) talked, he’d quickly find himself with a rapt audience of devotees. Tales of his own adventures, writing best-selling books, and sharing a quirky, humorous take on a life filled with challenges and very hard work made him the nineteenth-century version of a rock star. He needed a refuge, a place to recharge and regroup, and he found one at Quarry Farm in Elmira. It’s a hidden gem today, and its caregivers mostly intend for it to stay that way. But visitors are welcomed to the farm for “The Trouble Begins,” its twice-yearly lecture series named for a handbill Clemens wrote to promote long-ago talks.
In 2023, the spring lecture series begins at 7 p.m. on May 10 in the barn-converted-to-lecture-hall with a talk by Steven Courtney concerning the friendship between the two pastors who officiated at the wedding of Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon—and remained friends thereafter. “Between Mark Twain and Bella Z. Spencer: Satire and Sentiment on the Subscription Book Market” is offered by Jessica Jordan on May 17. An unpacking of race and racism issues in the author’s life and work, by Ann M. Ryan, is on May 24, and on May 31 Lawrence Howe will give a talk on Clemens’s poetry. There will be four more lectures in October. One hopes Clemens would approve, at least in part, to all of this. As he said in his autobiography, “I like criticism, but it must be my way.” The lectures are free and open to the public.
While attendees don’t have time or permission to explore the house, they have the opportunity to experience the view and the peacefulness of the grounds, two of the elements enabling Clemens to accomplish substantial amounts of writing for the five to six months out of the year his family spent here in the late 1800s. In 1874, his sister-in-law Susan Crane commissioned an octagonal study overlooking the Chemung River valley, which served the dual purpose of giving Clemens a dedicated work space away from the hubbub of family life and spared them much of the fug of his beloved cigars and occasional earthy expletives (“When angry, count four,” Clemens said. “When very angry, swear!”). The restored building was removed to the Elmira College campus in 1952, where it’s open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed for college holidays), often with a student docent nearby to answer questions. This year it opens on May 30.
Clemens first visited Quarry Farm in 1869. He’d been hired in 1867 to take—and then write about—a five months’ European/Mediterranean cruise, an account later published as The Innocents Abroad, and also launched the lucrative sideline of traveling to give lectures. Prior to this, he’d been compelled to pursue a variety of occupations, from miner to typesetter to piloting steamboats through the quirky maritime geography of the Mississippi River. On the cruise, he befriended fellow American travelers, particularly the much-younger Charles Langdon. When the homesick Charles showed him a picture of his sister, Olivia, Clemens was immediately smitten. When the two were introduced a few months later, his love was emphatically not reciprocated. But their correspondence and occasional meetings worked their magic. Eventually Olivia agreed to be his wife, writing to a friend, “A great satisfying love, has slowly, gradually worked its way into my heart—into my entire being.”
The Clemens family never owned Quarry Farm. What was a slate-cutter’s cottage was purchased in 1869 as a summer home by Jervis Langdon, a wealthy Elmira merchant, abolitionist, and philanthropist, and father to Charles and Olivia. Springing from vastly different backgrounds, Clemens and his future wife were an unlikely pair, but Jervis took a liking to the rough-hewn, self-educated Missourian, whose formal education had been interrupted early in life with the death of his parents. After Clemens declared his desire to exchange his life as an itinerant lecturer for more settled newspaper work, Jervis purchased a major interest in the Buffalo Express to help his future son-in-law, and bought the couple a lavish Buffalo home as a wedding gift. They were married in early 1870. Clemens’s initial enthusiasm for newspaper work was already waning; and after the following summer back in Elmira, where the newlyweds returned to help care for the now-dying Jervis, he realized his interests lay in non-journalistic writing. It was a decision Olivia supported.
“Our perception of Olivia is extremely limited,” says Barbara Snedecor, former director of Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, currently editing a volume of Olivia’s letters. “She was gracious, intelligent, warm, and compassionate. She loved her husband unfailingly, and he her. She was a tremendous strength to him.” She managed his household, taught and played with their children, entertained an impressive array of guests, and helped him edit his work for publication.
The summer cottage, left to Olivia’s sister Susan Crane, and for many years operated as a dairy farm, was a refuge for Clemens when the family returned to Elmira. In subsequent years the couple’s three daughters were born there. The house was enlarged several times, and remained in the Langdon family until 1982, when the original Jervis Langdon’s great-nephew, also named Jervis Langdon, donated the property to Elmira College, thus anchoring the Center for Mark Twain Studies. The carefully-crafted agreement specifies the property should be used “exclusively for the support of scholarship on the life and work of Mark Twain.” Quarry Farm Fellows, those Mark Twain scholars researching and writing on some aspect of Clemens’s life and work, can apply for a fellowship to stay at the farm to concentrate on their research and work for a two-week period.
The man who wrote “fame is a vapor, popularity an accident” might have been surprised at his legacy’s staying power. Or maybe not. Joseph Lemak, director of Mark Twain Studies, says sales of the newest version of Clemens’s autobiography, published in 2020 because Clemens insisted it could only see print at least a century after his death, has helped fund the Mark Twain Studies program. It’s something Clemens might have immodestly predicted. He had told Howells, his friend, editor, and proofreader, “that this autobiography of mine would live a couple of thousand years, without any effort,” adding that if Howells hadn’t agreed, “I would have thrown him out of the window.”
For more information see marktwainstudies.com, or call (607) 735-1941.