Twain Under the Farm Spell
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
Readers like to imagine Sam Clemens as a comic senior statesman and razor wit, parading about in a white suit, with a matching shock of white hair and abundant mustache, tossing droll quips and stories into the thick of a chortling audience. Performing and soaking in the adulation of both gentry and hoi-polloi at home, and of crowned heads and adoring multitudes abroad. But of course this was a persona he carefully crafted and publicly lived — this Mark Twain with the cigar and cap of a river pilot, tilting at the gaudy whirling windmills of his day with deadly aim and an unbounded but pokerfaced glee.
But in his greatest works — Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn — Twain offered a contrast and tension between town and countryside, between the web of deals and cons and bustle of activity that the modern world would call decidedly urban, and the hard-scrabble but quiet and ultimately nourishing living on farms.
There were four farms that touched Sam Clemens, rural locales that sustained and helped mold him, that reached from his beginnings through the decades of his greatest creative efforts. Two of them were real working farms, and two were mythical, even imaginary, although real influences even so.
The first was imaginary but in place before he arrived, an investment Sam’s father made mostly before his birth. John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847) made a series of purchases of land in eastern Tennessee that in time amounted to 70,000 acres, that he bought for a total of roughly $400. About 100 miles from Knoxville, in Fentress County, the land on the face of it may have seemed a savvy investment. Over 109 square miles, that cost him 6/10ths of a cent an acre, mostly poor and hilly and wooded, hardscrabble land that produced no income and lay untouched into the 1870s. John Marshall Clemens was a young practicing lawyer and shopkeeper with an aloof and unapproachable demeanor. Somehow between the two professions he always had trouble scraping together a living. Yet he expected the land to provide for his family in the years to come. In his vision the country would sooner or later be overrun with immigrants who would need land for homesteads and livelihoods. Young Sam’s earliest memories include his father’s imaginings about how this land would make them rich. As Twain’s Autobiography reports, his father had said: “Whatever befalls me, my heirs are secure; I shall not live to see these acres turn to silver and gold, but my children will.” There followed Sam’s conclusions: “Thus, with the very kindest intentions in the world toward us, he laid the heavy curse of prospective wealth upon our shoulders. He went to his grave in the full belief that he had done us a kindness. It was a woeful mistake, but fortunately he never knew it.” The family’s pius tradition was that John Marshall Clemens made them swear on his deathbed that they would never sell the land. When he died unexpectedly of pneumonia in March of 1847, Sam was eleven. The boy promptly quit school to be an errand boy and apprentice typesetter, to provide income to help keep the family going.
When the family eventually tried to sell the land (Sam was still paying the taxes on the Tennessee land through the 1870s, and was still trying to sell the last of it in 1882), they found a tangle of faulty surveys and conflicting deeds. The Clemens family’s mixed blessing on this Tennessee land was not an uncommon predicament. The buying and selling of land in the first century of the American experiment entailed considerable risk of carelessness and duplicity in the surveying, deeding and transfer. Many land parcels lay unoccupied and unworked in the back country, so that the same land might be sold several times over, often used as collateral, with an unhappy surprise waiting to be discovered years later, to be settled in the courts. Abraham Lincoln’s father Thomas moved his family twice due to disputes over confused or fraudulent deeds, on farms in both Kentucky and Indiana. One of the reasons later immigrants to the western states so readily bought land from the railroads was that at least their surveyors were trusted. Prospective buyers learned the hard way, after building, fencing and planting, then being run off by the sheriff, that they needed to know they would receive a clear and uncontested title to the land they bought.
The young Clemens family had moved west from Kentucky to Florida, Missouri, arriving just in time for Sam to be born, on November 30, 1835. Jane Clemens had followed her sister Patsy Quarles and her family west, after the Quarles family had come to Florida the previous year and their glowing letters spoke of the region’s positive opportunities. Here Sam was to experience the first real farm of his life. His mother’s sister Patsy had married John Quarles, and it was their farm that Sam visited throughout his earliest years. Even after the Clemens family moved a dozen miles away to the larger river town of Hannibal, the Quarles farm was where he spent summers, between the ages of 7 and 12, with visits into his 20s. John Quarles had set up a general store in the tiny but promising hamlet of Florida, but also had a farm several miles outside town. The farm included an orchard, with hickory and black walnut trees, and tobacco and corn fields. The farm had a double log cabin, two identical buildings with a planked and covered breezeway between, where the table would be set for summer meals. It was here that the children got to know the rural facts of life, about cash crops and sustenance, tobacco and corn, chickens, cattle and hogs, which also included a fairly benign introduction to slavery. As Twain wrote in his Autobiography, “It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for the (black) race and my appreciation of its fine qualities.” This appreciation was honed on the nightly storytelling of Uncle Dan’l, the patriarch of the slaves on the place. Both children and grownups would gather for his tales, many of which had become favorites the little ones would demand by name. Twain was to credit this man for much of his success as a storyteller, and his warm and wise nature was the model for Jim, the runaway slave who befriends Huck in Huckleberry Finn.
But now we need to leap over some of Clemens’ most formative years, past his father’s struggles with business and his untimely death, past Clemens’ brief and colorful career as a riverboat pilot, his travels west to avoid the Civil War and explore frontier towns and Gold Rush mining camps, culminating in the discovery and refinement of his skills as a comic writer, storyteller and public performer in San Francisco. The third farm was to be another largely imaginary affair, where Twain settled after wooing and marrying Olivia Langdon in 1870. Olivia was the protected daughter of a wealthy family who after initial skepticism took Sam Clemens to their bosom. The newlyweds were first given a house in Buffalo, New York by Olivia’s wealthy father, which dovetailed with a one-third interest Twain purchased in the Buffalo Express. But within a year he had lost interest in the newspaper, and after the death of Twain’s father-in-law Jervis Langdon, he sold both the house and the newspaper investment, and moved to Hartford, to be closer to Olivia’s widowed mother and her family. They rented a house in a Hartford neighborhood known as Nook Farm, which had been a farm but was now a gathering of genteel residences, the Victorian equivalent of a wealthy suburb. The house they rented from the Hooker family was quickly nicknamed Nook Barn, although there was nothing particularly nook-like or farm-like about it. By now Twain was on display as a well-known writer and public figure, at the heart of a prosperous and socially ambitious community. It was here that the Clemens family settled, bought land and began construction of a show place on Farmington Avenue. One of his near neighbors was Charles Dudley Warner, the scholarly friend who would co-author Twain’s satiric first novel, The Gilded Age, the two of them writing alternative chapters. The educated and influential society Twain collected around him fed his ego, and helped him hue to the attributes of a loving husband and parent, but couldn’t help but cramp his writing style. The irreverent rascal and social critic that lay at the core of his best writing needed room and solitude to ferment, then let the words flow.
Then in the summer of 1872 he and his family went to spend the warm months with his widowed mother-in-law and her family in Elmira, New York. In particular Twain and Olivia were drawn to her adopted sister Susan Crane and her husband Theodore Crane, who had been Jervis Langdon’s office manager and head clerk. From her father, Susan had inherited a working dairy farm in the hills overlooking Elmira, called Quarry Farm, for the abandoned stone quarry on its high ground. There the busy distracting world could be kept at bay, and frail Olivia could receive welcome help caring for her young children. Following that first summer, for the next 18 years Twain and his family returned every year to spend as much time as they could with the Cranes. The Cranes soon remodeled their house, adding more bedrooms and space for their regular visitors, and in 1874 Susan had an octagonal studio built for Twain. Designed to resemble the pilothouse on a steamboat, it was situated up a fieldstone path two hundred yards from the house, on high ground with a commanding view of Elmira and the green hills all around. There the writer would retreat after a light breakfast, and work through the day, routinely skipping lunch, though he smoked an average of 18 and occasionally as many as 30 cigars a day, of the cheap brand he favored, away from disapproving womenfolk. Then late in the day he would come downhill for supper and time with the little ones. The Cranes seemed to offer the Clemens family just the right balance of attention, affection, protection, space and privacy, which allowed Twain to get much of his best work done. It was at the pilothouse on Quarry Farm that he was to complete Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old (1875), Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884-5), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and the Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Huckleberry Finn was to prove a watershed in Twain’s life and work, and writing it called for all the resources of his Quarry Farm retreat. As with Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, he hit a bump midway through the book that forced him to set it aside. He worked on the book for parts of seven years, and at one point for over a year he turned to other, lesser projects. The writer could not get past a self-imposed hurdle, which occurs when the steamboat runs over the raft in the dark, at the end of Chapter 16. Huck and Jim are separated, and get stuck ashore in the hellish crossfire between two feuding rural Kentucky clans. What happened to Twain? Maybe the story just got too dark and bloody, too serious for a comedy about village outcasts on the run. But when he was able to get back to work at Quarry Farm the following summer, he rediscovered the raft out the other side of the mayhem of the feud, and reunited the two fugitives. The beginning of Chapter 19 offers the most idyllic passage in the book, with the days and nights on the raft seeming to open out into an almost heavenly panorama, as “they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely.” The pair tie up in the daytime and run down the river in the dark, though always potentially deeper into trouble, deeper into the slave states of the South, as always both lulled and seduced by the irresistible draw of the river. Yet Twain’s instinct unerringly led him to make the story darker and more menacing to Huck and Jim, with the entry of the King and the Duke. These parasitic conmen will finally steer the story away from the river, and run it aground. Ashore Huck will be forced to revert to the childish, bookish games of Tom Sawyer, that trivialize and dismiss what had really been at stake for the two fugitive friends.
And beyond that book Twain slowly moved on, to another, more overtly dark treatise, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s mind was endlessly fascinated by inventions, by the burgeoning technology of his day. His greatest failure as a provider was on a par with his father’s dream of the Tennessee land, when he risked nearly everything on an investment in a typesetting machine. Publishing was a business he fancied he knew all about, as journeyman printer, then as writer and publisher, and he was excited by the possibilities of the Page Typesetting machine, and kept pouring good money after bad until there was nothing left.
Which led him back to the lecture tour to raise money. In his life Twain travels like Huck does, bedeviled by qualms and guilty purposes, never quite at ease where he is, except on the raft where he can invisibly slip past trouble. It is telling that Twain never went back to his job as a riverboat pilot after the Civil War. His excuse was that he would have to relearn the river, which after all would have changed immeasurably in his years away from it. But it was in part an admission to himself that he might never have been all that good at it, and was meant for other pursuits anyhow.
Which never included farming. Idyllic as the setting was, we shouldn’t imagine Twain milking cows on Quarry Farm every summer. Though he liked dogs and kittens, he was no son of the soil. Seeking more regular exercise at Quarry Farm in the summer of 1884 he tried to learn how to ride a bicycle, of the high-front-wheel style then popular, but after one hard crash he thought better of it. As he said, the farm’s hills were too “long & steep” for such contraptions.
Maybe he just needed the “farm” notion somehow linked to his lifelong enterprise. It is clear that the rural setting and repose offered at Quarry Farm allowed him the freedom to invent, spin out and revise his tales. Some critics have accused him of allowing his readers to indulge in nostalgia, a yearning for times past, but that dismissal is too easy and inexact. Twain had a fierce countervailing urge to never allow readers to conveniently whitewash their remembered history. The linked stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are set in a quintessentially American village modeled on Hannibal, Missouri, not set in some idyllic distant time, but in a hard time he knew well, where slavery still reigned, where life was often short, uncertain and violent. It was a world of dubious law and order, where mobs for better and worse might hold momentary sway, where hucksters and conmen like the King and the Duke preyed on the innocent and gullible.
Twain’s lifetime was one of dizzying change. In 1840, when he was five years old, the country’s total population was 17, 063, 353, in 26 states, of which 10.8% was urban (defined by the Census as living in places with 2,500 or more inhabitants), and 89.2% was rural. By the time he died in 1910, the population had grown to 92,228,496, with 45.6% urban and 54.4% rural. In the spring of 1882 in order to stir up his memories for his two stalled projects, Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn, Twain took a riverboat tour of the Mississippi River, from St. Louis south to New Orleans, then north to Minneapolis / Saint Paul. He mentions the clamor and noise of the trains, their triumphant whistles all along the great river. By comparison to when he had been a riverboat pilot (1858-1861), the Mississippi and its tributaries had since become a sleepy commercial backwater. When Twain was young, steamboats on the Mississippi had been the main tool in opening and developing the frontier, settling and knitting up the country’s heartland.
Students of American literature have reason to be thankful to Susan and Ted Crane for the steadfast offer of a summer retreat to Mark Twain and his family on their farm, for the long and illustrious list of works he completed there. Mark Twain’s genius was as a homespun humorist, both on the page and in person. Though the trappings of success and his wife’s family drew him inevitably into the circles of the wealthy and powerful, he was to feel a lifelong affinity for the low frontier life he came from, and always at heart remained a playful social critic who could skewer hypocrisy and cant in all its forms. The Quarry Farm buildings outside Elmira are now open as a museum, and the octagonal pilothouse where Twain wrote has been moved to the grounds of Elmira College, where visitors are welcome. The place probably still smells faintly of those endless cheap cigars.