Where Tom and Huck actually came to life

Short Hop

March 31, 2002|By Hal Smith | Hal Smith,Special to the Sun

Almost a century after his death, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, remains one of our leading literary figures, still read not only by virtually every American student but by devoted fans all over the world.

If, for example, you can read Japanese, surf to the Web site of the Japan Mark Twain Society, where you will learn about the recent hot topic among Twainians: Ken Burns' four-hour film biography, broadcast in January on PBS.

What Burns convincingly did for the Civil War, he has now done for Twain.

After Burns' Civil War epic in 1990, Americans flocked to the battlefields. But Clemens, who began his literary career as a newspaper travel writer, was always a rover, and therefore only a handful of places can make a plausible claim on him as a favorite son. Those likely to see the largest boost in tourism this summer are Hannibal and Florida, Mo.; Hartford, Conn.; and Elmira, N.Y.

Hannibal, which has a sort of Twain mini-theme park of authentic 19th-century buildings, claims him because he spent his boyhood in the Mississippi River town; nearby Florida boasts the Birthplace Museum. Hartford claims him because he lived there with his family in a princely mansion as one of America's first celebrities, with Victorian literati as neighbors.

And Elmira claims him because Clemens spent 20 summers there on a hill farm where he could get away from adoring Eastern society and actually write the masterpieces that established him as the founder of American letters: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and others.

Elmira's star artifact is a tiny octagonal building called the Study, formerly an outbuilding on Clemens' in-laws' Quarry Farm, where he retreated from being, in his words, the "busiest white man in America."

After a breakfast of steak and coffee, he would walk 100 yards up the hill to his study, which is about 11 feet wide, with seven walls of large windows and a stone fireplace. From May through September, he would frequently write all day, inspired by a spectacular view of the Chemung River Valley.

When it was hot, he would weigh down the papers on his round writing table, open all the windows and scribble away as the pages fluttered in the wind. It was an inspirational vantage point from which to enjoy the distant hills in Pennsylvania and to watch storms roll into the valley.

"It is one of the quietest places, and we are hermits that eschew caves and live in the sun," Clemens wrote.

Today, furnished with Twain's milk-painted chairs and with much of the bubbly 19th-century glass still in its windows, the Study graces the attractive campus of Elmira College, which received it as a gift from the Langdon family in 1952.

Clemens' wife, Olivia Langdon, an alumna of the college, was the daughter of an Elmira coal magnate who helped establish it as the first institution to offer women a baccalaureate degree equivalent to men's. (Ever wonder why the basic four-year degree is still called a bachelor's?)

Fortunately for the college, the wealthy Langdon family was never seduced by Henry Ford's blank-check offer to buy the Study for his museum in Dearborn, Mich. But over the years, suburban sprawl brought the secluded farm, about three miles from campus, within easier reach of uninvited visitors.

Before the Study was moved, a few punk Hucks of the 20th century managed to carve their initials in the walls and on the writing table.

When Jervis Langdon Jr., Clemens' grand-nephew and a retired railroad president, gave Quarry Farm to the college in 1982, he stipulated that it be used solely for scholarly work. So now, if you want to snoop around in Mark Twain's summer retreat, which is still filled with family furniture and books, you'll have to take a graduate course, or tag along with a local civic club or school group on occasional historical programs.

Alternatively, you can attend a May, September or October lecture in the barn, free and open to the public, on Wednesday nights. The series is called "The Trouble Begins at Eight," named for the title Twain gave to his lecture tours.

With the gift of Quarry Farm, the college established the Center for Mark Twain Studies. In addition to a library for scholars, it maintains a small collection of artifacts and sells a good selection of Twain souvenirs which, strangely, are hard to find downtown.

Among the most offbeat items in the exhibit are two successful examples of Clemens' frequently failed forays as an entrepreneur. Mark Twain's Memory Builder is a game for retaining facts and dates, and his patented self-pasting scrapbook consisted of bound blank pages covered with an adhesive on which to press clippings, photos, etc. For a while the scrapbook, which sort of anticipated the Post-It note, yielded as much income as he ever made from a newspaper.

Memories, and a strip mall

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