When I reviewed Mark Twain and Youth, edited by Kevin MacDonnell and Kent Rasmussen, for the Irish Journal of American Studies I never anticipated that it would lead to an invitation from those editors to attend their quadrennial conference on the “State of Mark Twain Studies: The Assault of Laughter”, August 3-5 2017. Attendance at this conference was, in truth, a privilege. As one speaker stated, for anyone who has written on the work of Mark Twain, or used Twain’s writing to support their own argument, this conference “was like being in a room filled with your bibliography”. Recent Twain scholars and those analysing his work for decades descended upon Elmira College this past August and proved that Twain is as relevant in the 21st century as he was in the 19th. As the conference title suggests Twain and laughter predominated at the many parallel seminars. However, in a manner similar to Twain’s own work, the humour tended to reflect the U.S. political world, and this idea seemed paramount to most of the significant discussions that weekend. Comparisons between Twain’s challenging argument during the Spanish-American War (1898), Philippine–American War (1899-1902) and the present-day volatile situation were noticeably at the root of many presentations. While the session “Twain, Politics, and the Power(lessness)of Satire” was of direct interest to me, nearly all the panels had a section addressing the present-day U. S. political agenda.
While Twain’s political voice is the one I most often listen for, I was invited to Elmira to discuss any connections the iconic American writer may have had with Ireland. To that end I had done some research on possible links between the author and the place, and found an intriguing lead which I shared with the editors of The Mark Twain Journal. Their very positive response to my proposal leads me to hope that they will look favourably on my article when I submit it for their next edition. While at the conference I had the opportunity to access Elmira College library, complete with their extensive Mark Twain Archives. I also visited Mark Twain’s Study which has been relocated to Elmira College from its original location near Quarry Farm. Quarry Farm, Twain’s summer home where the author wrote much of his important work, was the location of the festivities on the final evening of the conference. While we were at the farm the conference organisers suggested that I promote their “Quarry Farm Fellowships” to scholars working on Mark Twain related research in both Ireland and Europe. These fellowships allow for a unique academic opportunity. They provide the scholar with the ability to visit and work in an appropriate and most stimulating atmosphere, one which allows the researcher to benefit greatly from both the archival richness available at Elmira College and the motivating atmosphere offered at Quarry Farm. For further information on the application process visit: http://marktwainstudies.com/2018-quarry-farm-fellowships/
Although Twain was, and still is, particularly noted for his humour, there were many humourists during his lifetime who have not remained in the public consciousness. Twain, it would appear from the papers presented, remains such an important figure to twenty-first century American scholars because his wit and commentary was primarily focused on American politics and policy. I had the good fortune to meet and discuss this premise with retired U.S. Ambassador, Donald Bliss, author of Mark Twain’s Tale of Today. Bliss’s forbearers were Mark Twain’s publishers and this is where his original interest in the author began, however, his experience in Washington politics made Twain’s voice resonate for him during his long career. This combination made his work on Twain of great interest to me. Bliss’s presentation at Elmira offered a candid attempt to employ Twain’s commentary to help explain the Trump presidency. Bliss spoke with me later and took a great interest in my own work on Post-9/11 American literature. He encouraged me to apply Mark Twain’s philosophy to my own area of interest and present it at the next conference to be held at the “Mark Twain Boyhood Home” in Hannibal Missouri in 2019. His invitation was seconded by the Executive Director of that project, Henry Sweets.
Overall, my experience at the Elmira Conference was one of the most positive of my time as a researcher. I networked and became familiar with many people in both academia and publishing whom I feel confident would be happy to connect with me again, and more than happy to engage with other IAAS scholars. Personally, it has motivated me to rethink my approach to American novelists and how they engage with U.S. politics in their writing. It has also prompted me to consider restructuring my previous work for publication in-light of the recent changes in the political atmosphere in the United States. I want to express my gratitude to the Irish Association for American Studies for their generous bursary and to the Irish Journal of American Studies for publishing my review of Mark Twain and Youth, a small piece of work that made this great trip possible.