Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The International Conference on Mark Twain Studies happens every four years at Elmira College. Hands down, the Elmira conferences have been the best-run conferences I've ever attended, all four times I've participated, beginning in 1997.
The sessions begin and end on time. The food is of gourmet quality served with wines from the nearby Finger Lakes region. The attendees are interesting, knowledgeable, fun-loving people with a common interest in Mark Twain.
During the 2009 conference, papers were presented by individuals from universities across the nation and as far away as Australia, including Canada, France, Japan, Germany, UK, Portugal, India, Fiji, and Israel. Several papers were presented by independent scholars, who have no university affiliation, just an abiding interest in all things Twain. Many attendees have written some of my favorite books about Sam Clemens / Mark Twain.

The first evening, we were treated to a wine-tasting and the viewing of an exhibit of Classics Illustrated (comic books) featuring Twain's works, followed by a champagne dinner and a performance of music popular in Twain's day.

On the second evening, the keynote speaker for the event was Russell Banks who spoke about his six degrees of separation from Mark Twain. Banks' wife, poet Chase Twichell, is a decendent of Mark Twain's friend, the Reverend Joe Twichell, who presided at Twain's wedding and funeral. Banks signed books afterward under a tent at the champagne reception where we were also served wonderful bite-sized desserts, from chocolate cheescake to fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate or white chocolate.

One of the highlights of the event was the appearance of Hal Holbrook who has played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens played Mark Twain. Holbrook performed his Mark Twain act for the first time in 1947. In March 1967, CBS broadcast his "Mark Twain Tonight" program. Many Twain scholars trace their interest in Twain to viewing that performance.

Richard Talbot said, "I walked up to Hal Holbrook and stuck out my hand. He took it in his and didn't let go. He said, 'What brings you here?'
"I said, 'When I was seventeen I saw you on TV, and I thought then that Mark Twain was a pretty funny fellow. After I'd grown I read him and found that he was singing a song that was already in my heart. From that day to this I've just wanted to hum along. And you sir, you were the first link in a very long I thank you.'
"He loosened his grip but only slightly. He had heard what I said. He didn't say a word. He just stared at me with those pale blue eyes. They suddenly grew red and tears formed on the rims. He placed his other hand across my forearm, swallowed hard and gave me a nod." (Richard Talbot sent this in an email message to members of the Mark Twain Forum after the conference.)

At age 84, Holbrook still travels to perform "Mark Twain Tonight" throughout the country. I caught his performances in Pittsburgh in the 1970's and again in May of 2007.
Holbrook said, "I think I would end up in a mental institution if I couldn't do this Mark Twain show. I get so angry about what's going on in the world, I can barely contain myself. And this show gives you the freedom to go out on stage and say exactly what you're feeling ---exactly what needs to be said [in Mark Twain's words.] It's tremendously cathartic." (from the abstract of Mark Dawidziak's presentation, "Mark Twain Tonight!, Today and Tomorrow: The Impact and Importance of Hal Holbrook's One-Man Show.")
After Dawidziak's presentation, Holbrook added, "We all know one thing. We need somebody to tell us the truth. Not twist it. Not make it their own territory. But to tell us the truth." (Thanks to K. Patrick Ober who transcribed this from the recording he made of Holbrook's remarks on his iPhone.)

The final night of the conference, we enjoyed a picnic at Quarry Farm, Twain's sister-in-law's home, where she built an octagonal study for Twain on a knoll above the farm house. (The study now rests on the Elmira campus.) Twain penned many of his greatest writings there while his family spent summers on the farm which rests high on a hill overlooking Elmira.
The picnic consisted of barbecued shrimp, chicken, and ribs, Portuguese rolls, various salads, baked beans, gingerbread, ice cream, wine, beer, or soft drinks, consumed under large tents behind the house. An Elmira student entertained us with piano jazz. On the front porch, various participants played guitar, banjo, violin and recorder for a sing-along. Before we returned to the Elmira campus, conference participants held their traditional ceremonial cigar smoke on the spot where Twain's study once stood. (See below for a link to comments made by Hal Holbrook.)

Each night, before retiring, participants held lively conversations at the Corn Pone Pub with a sing-along on the adjoining portico.

Although the conference was wonderful, I do have several complaints. There was too much food and it was way too delicious. My waistline is complaining about that. And now that the conference is over, I must wait four long years to attend the next one. Otherwise, the conference was sheer perfection.

* * * * *
John Bird walked up to many conference participants and asked the question, "Why do you work on Mark Twain?" The resulting video can be seen HERE. Read my own answer to this question HERE.

At the study sight where conference participants had their traditional cigar smoke, Hal Holbrook made impromptu comments about meeting Clara Clemens (Twain's daughter) and Isabel Lyon (his secretary) when Clara was elderly and in poor health. Find a fascinating audio recording of his comments HERE.
More impromtu remarks by Holbrook after a conference presentation can be found HERE along with some photos. 

I was thrilled to have both Hal Holbrook and Russell Banks sign my conference program.

(Except for excerpts from others which are noted in the text, ©2009, C.J. Peiffer)


Raven said...

Glad you had a good experience. I used to have the an LP album of Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight. Wish I still did.

CJ said...

Raven (and others)
The recording is still available from Amazon and I occasionally see one on eBay. I have one, but I no longer have turn table to play the record.