One of my biggest challenges comes in making clear the role of maritime history in American history and life, and in world history and life. In a way, I think vessels are so ubiquitous that they’re not even noticed. But for most of recorded history, news and information (and with it, human connections) used ships to travel long distances. If you look, everywhere you turn you will see a maritime impact.
I noticed that again today, when I went visited the many Mark Twain sites in Elmira, NY. Elmira is not far from where I live, but I don’t go there often. I knew there were connections with Mark Twain, but I did not realize how many. As it turns out, Twain’s wife and family lived in Elmira for many years, and Twain (well, Sam Clemens) regularly spent summers there.
Sam Clemens’ sister-in-law owned an estate about two miles outside of town (and Twain’s father-in-law was the richest man in town and owned the largest house in town), and she built a small rectangular study for Twain in 1874, which he loved and used extensively, writing much of many titles there in the summertime. The study was moved to Elmira College in the 1950s (Twain’s wife attended the college, and the family had many other connections there as well), and is now open for visits in the summertime, and by appointment other times of the year.
Where’s the maritime connection – other than water weaving its way through all of Twain’s work? Sam Clemens met Olivia Langdon through her younger brother, Charles. Many signs told me that Charles and Clemens met on board the steamship Quaker City, in 1867 in the Mediterranean, where they struck up a conversation, and eventually Charles showed Sam a picture of his sister, and Clemens was immediately taken with Charles’ sister. It took some time before they actually met, and then before Olivia accepted Clemens’ marriage proposal, but it all went back to the Quaker City.
Of course, ShipIndex.org has entries on Quaker City – more than 80 of them – and not all are about the ship that Clemens and Langdon sailed together on, but if you want to know more about that ship, I can’t think of a better place to start.
After visiting the sites at Elmira College I stopped at Twain’s gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery, where he’s buried with his wife’s ashes (she died in Florence, in 1904), those of his children, and his only known grandchild.
In the end, water matters. Whether you’re studying the life of Sam Clemens or the writings of Mark Twain, water had a huge impact on his life. I’d argue it has that impact on the lives of many, many people, and I will keep trying to convince the world of that.