Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mark Twain's Hannibal: The Clemens Conference


Last week (August 10-14) we launched our first scholarly conference here in Hannibal, the Clemens Conference. As Calvin and Hobbes  might say, the days were just packed. Everything about those days felt magical, starting with the weather. After the three-digit temperature heat wave we'd been experiencing, Mother Nature generously delivered perfect blue skies, cumulus clouds, temps in the low 80s during the day and high 60s at night, and the very breeze immortalized by poets. Luck was upon us, and everything else fell into line.

Henry Sweets offered a tour of Hannibal for early arrivals (and repeated the tour Sunday morning for those who missed the first one). Several carloads of folks took him up on his offer and formed a caravan touring Hannibal's historic and notable sites, such as Riverview Park, Lover's Leap, and Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Shoichi Nasu, Barb Snedecor, and John Pascal read the
tombstone of John Marshall Clemens, Sam's father
More scholars arrived Wednesday evening, as did Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Jerry Salley - our very special performers for last week's Music Under the Stars concert. We all met up that evening at the Museum Gallery for a wine reception and tour. Tom and Becky stopped in to perform their engagement scene, and the mood for magic was set.

The conference kicked off officially on Thursday morning. Twain scholars, seasoned and new, presented on a wide range of topics. Conversation was lively, and camaraderie seemed to be the word of the day. Longtime scholars were extremely supportive with those breaking fresh ground on Clemens.

Dr. Martin Zehr presents on Hannibal's influence upon young Sam
At last Dr. Barbara Snedecor, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, delivered her keynote on Livy. Most folks know that Olivia Langdon Clemens never accompanied her famous husband to his hometown on the three trips he made here after they were wed, so in many ways this felt as though Livy had finally made it to Hannibal. Barb's talk focused on a collection of letters written by Livy, offering new insight into this genteel, educated woman whom Sam Clemens adored.

Later in the week, Dr. Barbara Snedecor found work
as a cub pilot on the Mark Twain Riverboat

After a full day of excellent papers topped off with Barb's engaging talk, scholars moseyed downtown to enjoy Music Under the Stars, the Museum's signature summer program held every Thursday night in front of Sam's boyhood home. We enjoyed a rare treat with local singer/songwriter Murray McFarlane and T.C. Pierceall opening for Carl, Jerry, and Larry.  

Murray McFarlane and T.C. Pierceall warm up the crowd

A record crowd packed the mall area in front of the Boyhood Home, and the crowd soon learned this was to be no ordinary evening. After a flawless performance by Murray and T.C., the veteran songwriters took the stage and surprised the audience by playing ONLY their original compositions - many of them Number 1 hits. After a while Carl began talking about our new CD project, Mark Twain: Words & Music, and the audience went wild as the trio played several selections, including "Huck Finn Blues," which Carl co-wrote with conference participants Danny Wilson and Emily Hayes.  (Brad Paisley recorded the song for the CD.) And just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Carl sang "Comet Ride," a song he penned that tells the story of Sam Clemens coming into the world and later going out with Halley's Comet. No one seemed surprised when not one, but TWO, shooting stars fell from the sky behind the stage area, wowing the crowd with their uncanny timing. Yes, it was magical.

Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Jerry Salley
"Music Under the Stars" Nashville-style

A happy crowd in front of Sam's home

The trio from Nashville did not take a break and played an extra half hour. The crowd didn't budge and would likely still be there if the music had continued. After these first rate musicians packed up their instruments, they were still in the mood to play. We grabbed folks who were handy and made our way to the auditorium of the Museum Gallery. The jam session lasted until nearly 2:00 a.m. I even recorded Carl, Larry, and Jerry singing "Happy Birthday" for my sister, Becky, who lives in England.  (Thanks, guys!  She loved it!)
Henry Sweets IV, Larry Cordle, and Carl Jackson jamming
The conference continued on Friday with excellent sessions. Henry had planned a trip out to Sam's birthplace in Florida, Missouri that included a special side trip to Quarles Farm, the site where young Sam listened to stories told by Uncle Dan'l, an enslaved man owned by Uncle John Quarles. Like Hannibal, this is hallowed ground to all who love Mark Twain.

We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and adviser in “Uncle Dan’l”, a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile... I have not seen him for more than half a century and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time and have staged him in books under his own name and as “Jim”, and carted him all around—to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon—and he has endured it all with the friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright.

Owner of the site, Karen Hunt (far right) explains the archaeological
dig to Twain scholars. Karen is rebuilding the Quarles' farmhouse. 
Friday also included performances by award-winning author and storyteller Gladys Coggswell and Twain impersonator Jim Waddell. Gladys performed A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It, and Jim shared Civil War recollections.

Jerry Salley, Gladys Coggswell, and Carl Jackson
Glady performed as "Aunt Rachel" (Mary Ann Cord)
After a full day of scholarship, everyone was ready for some fun.

By-and-by someone shouted:

"Who's ready for the cave?"

Everybody was.  Bundles of candles were procured, and straightway there was a general scamper up the hill.  The mouth of the cave was up the hillside--an opening shaped like a letter A.  Its massive oaken door stood unbarred.  Within was a small chamber, chilly as an ice-house, and walled by Nature with solid limestone that was dewy with a cold sweat.  It was romantic and mysterious to stand here in the deep gloom and look out upon the green valley shining in the sun.

Everyone was ready for the cave.  Mark Twain Cave owner Linda Coleberd and manager Beau Hicks split the group in two and guided us on a custom-made tour from a Clemens perspective. Pat Ober has been researching Dr. McDowell's story and was elated to find himself in the actual chamber where the good doctor conducted his experiments. (True story: McDowell suspended his deceased 14-year old daughter in an alcohol solution in a copper and glass cylinder in the cave.  Creepy!) Scholars ooohed and aaahed and kept an eye out for young Sam's autograph, which to this day still hasn't been located. Talk about an enchanted evening. Church ain't shucks to a circus, and ballroom dancing ain't shucks to cave exploration.

Does anyone have a piece of kite string?
After the cave most everyone was ready to get some rest, but it turns out Jerry Salley had located some Hank Williams 78s that day and was itching to hear them. After a late night jamming the night before, it seemed fitting to sit up late and play the old classics. A houseful of friends - all we could gather on short notice - made their way up the hill to my place. We cranked the old Victrola and listened to Hank sing "Jambalaya" and other favorites. I pulled out a few of my favorites, too. (Confession: We listened to Gene Autry sing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and found ourselves in the Christmas spirit.) We were having too much fun to concern ourselves with the lateness of the hour.

Carl, Jerry, Cindy, and Larry
"SATURDAY morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life.  There was a song in every heart, and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips.  There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step.  The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air.  Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting."

Saturday was the last official day of the conference, and the beautiful weather stayed with us. Our venue was Hannibal-LaGrange University, and we heard many compliments about the campus as well as the dorms where most folks were staying. Scholars shared more papers, and we heard from Scott Teems and Laura Smith (director and producer) about their new project, a feature length documentary titled, "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey." Scott and Laura interviewed several Twain scholars during the conference and shot footage of Sam Clemens's Hannibal. We missed Hal, but Scott and Laura did a great job telling us about the progress of the documentary. We also heard from Dr. Robert Hirst, General Editor and Official Curator of the Mark Twain Project and Papers, University of California, Berkeley. Bob shared reminisces of his 44 years at the Project and talked about the upcoming volume 2 of the autobiography.

Dr. Robert Hirst shares his unique perspective and insights
Bob's keynote closed out the conference, but we still had to have our dinner, and where better than aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat on the Mississippi River. Captain Steve Terry indulged the scholars, letting them have a turn at the wheel.

The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down to 'look at the river.'

We cruised upon the muddy brown water, laughing, swapping yarns, Kodak'ing each other, and having a general good time.

Patti Philippon, curator at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut,
contemplates a career on the river.  (Mallory Howard, can you learn Patti the river?)
After a great meal and much too short cruise (was it really two hours?), happy passengers disembarked, some traipsing to Kerley's in the hopes John Bird (a regular there now) would play his mandolin, others sauntering Main Street toward the Boyhood Home for one last glimpse by moonlight. 

The full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens, now.

Although we had neglected to check the calendar, Luck was still with us and had fetched us a full moon for that lovely ride on the riverboat. And while some folks made their way back to their college dorm rooms for one last night, we are pretty confident that a few others straggled out to the graveyard, possibly with Tom and Huck and a dead cat in tow. (Rumor has it that warts aren't a problem in Hannibal.)

A full moon lit the Mississippi River and Hannibal-town

Two or three minutes later the murdered man, the blanketed corpse, the lidless coffin, and the open grave were under no inspection but the moon's.  The stillness was complete again, too.
Sunday morning brought the sadness of goodbyes with promises of "See you soon!" Scott Teems and Laura Smith stuck around with their crew to get some more footage for their documentary. Pam and Mike Ginsberg (owners of LulaBelle's) volunteered their pontoon boat and took the crew to Jackson's Island and other spots on the river. We can't wait for the film to come out (probably 2013 - let's hope for a screening at the Elmira conference) to see how much Hannibal footage makes it into the final cut.

Scott, Julien, Daniel, and Laura aboard the Ginsbergs' pontoon boat
We look forward to seeing all of the Twain scholars in Elmira in 2013 and back in Hannibal in 2015.  (But we'll certainly welcome you if you can come before that!)

So endeth this chronicle.  It being strictly a history of a conference, it must stop here...

A conference is only as good as its scholarship. We are deeply gratified that so many excellent papers were submitted. Special thanks to these Twain scholars for their fine presentations: Jeffrey Melton, Matthew Vercollone, John Bird, K. Patrick Ober, Martin Zehr, Dustin Zima, Barbara Snedecor, Debra Cochran, Nathaniel Williams, Ashley Ortiz, Ryo Waguri, Tim Jon Semmerling, Jenny A. Bucksbarg, John H. Davis, Debra MacComb, Jarrod Roark, James Wharton Leonard, John R. Pascal, Kotaro Nakagaki, Mark Valentine, and Robert Hirst.

Additional thanks to Kent Rasmussen for letting us read his upcoming book: Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers. We are still laughing.

Thanks for support from: Hannibal-LaGrange University, Linda Coleberd, the Mark Twain Cave, John Ravenscraft, the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Hannibal Arts Council, and Karen Hunt.

Final thanks to the behind-the-scenes folks who made this happen: Henry H. Sweets III, Ryan Murray, Mai Conrad, Dena Ellis, Nathan Hammock (at HLGU), Emily Hayes, and Danny Wilson.


  1. Where and when did Twain say or write that humor consisted of tragedy plus time, if indeed that ever happened?

  2. Jim, I can't verify that quote, but maybe someone else reading this will weigh in.

  3. That quote is one of many unattested remarks attributed to Mark Twain that has been repeated so many times people have stopped asking where it came from. Perhaps it comes from Woody Allen's film CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, in which Alan Alda's character says "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Mark Twain himself is known to have written "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven." This is from Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar in FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR.

  4. Thank you, Kent! (Jim, if you're not familiar with Kent's publications on Twain, they are extensive and accurate.)