If Samuel Clemens had lived a little longer he might have had his own radio show. As Mark Twain he was a prolific writer and a delightful performer, one of the most popular speakers of his time on the world’s lecture circuits. He also had an interest in adopting new technology, such as the typewriter. But he died in 1910 and though there is not even a recording of his voice that we can play (Thomas Edison did record Twain but the recording was destroyed in a fire) there is an abundance of literature from “The Prince and the Pauper” to “The Diary of Adam and Eve”. There is even autobiographical writing that Mark Twain himself intended to be released only now, on the 100th anniversary of his passing. So the centennial of Mark Twain’s death is being widely observed, nowhere more enthusiastically than in Elmira, NY.
Elmira stands alongside Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, MO and his residence in Hartford, CT as one of the places the widely-traveled writer called home. He felt it was his favorite spot on Earth. His wife, Olivia “Livy” Langdon was from Elmira and for twenty years they spent the summer at Quarry Farm, the home of Livy’s sister and brother-in-law. In a small octagonal “study” built for him a short distance up the hill from the house, Mark Twain did some of his most important writing, including “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”. The farm is now owned by Elmira College and is part of the college’s Center for Mark Twain Studies. The small writing room was moved to the college campus in 1952.
There have been observances throughout the Southern Tier’s Mark Twain Country, ranging from the dedication of a nature trail in Big Flats to a full-scale reenactment of Samuel Clemens’s 1910 funeral at Woodlawn Cemetary. The Kroch Library at Cornell University is presenting a major display of Mark Twain papers and artifacts through October 8th. Elmira College continues its perennial Twain lecture series, presented under the title the humorist himself coined for his first public lectures, “The Trouble Begins at 8.”
OFF THE PAGE joins in the Twain centennial in Elmira with a program that opens at Mark Twain’s Study, with Barbara Snedecor, the director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, describing the writer’s working habits. We also hear from actor Hal Holbrook, who returned to Elmira to perform his acclaimed “Mark Twain Tonight” at the Clemens Center on April 21st, the anniversary of the death of Samuel Clemens.
However, most of the program was recorded on the porch at the Victorian-era house at Quarry Farm, the spot where Twain would gather friends and family to share his most recent writing. To discuss Mark Twain’s ties to Elmira, his writing and his personal beliefs, two of America’s leading Twain scholars joined an audience on the porch.
Dr. Michael Kiskis is the Leonard Tydings Grant Professor of American Literature at Elmira College. He is the editor of “Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography”, drawn from Twain’s articles in the North American Review early in the 20th century.
Dr. Ann Ryan is professor and chair of English at LeMoyne College in Syracuse and editor of “The Mark Twain Annual”. Both she and Professor Kiskis have served as presidents of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
Interest in Mark Twain’s life has flowered with the centennial of his death because the day has arrived when his complete autobiographical papers will be opened. Some 5,000 pages of dictated comments were donated by Clemens’ daughter to the University of California at Berkeley and, in accord with the author’s wishes, were not to be available until now. It became the surprise best-seller of 2010. The publication has drawn some sensationalistic curiosity, but according to Michael Kiskis — who had an early opportunity to examine the papers — “You’ll probably learn that he was not always brilliant, that there are huge sections of this material that are absolutely going to bore you tears.” And Dr. Kiskis adds that “even his railing at God that is part of this manuscript, we will read that today and say ‘what is the big deal? Why was he so worried about having this stuff come out?'” But there will also be much of value in the Twain papers, and Dr. Ryan comments, “There are moments in this collection where Twain opens up to speak in what feels like an uncensored voice; he’s devoid of irony and sarcasm.”