I first liked Samuel Langhorne Clemens, “Mark Twain,” when at age twelve, I wrote a book report on Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). As an early adolescent, I thrilled to the adventures of the knights of Camelot and the protagonist Hank, transported back in time from the 19th century. Perhaps overzealously, I gloried in the gore as Hank and his cadets destroyed a force of 30,000 soldiers sent by the Catholic Church into Hank’s fortress defended by Gatling guns, electric wire and minefields.¹
Years later, when teaching Connecticut Yankee to engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I realized the novel critiques European imperialism in which the “civilized” conquer the “superstitious backward,” and the gore was meant to be more sickening than glorious. I saw how Twain can work on multiple levels for multiple audiences.
Over the past few years, I have been periodically working through the 58 compact disk’s from Twain’s three volume autobiography, running 74 hours and covering 2298 pages. (Held at the Brighton Memorial Library.)
Every time the task feels too herculean, I fall back into Twain’s hypnotic patter as he takes us from failed Gold Rushes to international globetrotting to co-writing the memoirs of a president to the anguish of the death of children.
Today, George Cassidy Payne takes us to Woodlawn Cemetery near a little cottage on Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY overlooking the Chemung River Valley. At Quarry Farm, amongst other works, Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.²
Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY.
Although Twain is best known all over the world for his first hand accounts and memorable depictions of the Mississippi River, for 20 summers, he wrote novels from a little cottage on Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY. Like so many others who find this fact out, I was surprised to learn that Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-arguably the greatest American novel-less than a two hour drive away from Rochester! It was from this old cottage (now part of Elmira College) that his imagination could soar unabated. While having the peace and quiet needed to put his creations on paper, during these years, overlooking the stunning Chemung River Valley, Twain thrived as an artist. (The studio was only 12 feet in diameter, with a peaked roof, spacious windows, and a stone fireplace.)
Naturally, Twain was critical of the town’s idiosyncrasies. But he relished the rural tranquility and gentile urbanity of Elmira. As I understand it, he often used the townspeople to not just spark new ideas, but to experiment with those ideas in real time — even on inmates at the prison. Ever the professional satirist, it males sense that Twain would want to try his ideas out on the hardest and most honest audiences that he could find. In Elmira, he came to learn — both inside and outside of the prison — there was a rich stock of hardened and curious individuals to try out his fresh material.
Still, I am slightly bewildered by the fact Twain ended up here and not somewhere else. He had become famous for his residencies in other world renown cities and mythic locales such as Hannibal, Mississippi; yet, it was in a quaint, relatively insignificant upstate New York town that Twain would be buried. Why? Outside of familial and marital associations with this land, why Elmira?
I don’t know if anyone will ever know the answer to that question. I don’t think Twain did either. In fact, I think his time in Elmira somewhat puzzled the famous novelist. He wasn’t sure why fate had directed him to that farm, and he sure didn’t know how the adventures of his characters could be dreamed into reality while living a thousand miles away from the great river he was born on in Florida, Missouri in 1835. Perhaps that is why he would say something like, “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.”
Although he was writing some of these incredible stories in Elmira, his mind was someplace else. All he needed was the sonic backdrop of the farm and the daily routines of a life well serviced, and the rest he could invent on his own. He got peace and tranquility in abundance at Quarry Farm. The result was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, and a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Actually going to the gravesite, as I was soon to find out, answers one question at least. Woodlawn Cemetery may be an unlikely endpoint for such a celebrated figure of American culture, but it is one of the most beautiful that I have ever been to. As a final resting place, it is as good as any other that I can think of. And for the man who once said, “What is human life? The first third a good time; the rest remembering about it,” Woodlawn is a very good place indeed to remember someone who was unforgettable.¹
Text and photography by George Cassidy Payne
*Quotes taken from The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotations by Dover Publications, Inc.
The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.
— From a Twain cablegram
The human race consists of the dangerously insane and such as are not.
My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. –A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
¹ Mark Twain almost spoke in Rochester in 1902. As described in Mark Twain Comes to Rochester (Rochester Public Library/Local History & Genealogy Division), Twain was scheduled to be one of the featured speakers at the Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s 15th Annual Dinner at Colonial Hall on December 18th, 1902. Twain was to offer a speech entitled “The Why and Wherefore.”
Unfortunately, Twain cancelled at the last minute due to his wife’s illness. The illustrious audience included George W. Rafter, Henry Lomb, and Rush Rhees. (The RPL article is actually in error in reporting that Twain was able to attend the dinner.)
² Recently, I have been investigating if Twain’s depiction of the slaughter of the 30,000 knights by a handful of Hank’s technologized cadets was influenced by the Anglo-Zulu Wars that began in 1874. The decades long conflict pitted modernly equipped British imperial soldiers against Zulu warriors who often only had spears. For example, at the battle of Rourke’s Drift (1879) just over 150 British and colonial troops armed with the modern Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and 7-pounder (3-inch, 76 mm) mountain guns as well as a Hale rocket battery defeated attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The scene is almost evoked in A Connecticut Yankee with its imagery of superior military technology. By the 1889 publication of Yankee, Twain was an avowed anti imperialist who may have drawn for images of imperial carnage rife in the discourse of his times. Cosmopalitan Twain(edited by Ann M. Ryan, Joseph B. McCullough) describes Twain’s fascination with debates about the course of the British Empire, especially in South Africa. Twain was in London during the battle of Rourke’s Drift.