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Twain's Summer Home: Visiting Elmira, N.Y.

A sign directs visitors to the Mark Twain family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y.
David Duprey
A sign directs visitors to the Mark Twain family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y.

Tuesday is the 175th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Clemens, the writer we know as Mark Twain. This year also marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn. And last month, 100 years after Twain's death, the world saw the publication of his official autobiography, a tome that has become so popular in recent weeks that bookstores cannot keep it in stock.

Fans of Twain may be surprised to learn that the author wrote Huck Finn -- along with his other classic works about life on the Mississippi -- in upstate New York, in a small writing cottage at his sister-in-law's summer home in Elmira. NPR made a pilgrimage to the site of Twain's brilliant writing life -- and to the place that the author is buried -- to learn the stories behind one of the satirist's favorite places.

The Writing Study -- Full Of Cats And Cigars

Quarry Farm overlooks the dairy country of the Chemung River Valley in the Finger Lakes District of western New York. In his letters, Twain called the Farm "the quietest of all quiet places." He described the view as "an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills." It was looking at this view that Twain wrote some of the most beloved works in American literature, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and The Prince and the Pauper.

But when Twain arrived in the sleepy New York town in 1868, he had not yet begun to write novels. He was already the well-known author of a book of travel writing (The Innocents Abroad) and had come to Elmira to court Olivia Langdon, the daughter of the richest man in town. When Twain and Langdon were married in 1870, they settled in Hartford, Conn., with their four children, but Twain continued to do most of his writing when he returned to Elmira to visit family every summer.

While in Elmira, Twain began writing his great works in a small study -- 12 feet across, with eight sides and a large window in each face -- built to mimic the pilot house of a riverboat. His tiny writing room was moved from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952. NPR observed the space with Twain scholar Michael Kiskis. "On this side and the other side, you'll see these little holes with grates over them," Kiskis described. "Those are the cat doors. He absolutely loved cats, and their company when he was writing in this building. You probably know he smoked a lot. He averaged between 30 and 40 cigars a day. So you gotta think of smoke, and cats and lots of paper, and breezes coming through."

'A Real Chance To Put Down Roots'

Twain was not a solitary man when he stayed in Elmira -- although he had traveled across the country after leaving his rural Missouri hometown and gone to such far-flung places as Hawaii, Europe and the Middle East, the attraction to Elmira was the stable family environment and many personal connections.

"He'd been such a vagabond in the years between 17 and 30 -- this gave him a real chance to put down roots," says Kiskis. "To be kind of hugged by a big family. And I think he really appreciated that. If you look at the major novels that frame his career, look how many of them deal with questions of family."

Twain's Resting Place

Elmira provided Twain with such strong ties that the town also represented the end of his family. The author is buried on a hill at Woodlawn Cemetery there, along with his wife, all of his children and his only grandchild, who had no children. The gravestones tell a sad story -- his son Langdon died as an infant. His daughter Suzy died when she was 24 of spinal meningitis; his wife died when she was 58; and his daughter Jean, an epileptic, died at age 29, when she drowned in her bathtub on Christmas Eve.

It was this family sadness that ultimately drew Twain away from Elmira -- he could not return after Suzy's death in 1896. His final summer homecoming to the town where he composed so many masterpieces came when he was laid to rest, 100 years ago.

It was a beloved place for the writer who captured America so clearly. In writing about the Chemung River, which he would view from his rocking chair each summer night, Twain summed up his feelings about Elmira: "Once or twice each night, we'd see a Steamboat slipping along in the dark. And every now and again, she'd belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimney. And they would rain down in the river. And look awful pretty."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale