The Center for Mark Twain Studies is honored to announce that it has been awarded a preservation grant from the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC). With the acceptance of this grant, CMTS will be enrolled in FAIC’s Collections Assessment for Preservation (CAP) program. FAIC will allocate $3900 to hire a collections assessor for the physical artifacts at Quarry Farm, plus another $3900 to hire a building assessor to complete a general conservation assessment of the main house at Quarry Farm.
This grant is part of a multi-year CMTS project entitled Master Plan for Interior Environmental Improvements for Quarry Farm and Its Collections. With guidance from Johnson-Schmidt & Associates, an architectural firm specializing in the restoration, preservation, and revitalization of historic structures, CMTS has identified improvements in the climate and fire-suppression systems within the main house of Quarry Farm as a high-priority preservation project.
As a retreat for Mark Twain scholars who spend weeks at a time doing their research, writing, and scholarly endeavors, it is not only important for Quarry Farm to have systems that will serve and protect the collections, it must also function as a living facility where Mark Twain’s presence is understood and its occupants can function in the manner in which the Langdons intended their gift to the Humanities to be utilized. This is a special environment for scholars of one of the most important American writers, and therefore challenges balancing these priorities. Not only are the climate and fire-suppression systems involved in these two types of uses challenging to resolve, but equally important is the manner in which the systems are woven into Quarry Farm’s historic fabric. Limiting the impact of these systems on historic finishes will be a challenge, as will the routes the systems will need to take to get to their destinations in order to condition the space throughout the house and conserve its collections. For these reasons, preservation and collections assessment specialists need to be hired to help CMTS address these very important and difficult challenges
CMTS is in the middle of its Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. This capital campaign is solely for the purpose addressing these specific preservation needs and is a part of the Master Plan for Interior Environmental Improvements for Quarry Farm and Its Collections. Groups and individuals who generously contribute will be honored with their names on a memorial plaque next to the one already gracing the entrance to Quarry Farm. This is truly a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for community leaders to become a permanent part of the proud legacy of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Quarry Farm, and Mark Twain. All interested participants should contact Dr. Joseph Lemak, Director of CMTS at [email protected]
Our first update to Mark Twain Day By Day Online address several technical difficulties with the rollout version. There is a prominent searchbar associated with each volume, allowing scholars to quickly find keywords and dates from throughout the massive resource. Also, Paul Stonier has address many (all? most?) of the spacing and other formatting problems that were sprinkled throughout the text. We consider Day By Day to be a living resource, so additional updates are to be expected from time to time. If you encounter problems while using the database or imagine functionalities which would improve its utility, please let us know, recognizing of course that updates will be made as time, resources, and technical capacity allow.
David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day is an exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens which was originally published in four enormous print volumes between 2008 and 2014. It has since become and invaluable reference for scholars who have the good fortune of having access to it, but the size and expense of the books have kept it primarily confined to university libraries and a few private collections. That is, until now. Independent Twain scholars, teachers, students, hobbyists, and all variety of Twainiac can now access a fully-searchable online edition of Mark Twain Day By Day for free from anywhere with an internet connection.
CMTS is incredibly grateful to Mr. Fears for entrusting us with the fruit of his extraordinary labors, and also to the late Dr. Thomas A. Tenney, Dr. Barbara Snedecor, Leslie Myrick, Dr. Susan K. Harris, Nathanial Ball, and Paul Stonier, all of whom donated time and labor essential to getting this project online.
2018 was the first year since 1954 that Hal Holbrook (who retired in September of 2017) did not perform “Mark Twain Tonight!”
I compiled this video to honor him on his 94th Birthday (February 17th) and to remind him that although he is no longer performing, his show continues to have an impact on what scholars write and what students learn in Hamden and Hong Kong; in San Antonio, Syracuse, and Stanford; in Charleston, Cambridge, and Tokyo – in short, all over the world. The seventeen scholars in this video pay homage – each in his or her own way – to what the show has meant to them and what they learned from it, in addition to conveying warm birthday wished to its star.
Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading. By Alan Gribben. NewSouth Books, 2019. Pp.400. Hardcover $45.00. ISBN 978-1-5883-8343-3
Volume One of Dr. Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading will be published in March 2019. Two additional volumes will follow this year. Much of Dr. Gribben’s research was conducted in the Mark Twain Archive during the summer he taught a seminar on the front porch at Quarry Farm, and several sections of his book were written during a Henry Nash Smith Award residency awarded by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.
The first volume of Mark Twain’s Literary Resources consists of twenty-five chapters explaining the fate of the Clemens family’s book collection, chronicling Dr. Gribben’s fifty-year search for information about Samuel Clemens’s library and reading, and assessing the patterns and depths of the author’s literary resources. Volume One concludes with a detailed Critical Bibliography listing and describing previous work by other scholars. Dr. Gribben, a co-founder of the Mark Twain Circle of America and an early advisor to the Directors of the Center for Mark Twain Studies concerning the creation of Quarry Farm as a scholarly retreat and the quadrennial State of Mark Twain Studies conferences, is a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery. In 1993 he was instrumental in obtaining the Antenne Collection, most of whose volumes contain Clemens’s signature and many with his marginalia, for the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College.
“One of the foundational sources of Mark Twain studies for nearly forty years, Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction has long been a scholarly treasure. Gribben’s revised and much expanded compendium, Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading, will prove to be the standard reference guide on the topic for the next many decades. These volumes belong in all research libraries and on the shelves of all nineteenth-century Americanists.” ― Gary Scharnhorst, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English, University of New Mexico
“Alan Gribben’s critical masterpiece, Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading, asserts itself as one of a handful of truly invaluable resources in Mark Twain Studies. A heroic compendium of analytical essays, annotated catalogs, critical bibliographies, and index guides, this work is the definitive study of the literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts that shaped Mark Twain’s mind and art.” ― Joseph Csicsila, Professor, Eastern Michigan University, and coauthor of Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain
“Dr. Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Literary Resources offers a fascinating peek into the mind of an American literary genius. The book’s mind-boggling wealth of information could only have been gathered using extraordinary research skills and dogged determination. The work is an invaluable tool for Mark Twain scholars and sets a new standard for generations of scholars to come.” ― Laura Skandera Trombley, President, University of Bridgeport
On August 27, 1870, a sketch appeared in the Leavenworth Daily Commercial with Mark Twain’s byline. So far as I can tell, this sketch, “The Texan Steer,” has never appeared in any collection of Twain’s work or been discussed by scholars or biographers. There are several potential explanations for this oversight, including the inaccessibility of the archives of small-town and rural newspapers prior to recent digitization efforts. There is also the possibility that, despite the byline, this sketch was not written by Mark Twain at all.
Leavenworth is a town in the Missouri River Valley, a part of the country in which Mark Twain was very popular. Gossipy reports about Twain’s travels and performances appeared regularly in the Commercial, as well as excerpts from his published works. Reporting upon an appearance in Chicago (a city of 300,000) the correspondent from Leavenworth (a town of 18,000) speculated that Twain “would attract a large, first-class audience here.”
Nineteenth-Century American newspapers, particularly those in small markets, depended upon each other for content to fill their columns. Twain’s meteoric rise to fame during the late 1860s is actually closely associated with the practice (which would be prosecutable plagiarism by today’s standards). The humorous stories he wrote for papers in New York and California found their way to every corner of the interior. Twain’s stories proliferated like social media memes, although much slower, as each newspaper that “shared” them increased the likelihood that another from a neighboring city would do the same.
“The Texan Steer” did not appear only or originally in the Commercial. Between August and October of 1870 it showed up in at least a dozen papers hailing from Florida, Indiana, Kansas, New York, and Ohio. It was usually, though not always, attributed to Mark Twain. When Twain was not named, the Buffalo Express was, and Mark Twain was well known to be not only a contributor, but a partial owner of the Express.
“The Texan Steer” is inspired by events which had recently transpired in Buffalo. On August 8th, two bulls had escaped near the New York Central Depot and stampeded through the streets of Buffalo, killing at least one person and injuring several more, causing an uproar that was widely publicized even beyond the city. The tragic-comical nature of this incident does make it seem a likely target for Twain’s often twisted sense of humor.
The sketch appeared in the Express on August 18th with no byline, but this is not necessarily proof that the editors at the Commercial and elsewhere were mistaken. Twain, like other correspondents throughout the nation, frequently published unsigned articles, including several for the Express during this period (as can be found in Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg’s collection Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express). Fellow editors at the Commercial, the Junction City Weekly Union, Florida Peninsular, and elsewhere may have had inside knowledge of the article’s true authorship, or they may have simply presumed, correctly or incorrectly, that it was the work of the Express‘s famous humorist.
Slightly complicating matters is the fact that we don’t know exactly where Samuel Clemens was on the date the article was published. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, died in Elmira early in August and the Clemenses attended the funeral on the 8th. It is unclear when they returned to Buffalo, though they were certainly back by the 30th (when he postmarked a letter from there).
Considering that wiring “dispatches” from great distances was part of what had made Twain famous during the preceding years, the 150 miles from Elmira to Buffalo was hardly an impediment to publication. Not including “The Texan Steer,” Twain published at least two articles in the Express, both unsigned, during this period, including his obituary for Jervis Langdon (the other was “Domestic Missionaries Wanted”). Nor would Twain’s failure to observe the stampede have prevented him from burlesquing it. He frequently drew inspiration from newspaper reports and the Langdon family, with their multitude of business interests throughout New York State, subscribed to several of the Buffalo papers.
One also might speculate that writing such an article would be in particularly bad taste during a time when Sam Clemens was supposed to be mourning the father-in-law for whom he held great esteem. But, as Joseph Csicsila has shown, Clemens consistently dealt with grief by throwing himself into his work, even at the expense of seeming callous to family and friends. Jerome Loving marvels that during this period
“Sam kept right on working on promised projects…he suffered along with the rest of the family…but he nevertheless managed to write. It is hard to imagine, even today, how he functioned as a humorist, but the Galaxy [a monthly humor column Twain wrote for the magazine headquartered in Buffalo] is hard evidence of his success.”
from The Adventures of Samuel Clemens (2010)
Barring the discovery of relevant records or correspondence, we may never be able to definitively support or debunk the attribution of the “The Texan Steer.” However, there are some clues within the text which explain why it was reasonable to connect it to Twain. Perhaps most evidently there is the narrator, whose affectation is that he is a naturalist scientifically observing and recording the behaviors of the Texan steer when readers, especially those familiar with the recent events in Buffalo, know he is just cowering in a tree to avoid being gored. What we might characterize as the “pretentious idiot” is a persona which Twain took on frequently in his burlesque sketches and, perhaps most famously, in episodes from The Innocents Abroad.
Also, Twain was not above reusing material with minor variations. The use of “corned” as a synonym for drunkenness (and a culinary pun) would reappear, complete with quotation marks, in his 1872 speech, “The Union, Right or Wrong.” His fondness for the word cussed and all its derivations is evident throughout his career. My personal favorite invocation, from an 1868 letter sent from Washington DC: “Cuss this cussed place.”
As that letter, with its berating of “stupid old muffs of Generals & Senators,” suggests, Twain never tired of inventing creative invectives for politicians. Aldermen were not spared. In fact, they may have been fresh in his mind, as Twain had corresponded on his father-in-law’s behalf in a dispute with a municipal board in Memphis the preceding year. Among the many places where he wreaked his vengeance upon alderman, regardless of municipality, is in Life on the Mississippi, when he says of Dominique You, a hero of the War of 1812, “He was a pirate with a tremendous and sanguinary history; and as long as he preserved unspotted the dignity of his ancient calling, homage and reverence were his from high and low; but when at last he descended into politics and became a paltry alderman, the public ‘shook’ him, and turned aside and wept.”
It is my own “expert opinion” that this is either a sketch written by Mark Twain or an excellent counterfeit. It is, undeniably, evidence of how much of a celebrity Twain had become, even as early as 1870. The extensive network of US newspapers, nearly 6,000 of them in 1870, stretching from coast to coast, was primed to disseminate anything and everything associated with him. Even when he chose not to put his famous nome de plume in the byline, they did it for him.
UPDATE: Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com offers another plausible possibility, that “The Texan Steer” may have actually been the work of Frank Manly Thorn, another regular contributor to the Express who usually signed his work “Hy Slocum” or “Carl Byng.” Twain accused Thorn of being a “habitual plagiarist” and tried to have him banned from the Express when he became part owner, but Twain himself believed that some of Thorn’s work was still being published in his paper at least as late as January of 1871. Schmidt has written an informative profile of Thorn which I recommend. While I feel no more confident attributing “The Texan Steer” to Thorn than I do to Twain, the conflict between them shows that Twain believed there were writers imitating his style well enough to fool the public.
EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.
117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”
Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.
The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”
Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”
This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,
“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”
from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)
The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!”
Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.
As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:
“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”
from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)
This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.
Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.
Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”
Tomorrow night – Friday, February 8th – at the Park Church in Elmira the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes will be performing “Mark Twain’s Music Box,” a program loosely based upon the music which Samuel Clemens chose to have programmed into the expensive customized music box his wife gave him as a birthday present during their extended visit to Europe in 1878. “Mark Twain’s Music Box” was originally performed in 2008 and is based upon an essay with the same title published by Kerry Driscoll that same year.
Dr. Driscoll is currently a Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph in Hartford, CT. She has also been a professor at Elmira College, a Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and consultant for both the Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Mark Twain House & Museum. Her most recent book, Mark Twain Among The Indians, was published last year.
“Mark Twain’s Music Box” was part of a volume of essays, Cosmopolitan Twain, which focused on rescuing Twain from being merely “the American,” and instead presented him, as editor Ann Ryan puts it, as “competitive, skeptical, necessarily tolerant, multilingual and multicultural, frankly materialistic and acquisitive.”
Naturally, Twain’s cosmopolitan-ness was increased by the globetrotting he did during his maturity. The premise of Driscoll’s essay is that the music box purchased in Geneva for $400 ($9,500 today) is representative both of Twain’s absorption in cosmopolitan aesthetics and his anxiety about that absorption. Crucially, Driscoll argues that Sam and Livy’s European travels were, paradoxically, about the return home, when they could furnish their home with expensive and exotic purchases which would impress their Hartford neighbors, who the Clemenses, in typically nouveau riche fashion, were intimidated by and eager to please.
Sam’s concern with how the Hartford home and all within it would be judged by visitors explains why choosing what melodies would be programmed into his music box proved a difficult and lengthy task, one which he did not complete for four months. He feared that poor choices would reveal his uncultivated tastes. Moreover, Driscoll argues, these anxieties caused him to be disappointed by the finished product, even to the point of claiming he had been delivered the wrong music box.
Dr. Driscoll’s essay is based upon original research and explores many aspects of the Clemenses life in Hartford and Europe beyond the acquisition of the music box. Check out Cosmopolitan Twain from a bookseller or library near you! And come see the OSFL, in collaboration with the Center for Mark Twain Studies, perform “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church.
Although Mark Twain is often characterized as a quintessentially American writer, he is almost as frequently noted as a citizen of the world. The Mark Twain Circle seeks proposals for papers that investigate Twain’s writings in a transnational context, interpreting representations of the American and the other in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, international politics, and cultural contact.
MLA requires that presenters be members of MLA at the time of the panel’s submission to the program. We also encourage panelists to become members of the Mark Twain Circle. We are especially eager to receive submissions from emerging scholars and members of underrepresented groups.
Send proposals to Larry Howe, President of the Mark Twain Circle: [email protected] Deadline: March 15, 2019
The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to announce the publication of a special issue of American Literary Realism (Winter 2019, Vol. 51, No. 2) dealing with Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/39501). It originated from the workshop on Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc chaired by Paula Harrington at Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, which was part of the France-Berkeley-Fund project headed by Linda Morris and Ronald Jenn (“The ‘French Marginalia’ of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895-96) at Berkeley: Patriotism without Borders”). The issue, coordinated by Ronald Jenn and Delphine Louis-Dimitrov, contains contributions by Linda A. Morris (“What is ‘Personal’ about: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?”), Jeanne Campbell Reesman (“Discourses of Faith vs. Fraud in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and Christian Science”, Susan K. Harris (“Whohoo!!! Joan of Arc!!!!!”), Geoffrey C. Williams (“What Joan of Arc can Teach Us about Human Motivation and Well-being”) and Delphine Louis-Dimitrov (“The Democratic Reconfiguration of History in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”). In true Twainian fashion, a twin special issue on “Joan of Arc through American Eyes / Jeanne d’Arc au Prisme de l’Amérique ” will be published in the RFEA (Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines) in Fall 2019. It will set Twain’s passion for Joan of Arc in a broader context by considering various aspects of her presence in American literature and culture.
Stemming from this work, Mark Twain et Jeanne d’Arc: L’hisoire d’une passion, a French-language short documentary about Twain’s lifelong interest in the iconic heroine, Joan of Arc, was recently awarded the top prize in the documentary category at the Anstia Film Festival in Paris. The film, written by recent Quarry Farm Fellow, Ronald Jenn, and directed by Patrice Thery, uses pictures and documents from French and American archives, including our own, to familiarize its audience with the author, the subject of his passionate interest, and, finally, the novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which he published in 1896. The film can be seen here.
The following introduction and collection of television clips come from one source: David Bianculli, nationally known television critic, professor at Rowan University, and contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. CMTS is deeply grateful to Mr. Bianculli for his work on assembling these clips. CMTS hopes that this collection helps contribute to the academic discussion of Mark Twain’s portrayal in the television era and beyond.
INTRODUCTION by David Bianculli
Examining the topic Mark Twain on Television would seem to be an absurdly easy endeavor. Samuel Clemens died in 1910, several decades before the earliest experiments in TV. So, no Mark Twain on television, period. And though he was photographed extensively for most of his adult life, Clemens was an elusive figure in other media. If there indeed were audio recordings of his voice made when he visited Thomas Edison’s workshop, none has yet been known to survive. And on the then-new motion picture medium, Clemens was captured for posterity precisely once – at his Stormfield home, with daughters Clara and Jean, in 1909, the year before his death. So for media historians, at the moment, that’s the final score for Mark Twain appearances: Movies 1, Television 0.
But Mark Twain the character, as portrayed by others? That’s a different matter entirely, and it’s fascinating.
On television, the entire Mark Twain TV canon can be divided into two camps: before and after Hal Holbrook’s 1967 Hal Holbrook CBS production of Mark Twain Tonight! Before Holbrook, portrayals of Twain were all over the map in terms of looks, voice, and other physical manifestations. After Holbrook, almost every portrayal of the elder Twain borrowed heavily, and unashamedly, from Holbrook’s brilliant portrayal – down to the then anachronistic, but visually striking, white suit.
That and one other seminal early portrayal of Mark Twain on TV, the 1960 The Shape of the River teleplay on the CBS anthology series Playhouse 90, both have been investigated and dissected at length by my TV-critic colleague and fellow Twain enthusiast, Mark Dawidziak. But that still leaves plenty of Mark Twain TV portrayals to revisit and examine – and spread over the entire history of television, it’s a strange, as well as long, list.
Yes, Hal Holbrook impersonated Mark Twain on television – but over the years, so did Bing Crosby and James Stewart, James Garner and Woody Harrelson, and William Shatner and Vanilla Ice. This video presentation includes samples of them all.
Some of the approaches, like many of the performances, are full of surprises. The character of Samuel Clemens showed up on three different episodes of NBC’s Bonanza, played over the years by three different actors. Clemens, as Twain, also appeared on other early TV Westerns, drawing on partly autobiographical writings and articles: NBC’s Laramie, ABC’s The Rifleman, and the syndicated Death Valley Days. The first portrayal of Clemens on TV was on an ABC anthology series in 1953, called Cavalcade of America, in an episode called “Riders of the Pony Express.” Over the years, among the most dramatized portions of the author’s life were the latter years, especially the tragic death of his daughter Jean. Shape of the River got there first, with Horton Foote’s still-potent account – but the same tragedy was presented by, among other TV shows and specials, PBS’s Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter in 1979 and the CBS series Touched by an Angel in 1997.
The portrayals of Mark Twain on TV do, indeed, range from the sublime to the ridiculous: the former represented by Holbrook’s triumphant one-man show, the latter by, say, the Mark Twain we see in 2013 on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. It’s all here to sample and enjoy – straight up, or on ice. Vanilla Ice.
#1 – Mark Twain, 1909
The title card of this short silent film says it was “Photographed by Thomas Edison,” but there’s no proof of that. Filmed by someone from Edison’s film company, but still amazing. The only moving picture of the real Samuel Clemens, walking around his Stormfield property, and sitting with daughters Clara and Jean, in 1909. Both Jean and her father would soon be dead.
#2 – Cavalcade of America, “Riders of the Pony Express” (ABC, Dec. 15, 1953)
First TV appearance of the Sam Clemens/Mark Twain “character.” Twain doesn’t speak, but is filmed atop a stagecoach as he narrates quotes approximating those in Roughing It, witnessing a fleet rider from the Pony Express. Robert Cornthwaite plays the young Mark Twain.
#3 – Bonanza, “Enter Mark Twain” (NBC, Season 1, Episode 5, Oct. 10, 1959)
Sam Clemens, played by Howard Duff, writes under the name of Josh for Virginia City’s local paper, the Territorial Enterprise (just as Clemens did). Virginia City is right there on the Bonanza opening credits map, right next to the Ponderosa. Sam Clemens enters the newspaper office and introduces himself. First speaking role on TV.
Sam drinks with the judge’s wife, mentions Calaveras County and “fancy writing”
Sam Clemens plots with the Cartwrights to ridicule the judge and influence election. Then Adam reads a news clipping making fun of a “Professor Pronoun,” with the article signed “Josh.” (Keokuk’s The Gate City published such a story, signed by “Josh,” that was a dispatch from Clemens in 1863, under the headline, “Report on the Lecture of Prof. Personal Pronoun.”)
Clemens is writing story in the Enterprise office as bullets fly, and the Cartwrights defend him. Gives new meaning to the term deadline, and provides a “bonanza” about how the Mark Twain name really came about.
The Cartwrights read aloud from a new dispatch in the Enterprise about Professor Pronoun: “Prof. Personal Pronoun Won’t Be Around Any More.”
In Arizona in the 1870s, in Wyoming Territory, 12 miles outside Laramie, there’s a ranch that has a stage stop. One of the passengers is a villain named Jack Slade. Another is a man who wrote about him: Sam Clemens, played by Dabbs Greer, who identifies himself.
Sam Clemens leaves on the stage, discusses his next book with youngster Andy. Next scene, a package arrives for Andy: a copy of Twain’s Roughing It.
#5 – Playhouse 90, “The Shape of the River” (CBS, Season 4, Episode 16, May 2. 1960)
This was the penultimate production of Playhouse 90, written by Horton Foote, who focused on Twain’s last, difficult years and did a superb job. (So did Mark Dawidziak, who both wrote a book about this TV special and unearthed a copy of it, long considered lost.) Franchot Tone plays Mark Twain, and introduces the drama.
Lecture tour: snippets from Twain’s lecture tour, including quotes about kids and parents.
Jean dies in the bathtub on Christmas Eve day, 1909. The first of several TV depictions of this tragedy, and Twain’s reactions to it.
After Jean’s death, Twain discusses leaving for Elmira.
Twain writes of Jean’s death and the imminent return of Halley’s comet.
#6 – The Rifleman, “The Shattered Idol” (ABC, Season 4, Episode 10, Dec. 4, 1961)
Kevin McCarthy plays an embittered Clemens, who arrives by stagecoach, witnessed by Rifleman’s son.
#7 – Death Valley Days, “$275,000 Sack of Flour” (Syndicated, Season 11, Episode 2, Oct.1, 1962)
Credits and introduction, explaining premise of episode.
Sam Clemens is played by William Schallert, who enters a store in Clinton, sees Gridley (a friend from Hannibal, a.k.a. “Frogskin”), and suggests pulling a stunt in nearby Virginia City.
As the host explains in the conclusion to this episode, Twain wrote about this incident in Roughing It.
#8 – Bonanza, “The Emperor Norton” (NBC, Season 7, Episode 23, Feb. 27, 1966)
This is the second of three Samuel Clemens appearances on Bonanza, each played by a different actor. In this one, Sam Clemens is played by William Challee, and it’s a cameo, with Clemens arriving, briefly, as a character witness at someone else’s trial.
#9 – Mark Twain Tonight! (CBS, March 6, 1967)
This landmark TV special, capturing for posterity one of Hal Holbrook’s impressively researched one-man shows as Mark Twain, already has been authoritatively recounted, and again by Mark Dawidziak, this time in a presentation at Elmira 2013: The Seventh International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Most TV “appearances” by Twain can be divided into before and after Holbrook’s triumph. Before, the Twains could be wildly diverse. After, they are all, more or less, variations on Holbrook’s interpretation. In this opening segment, Twain discusses whiskey – and truth.
More Holbrook as Twain, talking of riding West on the Overland stage.
More Holbrook as Twain, discussing lies and Congress
#10 – Death Valley Days, “Ten Day Millionaires,” (Syndicated, Season 17, Episode 12, Dec. 21, 1968)
Tom Skerritt plays a young Sam Clemens, with Dabney Coleman as Calvin Higby, his partner during his short-lived Nevada mining-camp days. The second of two Death Valley Days featuring Clemens – this one in color.
The young prospectors reunite after a misunderstanding, and Clemens vows to survive wielding not a pick, but a pencil.
Conclusion to Death Valley Days, in which the host reads the opening to Twain’s Roughing It, dedicated to Higby.
#11 – Swing Out, Sweet Land (alternate title, John Wayne’s Tribute to America) (NBC, Nov. 29, 1970)
In this first TV special by John Wayne, he introduces Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, played respectively by Bing Crosby and Roscoe Lee Browne.
Twain and Douglass chat, in a conversation culled from their letters to one another.
#12 – Bonanza, “The Twenty-Sixth Grave” (NBC, Season 14, Episode 7, Oct. 31, 1972)
This is the third of three appearances by an actor playing Mark Twain on Bonanza. The first was in 1959, the second in 1966, and this third one, maintaining the once-per-decade pace, is from 1972. Sam Clemens is played by Ken Howard, who later starred in Puddn’head Wilson for American Playhouse on PBS in 1984. Here, after a Twain quote about “26 Graves” is displayed directly and accurately on screen, Howard spins stories at the newspaper office.
#13 – Huckleberry Finn (ABC, March 25, 1975)
This 1975 made-for-TV movies stars Royal Dano as Mark Twain, who “hosts” this adaptation of Twain’s masterpiece. The casting says it all: Huck Finn is played by Ron Howard, and Tom Sawyer by Donny Most. Their hit nostalgia sitcom, ABC’s Happy Days (on which Howard played Richie Cunningham and Most played Ralph Malph) had premiered the year before. Also featured, though not in this clip: Jack Elam and Merle Haggard as the nonsensical King and Duke, and Antonio Fargas (who played Huggy Bear on another ABC hit, Starsky and Hutch) as Huck’s raftmate, runaway slave Jim.
#14 – General Electric’s All-Star Anniversary (NBC, Sept. 29, 1978)
This NBC special is another one which, for this portion at least, was hosted by John Wayne. In this excerpt, Michael Landon, in his Western get-up from NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, gets the chance to travel magically through time and interview one of his idols, Mark Twain (as played by James Stewart). Twain reminiscences, in particular, about his days as a riverboat cub pilot on the Mississippi River.
#15 – Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter (PBS, Dec. 10, 1979)
In this often sad made-for-TV movie, Dan O’Herlihy plays Sam Clemens, who is greeted by reporters upon his return to America in Dec. 1909, and says he is anxious to get to his Stormfield home and spend Christmas with his daughter Jean. This special has a noteworthy collection of academic advisers in its credits, including Hamlin Hill, Frederick Anderson, William Gibson, Lewis Leary and Walter Blair.
In this Beneath the Laughter clip, as in The Shape of the River, Clemens is told of, and reacts to, Jean’s tragic death.
#16 – Great Performances: Life on the Mississippi (PBS, Nov. 24, 1980)
In this 1980 dramatization, a very young Sam Clemens is portrayed by David Knell, while the imposing riverboat pilot under whom he trains, Horace Bixby, is played by Robert Lansing. In this scene, young Sam applies for, and gets, the job as apprentice pilot.
#17 – Great Performances: The Innocents Abroad (PBS, May 9, 1983)
This movie-length dramatization quotes accurately from Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and this clip shows an example of that, followed by a scene in which young Sam Clemens, played by Craig Wasson, talks himself into becoming the Alta newspaper’s correspondent for the first-ever luxury tourist excursion cruise. Co-stars include Brooke Adams as Julia Newell as David Odgen Stiers as Doc.
Woody Boyd (played by Woody Harrelson) gets to understudy as Mark Twain in “Authors in Hell” play. Wears the white suit, adopts the persona, even when working as a bartender.
#19 – Mark Twain and Me, (Disney Channel, Nov. 22, 1991)
Mark Twain is played by Jason Robards, daughter Jean by Talia Shire, friend and biographer Albert Paine by R.H. Thomson. Amy Stewart portrays Dorothy Quick, the author of book remembering her time with Samuel Clemens in London, 1908. This clip features a preamble from Dorothy, and Clemens reflecting to Paine about his children after receiving a cable with bad news about daughter Susy.
#20 – Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Time’s Arrow,” Part 1 and Part 2 (Syndicated, Season 5, Episode 26, June 13, 1992; Season 6, Episode 1, Sept. 19, 1992).
Sam Clemens is played by Jerry Hardin. Crew members from the Enterprise travel back in time to Twain’s era, where he discusses his own fanciful time-travel musings in his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
#21 – Touched By an Angel, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” (CBS, Season 4, Episode 12, Dec. 21, 1997).
John Cullum plays Sam Clemens, who returns home to daughter Jean on Christmas Eve, 1909. She has a special gift for her father and slips it into the Christmas tree branches. He delivers some well-known Twain quotes, and tells Jean to get her rest.
Jean dies in the tub.
Clemens, that very day, writes of Jean’s death. Then Monica visits him, reveals herself as an angel – after which he angrily argues theology with her.
#22 – Mark Twain. Documentary by Ken Burns. (PBS, Jan. 14-15, 2002)
Kevin Conway as the voice of Mark Twain. The end of his life, including the prediction of Halley’s Comet returning as he died, is recounted in this nonfiction study.
#23 – Roughing It (Hallmark Channel miniseries, March 16, 2002)
James Garner plays Samuel Clemens, giving a speech to his daughter Susy’s graduating class at Bryn Mawr college outside Philadelphia. But she never graduated from there, and did not remain long. Regardless, Garner, in the famous Mark Twain persona (anachronistic white suit and all), gets to reminisce from the lectern about his old salad days, setting up flashbacks to his time in the Nevada territory, and the events recounted in the book Roughing It. Robin Dunne plays young Sam in flashbacks, with Adam Arkin as Henry and Jill Eikenberry as Livy Clemens.
#24 – Drunk History, “San Francisco.” (Comedy Central, Season 1, Episode 5, Aug. 6, 2013)
After series credits are shown, inebriated storyteller Derrick Beckles introduces his version of how Mark Twain’s literary career was launched. Steve Little plays Mark Twain.
The story is told, drunkenly, of how an overheard “Jumping Frog” story proved to be Twain’s “jumping-off point.”
#25 – Murdoch Mysteries (Alternate US title: The Artful Detective) “Marked Twain” (Ovation, Season 9, Episode 2, Oct.12, 2015)
William Shatner guest stars as Mark Twain, making a somewhat unpopular speaking appearance in Toronto as an avowed anti-imperialist visiting Canada on an international speaking tour. At his first speech, he’s shot at.
In this clip, undaunted, Twain returns to the podium at a later date – and gives a very modern speech about women’s rights.
#26 – The Ridiculous 6 (Netflix, Dec. 11, 2015)
This made-for-TV movie is a comedy Western, co-written by Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy, in which several familiar Western-era figures congregate tro play poker. General Custer, for example, is portrayed by David Spade – and Mark Twain steals the show, and concludes this presentation, as portrayed by…..Vanilla Ice.