Walk in Mark Twain’s foot­steps


ELMIRA, N.Y. — Mark Twain trav­elled the world but he came back ev­ery sum­mer for 20 years to a farm owned by his wife’s fam­ily in up­state New York.

When Twain men­tioned he needed peace to write, his sis­terin-law and her hus­band built him a sep­a­rate study.

The study — an oc­tag­o­nal­shaped gazebo — stood 100 me­tres from the main house at his rel­a­tives’ Quarry Farm, on a knoll over­look­ing the Che­mung River Val­ley.

In 1952 the study was moved 3 km into down­town Elmira, onto the cam­pus of Elmira Col­lege. To­day visi­tors can stand — and sit — where Twain stood and sat as they con­jure up the im­age of the au­thor hard at work on, per­haps, The Ad­ven­tures of Tom Sawyer or A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court, just two of the many sto­ries he wrote there.

One piece of work that maybe, just maybe, he scrib­bled here was a draft of a chil­dren’s fa­ble he called Oleo­mar­garine. It never saw the light of day. But now, nearly 140 years later, that story has been fleshed out and will be pub­lished Sept. 26 — the 150th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of Twain’s first book, the 1867 col­lec­tion of short sto­ries The Cel­e­brated Jump­ing Frog of Calav­eras County and Other Sketches. (For more on the new book, see be­low.)

In the study there’s a brick fire­place and a writ­ing desk and a pic­ture of Mark Twain (born Sa­muel Cle­mens) over the man­tel.

No, we don’t know if he wrote his notes for Oleo­mar­garine here, but the Cen­ter for Mark Twain Stud­ies in Elmira tells us that, apart from Tom Sawyer and Con­necti­cut Yan­kee, men­tioned ear­lier, he wrote full books or ma­jor por­tions of The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn, The Prince and the Pau­per, Life on the Mis­sis­sippi, A Tramp Abroad and many short pieces here.

Twain called the gazebo “the loveli­est study you ever saw ... It is oc­tag­o­nal, each face filled with a spa­cious win­dow ... Imag­ine the lux­ury of it all.”

His wife Olivia was more mat­ter-of-fact. She loved it, she said, be­cause it kept Twain’s pipe and cigar smoke out of the main house.

In Cowles Hall of Elmira Col­lege, a short walk from the study, there is a fuller ex­hibit on Mark Twain, chron­i­cling his life (1835-1910) and his work as a Mis­sis­sippi river­boat pi­lot, re­porter in the Cal­i­for­nia and Ne­vada gold and sil­ver mines, au­thor, hu­mourist, travel writer and satirist. (He took his name from steam­boat jar­gon for depth of wa­ter, “Mark Twain” mean­ing two fath­oms or 12 feet.)

There’s a type­writer “sim­i­lar to Mark Twain’s first, circa 1875,” not­ing that he was one of the first au­thors to sub­mit his work in type­script.

There are a cou­ple of ci­gars in an ash­tray, with a note that he av­er­aged 40 ci­gars a day. No won­der wife Olivia wanted him out of the house for long pe­ri­ods!

And in one cor­ner there are crum­pled pages all over the floor, re­call­ing Twain’s dec­la­ra­tion of­ten that writ­ing was hard work.

Books, pho­to­graphs, his wicker chair, a straw hat, his walk­ing cane, a grand­fa­ther clock and a slide show on Quarry Farm over the years are also in the ex­hibit.


News re­ports say Twain in­vented a “richly imag­ined” tale he called Oleo­mar­garine to en­ter­tain his daugh­ters Susy and Clara while va­ca­tion­ing in Paris in 1879.

His notes on the story were found in 2011 in the Mark Twain Ar­chive at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and are now the foun­da­tion of a chil­dren’s fa­ble called The Pur­loin­ing of Prince Oleo­mar­garine. As noted, it de­buts Sept. 26 by Ran­dom House Kids.

Ran­dom House says chil­dren’s au­thor Philip Stead “has writ­ten a tale that imag­ines what might have been if Twain had fully re­al­ized this work.” The pub­lisher adds that the book, which is aimed at chil­dren 8 to 12 years, is “il­lu­mi­nated by Erin Stead’s grace­ful, hu­mor­ous, and achingly poignant art­work.”

The Guardian re­ports: “Al­though Twain told his young daugh­ters count­less bed­time sto­ries, it is be­lieved this is the only time he recorded one.”


Visit elmira.edu/pdfs/ Twain/twain-study-ex­hibit. pdf.

Elmira is in N.Y.’s Fin­ger Lakes, about 400 km from Toronto, via In­ter­states 90, 390 and 86. For in­for­ma­tion on travel to the area, see fin­ger­lakes­tourism.org.


A guide wel­comes visi­tors to Mark Twain’s oc­tag­o­nal study on the cam­pus of Elmira Col­lege. The New York writ­ing stu­dio was orig­i­nally built at Quarry Farm, where Twain and his wife Olivia spent their sum­mers. Twain loved his to­bacco and visi­tors of­ten leave ci­gars, inset, at his gravesite in Elmira’s Wood­lawn Ceme­tery.

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