Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Looking for Mark Twain

By Paul Gerald

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Sometimes trips grow out of the strangest of moments. For Halloween last year, I dressed up as Mark Twain. I was talking to Shaggy, from Scooby-Doo, and I told him I was going to make a trip to the northeast. Shaggy said, “Dude, you should go to Elmira, New York. There’s a whole Mark Twain scene there, and he’s even buried there.”

I’ve launched journeys on far less than that, so I went through Elmira to look for Mark Twain. He came from Hannibal, Missouri, and lived primarily in Hartford, Connecticut, (in a house modeled after a steamboat) but his summer home was in Elmira. He did much of his writing there, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in a study above the house, and many a famous photo was taken of him sitting on the front porch there, smoking a pipe. He’s buried in Elmira in his wife’s family plot. “Hannibal and Hartford claim Twain as their own,” my host in Elmira told me. “But we’ve got the body.”

We started our tour of “Mark Twain Country,” as the signs all over town declare it, by driving up the hill to the house. Along the way, we passed concrete watering troughs that Twain had built for his horses, each one bearing one of his children’s names on it. The house itself stayed in the Langdon family (Twain’s wife was a Langdon, and they’re still all over Elmira) for years until it was donated to Elmira College.

Mark Twain’s octagonal study has been moved from its original location to the campus of the local college.
Photo by Paul Gerald

All the furnishings and books are original – even the chairs on the front porch – but unfortunately the college doesn’t let the general public in. In fact, they’re downright uptight about it: Even my host, a professor there for over 26 years, couldn’t get us in. It’s reserved as a living and working space for Twain scholars, but occasional talks are given there, and on those days the house opens up to visitors. So if you plan on making your own Mark Twain pilgrimage, call ahead and schedule it around a talk.

Our next stop was Twain’s study, which used to be up by the house but was moved down to the college campus in town. It’s octagonal, about three paces wide, with windows on all sides, a small fireplace, a table, and two chairs. What more does a writer need, aside from a day job? These furnishings are original, too. It’s an awesome thing to lay your hands on the table at which Huckleberry Finn was written. There’s a photo on the wall of Twain sitting in a chair by the fireplace, and right there by the fireplace is the very same chair.

We passed a church that my host said Twain went to, “at least when he went to church, which wasn’t often.” The family’s townhouse, a lovely old Langdon-family Victorian, was right across the street, but now it’s a strip mall.

Finally, we went to his gravesite to pay our respects. He’s buried in a fairly simple cemetery, not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as Elmwood in Memphis. Other famous “inhabitants” include Ernie Davis, who won the Heisman Trophy at Syracuse, and Hal Roach, the filmmaker who gave the world the Little Rascals.

Twain’s grave is a simple one, with just the name and dates. Next to him are his wife and all four of his kids. It’s sad to read the dates, since Twain outlived his wife and three of his children. One odd thing about the grave is that there’s this big pillar with his face etched in it, and the word “Twain.” But right underneath that is some other guy who nobody’s ever heard of. It took us a minute or so of scanning the graves to figure it out, but this character turned out to be the fellow who married Twain’s lone surviving daughter. It seemed a bit precocious to have him up there with America’s greatest writer, but I’ll assume that the daughter put it there to honor her husband and her father together. I hope it wasn’t her husband’s idea.

The cemetery is sort of interesting on its own, because part of it is a national cemetery. There was a POW camp in Elmira during the Civil War, so there are lots of Southern folk buried there, but of course they’re separate from the Yankees. There are even people who died in the French and Indian War there, so the place goes back a ways.

The thing I remember most about Twain in Elmira is that there was an odd sense that he was still around, or at least that he hadn’t been gone for long. There are still a couple of people around who knew him, for example. One is a woman in her 90s who can remember when her mom used to work at the house and would take her along. She says she remembered sitting in Twain’s lap while he told her and the other kids stories. For what it’s worth, I also saw a Mark Twain Laundry, a Mark Twain Deli, and a Clemens Square. Kids playing baseball in Elmira graduate from the Huck Finn League to the Mark Twain League.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of local history: Tommy Hilfiger, the clothes guy, is from Elmira. And you can tour the factory where they make Steuben Glass up the road in Corning. I thought I should get that in.

There’s plenty of other great stuff to do in that part of New York, and I’ll spend the next couple of columns telling you about them.

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