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A hundred and 75 years ago today, Samuel Clemens was born. He's better known to readers as Mark Twain. This year also marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, "Huckleberry Finn." That book, like much of Twain's best work, focuses on life along the Mississippi River. But as Tom Vitale reports, it was largely written far from the Mississippi, in upstate New York.
TOM VITALE: In 1874, Mark Twains sister-in-law, Susan Crane, built him a writing cottage on Quarry Farm, her summer home in Elmira, New York.
Today, the farm is a residence for visiting scholars, run by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. The centers director, Barb Snedecor, says Twain followed the same writing routine here for 20 summers.
Ms. BARB SNEDECOR (Director, Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College): Every morning after breakfast, hed trudge across this front lawn, just as were doing now, heading over to the stone steps that Susan Crane placed in the hillside. The smell of the woods, and the birds, and just the beautiful foliage -that was part of what he knew and loved.
VITALE: When he got to the top of that hill, a hundred yards above the house, Twain went into his study and wrote - from 8:30 in the morning until 5 in the evening, without a break.
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.
Ms. SNEDECOR: And most Mark Twain biographers think that Samuel Clemens enjoying the beautiful view, the peace and tranquility, and looking at that river - that helped him remember his boyhood in Missouri along the Mississippi River.
VITALE: The books Twain wrote in Elmira are among the most beloved in American literature, including "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Life on the Mississippi," "The Prince and the Pauper" and "Huckleberry Finn," performed here by Hal Holbrook.
Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (Reading) Jim and me, we found an empty section of log raft. And we went off down that river together. We'd run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes. We just let that raft float wherever the current wanted it to.
VITALE: Twain first came to Elmira in 1868 to court Olivia Langdon, the daughter of the richest man in town. Twain was already the well-known author of a book of travel writing, "The Innocents Abroad," but had yet to begin his novels.
Twain and Olivia were married in 1870, had four children and settled in a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut. But it was during the familys summers in Elmira that Twain did most of his writing.
Michael Kiskis is a Twain scholar who teaches at Elmira College.
Mr. MICHAEL KISKIS (Twain Scholar, Elmira College): One thing about Clemens is that he was always writing. But Elmira, Quarry Farm, gave him the separation from business deals, from publishing worries, that allowed him to focus his time and attention in a way that he could not do, I think, in Hartford.
VITALE: The little study where Twain wrote - 12 feet across, with eight sides and a large window in each face - was built to mimic the pilot house of a river boat. It was actually moved from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952.
Ms. SNEDECOR: On this side and the other side, youll see these little holes that now have the grates over them. Those are the cat doors. He absolutely loved cats and their company when he was writing in this building.
I have a key to it now. I dont imagine he had to have a key in the 1800s. You probably know he smoked a lot. I don't know. He averaged between 30 and 40 cigars a day. You got to think of smoke and cats and lots of paper and breezes coming through.
VITALE: After dinner each summer night, Twain would sit in the rocking chair on the porch at Quarry Farm, looking out at the Chemung River, and read the manuscript pages he wrote that day out loud to his wife and daughters.
Mr. HOLBROOK: (Reading) Once or twice a night, wed see a steamboat slipping along in the dark. And every now and again, shed belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimney. And they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty.
VITALE: His life in Elmira was far different from his youth in a Missouri River town. His father died when he was just 11, and Twain hit the road, working a variety of jobs. He traveled across the country and to Hawaii, Europe, and the Middle East.
But in Elmira, Twain found something he never had: a stable family environment. Scholar Michael Kiskis.
Mr. KISKIS: Hed been such a vagabond for years, between 17 and 30, that this gave him a real chance to put down roots and to be kind of hugged by a big family. And I think he really appreciated that.
If you look at the major novels through the major - kind of frame of his career, look how many of them deal with questions of family.
VITALE: For Mark Twain, Elmira represented family and the end of family. Twain is buried on a hill at Woodlawn Cemetery here, along with his wife, all 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. Barb Snedecor.
Ms. SNEDECOR: You know, he just cannot comprehend that. He refuses to come to Elmira to see her buried here. He says he doesnt want to see another family member laid in the dirt.
VITALE: Mark Twain stopped spending summers in Elmira after his daughter Suzys death, in 1896.
For NPR News, Im Tom Vitale in New York.
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