I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. I have a residency at the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, Sept. 1-15, 2016, and I’m staying at Quarry Farm. Elmira, New York is where Olivia Langdon, who became Mrs. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) on February 2, 1870, grew up, and Quarry Farm is where the Twain family spent summers throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Mark Twain’s most productive years as a writer.
This is a photo of Mark Twain in 1903 sitting inside the octagonal study Olivia’s sister and brother-in-law built for him in 1874. It was situated on a knoll a short distance from the main house, and Twain loved this special writing space. The Twain study was subsequently (1952) moved to the Elmira College campus. It’s probably every writer’s dream to have a sanctuary like this where words can flow. And flow they did for Twain…old school, pen and paper!
My project while I’m here is “Mark Twain on Architecture.” Consider this passage from Life on the Mississippi where he ruminates on the Old Louisiana State Capitol on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge:
Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances….It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle with turrets and things…should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration money to the building of something genuine.
Mark Twain clearly felt this Gothic Revival “architectural falsehood” was inconsistent with the cultural landscape of the lower Mississippi Valley, and said so in his wonderfully unique prosaic style. In terms of architectural criticism, I think of Mark Twain as the Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House) of the Gilded Age. In fact, it should come as no surprise that someone as perceptive as Mark Twain would notice and comment on architecture insofar as the latter half of the nineteenth century was characterized by incredible diversity in building types and styles. Interesting stuff indeed!
It’s such a privilege to spend two weeks with Twain. Although I’m at Quarry Farm most of the time, I do pay my respects at Woodlawn Cemetery to the man who came in and went out with Halley’s Comet.