Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Visit with Mark Twain

By Gary Berg-Cross

The end of Summer and the beginning of Fall is a good time for people in this area to visit and roam the Freethought Trail in upstate NY.  This Trail for Freethinkers is a smart collection of places in West-Central New York, roughly the Finger Lakes area, that is historically rich in the development of freethought in the 19th century. Last year I visited the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, where you can  spend a little time with that exceptional mind thanks to the efforts of the  Council for Secular Humanism and its Tom Flynn.

This summer I was back in the trail with a visit to Mark Twain’s Elmira locations. Twain (aka real name Samuel Clemens) married Elmira native Olivia Langdon, and spent significant time in the area from the1870s to 1889. When married the couple lived in Buffalo and Hartford, Conn., for 20 years, but Twain and Olivia spent every summer in the peaceful setting of Olivia’s sister’s Elmira home. That home, called Quarry Farm, was located at the top of East Hill, which provides the geographic advantage of a stunning vista, removed from Elmira’s downtown. It now owned by Elmira college and you can see some wonderful things associated with Twain’s life on that campus. You can spend the day with Twain's thoughts by your side.  You can see some of the places he chose to be with the people that were special to him.

It was in Elmira that Mark Twain was married and afterwards penned many of his finest works. His daughters were born Elmira and it is where he entertained some notable guests. You can visit Twain’s study that is featured as a small building on campus. The study was moved from its original location, overlooking the Chemung River on Quarry Farm, to the Elmira College campus in 1952. Twain famously said of it:

“The three months which I spend here are usually my working months. I am free here and can work uninterruptedly.”

And in 1886, Twain penned a more detailed picture to the Chicago Tribune of it as a birthplace for ideas:

“The study may be called the home of Huckleberry Finn and other books of mine, for they were written here.”

This octagonal building was one of Twain’s favorite places  wrote major portions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, and many short pieces. In 1952 the Mark Twain Study was moved from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College campus. The Study is staffed by trained student guides daily throughout the summer and by appointment in the off-season.

You can see  a twain statue on campus along with memorabilia and associated material at the Mark Twain Exhibit in nearby Cowles Hall which houses photographs, stereoscopic views, and items from the summers Mark Twain and his family spent in Elmira. I loved the Exhibit which dresses up Twain and Olivia's life with association furniture and clothing. We were entertained by one of the student guides who are on hand daily throughout the summer and by appointment in the off-season. They can answer questions about Elmira's role in Mark Twain's life. I could spend a day just on the various quotes of Twain.  Some are displayed on the walls of the Hall or in the books for sale.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
— Mark Twain

My Dear Sir:

But you are proceeding upon the superstition that Moral Courage and a Hankering to Learn the Truth are ingredients in the human being's makeup. Your premises being wild and foolish, you naturally and properly get wild and foolish results. If you will now reform, and in future proceed upon the sane and unchallengeable hypothesis that those two ingredients are on vacation in our race, and have been from the start, you will be able to account for some things which seem to puzzle you now.

Sincerely yours,
Riverdale-on-the-Hudson, Dec. 21, 1901.

"What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man's breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not see before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere. To give birth to an idea -- an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain-plow had gone over before. To be the first -- that is the idea. To do something, say something, see something, before anybody else -- these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with other pleasures are tame and commonplace, other ecstasies cheap and trivial. Lifetimes of ecstasy crowded into a single moment." - Innocents Abroad

If you are lucky you may run into events sponsored by Center for Mark Twain Studies and you can ride a “Trolley into Twain Country” tour which brings Clemens’ biography to life, and also provides a glimpse into the history of Elmira itself.

The tour includes a stop at Woodlawn Cemetery where Twain and his wife, children and her family are buried.  It’s such a special place evoking deep feeling and many, many people have tried to capture it in video.  You can see one of many here.

A day with Twain is a day with a noble mind.  It makes one think freely and feel deeply. It is sad for the feeling of loss but it may send you back to the pleasant times with your favorite thinkers and their works. I don’t know exactly with Twain would say today, but it would likely be a memorial mix of his ironic wisdom and sadness about our wild and foolish ideas.  The saf fact that folly, rumor and ignorance still reigns despite his warnings and encouragements to the contrary.

More at
Footage of Twain in the last year of his life

No comments: