The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians are like diapers.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain did not hold politicians in high esteem. He was particularly spiteful towards the legislative branch in novels like The Gilded Age (1873) and short stories like “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress,” he wrote in Puddn’head Wilson (1894). In “What is Man?” (1906) he speculated that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Given the viciousness of his real attacks on elected officials, spanning across his whole career, it is probably no surprise that the corpus of Twain apocrypha includes many pot-shots at politicians.

On the eve of what is anticipated to be one of the highest-turnout midterm elections in US history, one such aphorism is proving particularly popular:

While he might have appreciated the sentiment, it is pretty easy to determine that this is not something Twain actually said. Not only does the quote fail to appear in his published works, nor in his many accessible private writings, I can’t even find an instance of Twain using the term diaper, except in a joke about the “Royal Diaperer” in The Prince & The Pauper (1891). That he would only invoke the term in a novel which is, in part, a send-up of British aristocracy, is telling. The word diaper was not part of the common parlance of America during most of Twain’s life. As the following Google ngram shows, diaper did not supplant the nappy (or napkin) in American vocabulary until late in the 19th century, and did not achieve anything rivaling its widespread contemporary usage until the second half of the 20th.

Rather than Twain, the man most responsible for the popularity the aphorism now enjoys in probably Robin Williams. In the film Man of the Year (2006), Williams’s character utters the lines, “Remember this ladies and gentleman: It’s an old phrase, basically anonymous, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons. Keep that in mind the next time you vote.”

This speech not only appears near the climax of the film, but also figured prominently in the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release in the Fall of 2006. Predictably, the quote started appearing regularly on social media soon thereafter. However, I can find no instance of its being attributed to Twain until two years later, first in a series of tweets by Dr. Larisa Varenkova. It was retweeted several times, then bounced around social media in relative obscurity until, in September of that year, Mike Hanes, a motivational speaker with tens of thousands of followers, took it upon himself to start tweeting it multiple times every day from two separate accounts. This continued for several months, and probably marks the point after which the misattribution to Twain became widely accepted.

But who is actually responsible for this nugget of bawdy political wit?

It seems likely that Barry Levinson, the screenwriter for Man of the Year, got it from Paul Harvey. Williams’s character is populist political commentator with folksy charm, which is also an accurate description of Harvey, whose syndicated “The Rest of the Story” was a staple of ABC Radio for more than half a century. Obituaries for Harvey in the New York Times and Forbes following his death in 2009 give him credit for a very similar aphorism targeting “occupants of the White House” and it also appears in newspaper accounts of his public appearances from the 1990s.

But Harvey himself, in a syndicated editorial from June 1994, credits the exact quote – “Politicians, like diapers, should be changed often. And for the same reasons.” – to Tom Blair, a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Harvey likely got this attribution from a 1993 issue of Reader’s Digest in which the aphorism was excerpted with Blair’s byline.

But, when one tracks down the article which Reader’s Digest quoted from, one discovers that Blair himself was quoting a local candidate on the Libertarian ticket. John Wallner used the line repeatedly during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1992, and thus it found its way into several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which dubbed it “the best line in a losing cause.”

One can’t help wondering whether Wallner would’ve still endorsed this catchphrase had he won.

Be kind to each other this Election Day…if not to your Congressmen.

Relive Twain’s Summer of 1884 with the Final Lecture of the “Trouble Begins” 2018 Season

The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes Wednesday, November 7 when presenter John Bird takes the audience through Twain’s summer of 1884 at Quarry Farm.  The final fall lecture begins at 7:00 p.m. in the Barn at Quarry Farm.  The lecture is free and open to the public.


Mark Twain working in the Study, circa 1880’s.

Bird, emeritus professor of English at Winthrop University, will present “‘At the Farm’: Reliving Mark Twain’s 1884 Summer at Quarry Farm.”  As he did for many summers, Mark Twain packed up his family (including dogs and cats, and in this case, a bicycle) and left Hartford for an extended stay at Elmira’s Quarry Farm. Part of his current work-in-progress, a micro-biography of Twain in the year 1884, Bird’s presentation will let audiences relive Twain and his family’s experience that summer. Even though Twain wrote his friend Joe Twichell near the end of the stay that he had not accomplished anything of value during the summer, he actually had an interesting and productive summer: he read a proof of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and made some important revisions; he began a sequel even before he published his novel, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Among the Indians; he became fully engaged in national politics during the presidential campaign; and he sat for the bust Karl Gerhardt made (twice) at Quarry Farm for the frontispiece of Huck Finn. Just as importantly, he engaged with his family, writing a short but charming personal memoir, “At the Farm,” with humorous and heartwarming anecdotes about his daughters. Living with Mark Twain day-by-day for this summer brings him and his family back to life and gives the audience a window into life at Quarry Farm, a place central to his work and his life.


Bird is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor, as well as a number of articles on Mark Twain. He is a past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.


About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series

In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Happy Halloween!: Twain’s Favorite Ghost Story and Twain Speaks From The Netherworld

It’s Halloween, the day when, according to legend, the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its most delicate. A fitting time to remember Mark Twain’s love for a good ghost story.

“Witches” from Chapter 34 of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

He was particularly fond of “The Golden Arm”, a folktale that spooked him during childhood visits to his Uncle John Quarles’ farm in the 1840s. He noted decades later in a letter to Joel Chandler Harris that the story was told by “old Uncle Dan’l, a slave of my uncle’s, aged 60, [who] used to tell us children yarns every night by the kitchen fire (no other light).” The story, which Twain referred to as a “negro ghost story,” actually has folkloric roots extending back to Europe long before the Grimm brothers first published it. However, by the time Uncle Dan’l mesmerized Twain with it by the kitchen fire, the story had become part of the oral tradition of Southern black culture.

The creepy story (or “creepypasta” in the parlance of our times) concerns a dead woman’s restless spirit returning from the grave to reclaim her golden arm from her grave-robbing husband. The suspense gradually builds with the ghost’s recurring mournful wail, “W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”, and after a carefully timed pause, climaxes with the storyteller suddenly lunging forward to shout, “You’ve got it!”

Twain recalled to Harris how much he and the other children on the farm loved to listen to Uncle Dan’l retell the story to them every night when “there was but a ghastly blaze or two flickering about the back-log”:

We would huddle close about the old man, and begin to shudder with the first familiar words; and under the spell of his impressive delivery we always fell a prey to that climax at the end when the rigid black shape in the twilight sprang at us with a shout.

This folktale had a lifelong impact on Twain. Not only did memories of Uncle Dan’l inspire his creation of the superstitious-yet-wise Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also relished telling “The Golden Arm” himself from the lecture platform. “Of course I tell it in the negro dialect,” he wrote to Harris. “That is necessary.” And his telling always included all the “weird wailing, the rising and falling cadences of the wind, so easily mimicked with one’s mouth; and the impressive pauses and eloquent silences, and subdued utterances, toward the end of the yarn.”

It was probably these mimetic aspects of the story, along with its shock ending, that so mortified Twain’s daughter Susy when her father regaled her refined classmates at Bryn Mawr with a performance of the ghoulishly garish tale (even after she begged him not to tell it).

Twain’s interest in “The Golden Arm” is well known today, thanks in large part to Hal Holbrooks’ rendition of it in Mark Twain Tonight! and its inclusion in the repertoire of professional storytellers. (For an interesting reflection on problematic aspects of the story by a contemporary storyteller, click here.)

However, there is another strange (but true) ghost story that isn’t as widely known involving Twain, ouija boards, and, of all things, copyright law.

The convoluted saga begins in 1915 when an author named Emily Grant Hutching claimed that Twain, now five years dead, dictated a book to her from beyond the grave via a ouija board. David Thomson has compiled a lot of great information on this incident.

Emily Grant Hutching (Image from

For a simple summary of Twain’s alleged foray into posthumous publishing, I turn to Mary Collins Barile’s Haunted Columbia, Missouri:

Now calling herself a psychic, Hutchings finally revealed…that the book was transmitted to herself, psychic Lola Viola Roddenmayer Hays and psychic researcher James Hervey Hyslop by none other than Mark Twain…Jap Herron (A Novel Written from the Ouija Board) tells the story of a young Missouri man who takes on adversity and becomes a newspaper editor. The book was rejected by publishing houses before Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher with a flair for the odd, released it. The reviews were not kind, including this from the New York Times on September 9, 1917: “If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier (death), the admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”

Not only did Twain’s supposed publishing debut from the spectral realm receive pallid reviews, his daughter Clara and publisher Harper & Brothers sued Hutching and Kennerley for violating the copyright they held on the pen name “Mark Twain”. The suit, as a tongue-in-cheek New York Times article reported in 1918, apparently had far-reaching implications beyond mere copyright infringement:

On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.

Ultimately, the questions related to this cosmic riddle included (again, from the article):

Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?

Regrettably, the suit did not resolve any existential conundrums, and Twain’s spirit gave no ghostly testimony from the netherworld. Instead, the anti-climactic outcome resulted in Hutchings and Kennerley agreeing to withdraw the book from publication and to destroy most copies of it.Yet, Jap Herron lives on. Hard copies of it may be difficult to dig up today, but there are versions of it still haunting the internet. Brave souls willing to venture into Twain’s otherworldly opus, which includes Hutching’s lengthy account of her supposed ouija board collaboration with him, can visit (if they dare).

Happy Halloween from everyone at the Center for Mark Twain Studies!

Updated Virtual Tour of Mark Twain’s and Family’s Gravesite Now Available

CMTS has updated its virtual tours of both Quarry Farm and the Langdon/Clemens plot on Woodlawn Cemetery (Elmira, New York).  The virtual tours now include a number of Points of Interests.  These “POI” include images and text that will help viewers explore and learn about the house where wrote a number of his iconic works and his final resting place.


(On the upper left menu, click on “Off Site”, then “Gravesite”)


This is the beginning of a larger project for CMTS, specifically the creation of an interactive map of Woodlawn Cemetery and an interactive map of the city of Elmira from 1870 – 1910, roughly the time span when Mark Twain would visit and reside in Elmira.

Created by David Coleman of Small Town 360, the virtual tour allows a glimpse of Quarry Farm and a step back in time by offering 360-degree views of both inside and outside the home, including the parlor, library kitchen and pantry; at the same time the Langdon/Cemetery plot features all of Samuel Clemens’s and Olivia Langdon Clemens’s children and descendants, along with important members of the Langdon family who were essential to Twain’s time in Elmira, including Jervis Langdon, Charley Langdon, and Susan Crane.

We hope that teachers and enthusiasts will use the resources and show the tour to their students, friends, and anyone who is interested in Mark Twain and his literature.  As with all resources provided by CMTS, these virtual tours are open to the public at no cost.


Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Professor Williams discussed his upcoming book as part of the Fall 2017 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series.

  • Nathaniel Williams, “Mark Twain and the Inventor Fiction Boom: Technology Meets American Conceit, 1876-1910” (October 11, 2017 – Quarry Farm Barn)

Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America. By Nathaniel Williams. University of Alabama Press, 2018. Pp. 206. Hardcover $44.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1984-7.

Mark Twain’s relation to technology, religion, and imperialism has been examined by a number of scholars, especially in recent years, but these topics have not been examined together, and they have certainly not been examined in light of proto-science fiction dime novels. In Gears and God, Nathaniel Williams has done just that. While only one of his study’s six chapters focuses solely on Twain, his thoroughly researched book sheds light on Twain by placing him in a context that has been previously ignored. The result is a study that succeeds in opening up new vistas in Twain criticism.

Williams’s introduction, “This is Religion and Totally Different,” relates Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) to the “boy inventor” dime novels of the time, over 300 of them, which melded travel, technology, and Christian exceptionalism. Williams states that he wants to accomplish two things: “reevaluation of the portrayal of empire that has pervaded earlier, genre-exclusive studies of these texts, and a consideration of their role in larger nineteenth-century conversations about science and technology’s impact on religious faith” (5). In six chapters, he achieves those two goals.

Ch.1, “Inventing the Technocratic Exploration Tale: God, Gears, and Empire,” examines how “American dime-novel invention stories performed significant cultural work in the United States” (13). Science fiction scholars have called this dime novel sub-genre “Edisonades,” after the inventor, but Williams adds the term “technocratic exploration tales” (14), emphasizing technocracy as a building block of empire. He shows how these texts both justified and undermined American imperialism.

In his second chapter, “Building Imperialists: The Steam Man, ‘Used Up’ Man, and the Man in the Moon,” Williams covers the early development of the sub-genre, looking back to Washington Irving’s 1809 tale of an invasion of the Earth by the Moon, and to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), about a soldier who has lost his limbs in the Indian Wars, and through the use of prosthetic devices becomes what science fiction scholars have called the first cyborg in fiction. His overview culminates with an 1868 dime novel by Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies, which has been accepted as the first American science fiction novel. This early text set the prototype for the genre: a boy inventor and his steam-driven automaton, embarking on travel and adventure to conquer the West.

Ch. 3, “Imagining Inventors: Frank Reade and Dime-Novel Technocratic Exploration,” focuses on boy inventor Frank Reade Jr., the subject of many dime novels, written by Luis Philip Senarens, a prolific Cuban American writer. Frank Reade Jr. uses technology to travel to distant places, interfere in events, and right wrongs, which Williams aligns with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A few of the titles give a sense of the inventions and the locales: Frank Reade, Jr., and His Steam WonderFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric BoatFrank Reade, Jr., and His Air-ShipFrank Reade, Jr.’s Great Electric TricycleFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Prairie Schooner; or Fighting the Mexican Horse ThievesAdrift in Africa; or Frank Reade, Jr., among the Ivory Hunters with His New Electric Wagon, and Frank Reade, Jr.’s Electric Buckboard; or, Thrilling Adventures in North Australia. His analysis of the Frank Reade Jr. novels chronicles the shift from American settings to international ones, including coverage of the Cuban Revolution, with Senarens siding with Cuba. One reason for the uproar over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Williams argues, was the perceived deleterious effects of dime novels on American youth. Williams moves to religious matters in his fourth chapter, “Discovering Biblical Literalism: Frank Reade Redux,” documenting a turn toward biblical issues: plots that found lost tribes and identified with conservative, literal interpretations of the Bible.

.continue reading John Bird’s review on The Mark Twain Forum

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Author of Award-Winning Novel “Flood” Continues the Fall Trouble Begins Series

The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, October 24 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

“Writing from Roots in ‘America’s Hometown’: Flood, a Novel” by Melissa Scholes Young, American University

Literature and life often claim you can’t go home again, but what happens if you have to? In this book talk and author reading, Melissa Scholes Young will chronicle how Mark Twain’s own exodus from Hannibal parallels Laura Brooks’, the protagonist of her debut novel, Flood, who like the Mississippi River, once ran in the wrong direction in order to recalibrate. She’ll share her historical research and creative writing process as well as explore whyTwain’s origin in rural America is more relevant than ever.

“Filled with pithy dialogue and cultural references, Scholes Young’s writing ties Laura’s journey of self-discovery squarely to Hannibal and its famous young troublemakers. As Laura reckons with her past, Scholes Young reckons with Twain’s influence on the region. This debut is a wonderful story of home, hope, and the ties that bind us to family.” – Publishers Weekly

Melissa Scholes Young is an associate professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. and a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of the anthology Grace in Darkness. Her debut novel, Flood, set in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown she shares with Mark Twain, was the winner in Literary Fiction for the 2017 Best Book Award.

Here is Kevin Mac Donnell’s review of Flood: A Novel from the Mark Twain Forum Reviews.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain Among The Indians & Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Professor Driscoll has given a number of lectures on the topic of Mark Twain’s response to indigenous populations.  Her lectures can be streamed and downloaded as part of our Trouble Begins Archives.  These lectures include:

  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the Native Other” (July 11, 2018 – The Park Church)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain, The Maori, and The Mystery of Livy’s Jade Pendant” (October 1, 2014 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the American Indian” (May 7, 1986)

Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples. By Kerry Driscoll. University of California Press, 2018. Pp. 448. Hardcover $95.00. ISBN 9780520279421 (hardcover). ISBN 9780520970663 (ebook).

An irksome puzzle has persisted through more than a century of Mark Twain scholarship. It has usually been avoided altogether, or at best it has been briefly touched upon by a handful of scholars. In her ground-breaking new study, Kerry Driscoll spells it out clearly: “While Twain’s view on blacks . . . [demonstrate] unequivocal growth away from the racism of his origins in the antebellum South, his representations of Indians do not follow a similarly redemptive arc. They are instead vexingly erratic and paradoxical, commingling antipathy and sympathy, fascination and visceral repugnance” (4). Driscoll credits scholars who have dealt briefly with Twain’s attitude toward America’s indigenous people–Ned Blackhawk, Louis J. Budd, Joseph Coulombe, Leslie Fiedler, Philip Foner, Max Geismer, Harold J. Kolb, and Jeffrey Steinbrink–and points out that they tend to fall into two camps that either idealize or vilify Native Americans. Both camps distort Twain’s own views by over-simplifying the issue. The truth is more complicated, and a book length study to explore these complications is long overdue.

Driscoll’s book is that much needed and long overdue study, and well worth the wait! “Mark Twain did not care for Indians. This book is an attempt to understand why” says Driscoll (3). Driscoll describes her approach as “chronological and geographical” (7) and she documents when and where Twain met Indians, when and where he read about them, when and where he heard about them, and when and where he wrote or spoke about them. She lays out her evidence like a prosecutor, challenges her own evidence, and in doing so avoids the overgeneralizations that have plagued previous brief studies that have touched on this topic. At one point the CIA looms large in her narrative, but more about that later. She also refutes the conventional notion that Twain’s animosity toward Indians was fiercest when he was out west and that it steadily modulated during his Hartford years. His views modulated at times, but his antagonism often erupted in later years, and at best settled into an antipathy toward Indians.

Driscoll makes clear that she does not intend to “defend or defame” Twain, and reminds us that “his intellectual journey–sprawling, untidy, incomplete–matters more than where he ultimately arrived” (13). It is an amazing journey, and if Driscoll’s account of it at times seems sprawling, untidy, or incomplete, it is only a reflection of Mark Twain himself, whose genius as a storyteller and brilliancy in capturing the voice of America is justly celebrated, but whose failure to grasp the humanity of Native Americans is a flaw that cannot be ignored.

The journey begins in Sam Clemens’s early years when he likely heard his mother Jane Clemens recite the story of her own grandmother’s survival of the “Montgomery Massacre” in Kentucky in 1781, in which her father and four other family members were killed, along with some neighbors in nearby cabins, and some of her playmates captured. Although some accounts of that first attack are contradictory, it is clear that after Jane Clemens’s grandmother married, she and her husband survived three more Indian attacks on the Kentucky frontier and she displayed clear symptoms of PTSD. Jane Clemens exerted enormous influence on young Sam, and Jane did not like Indians. Despite his family heritage, sixteen year old Sam romanticized Indians on par with James Fenimore Cooper when he wrote an account of Hannibal that he published in 1852, calling them “children of the forest” who once gave “the wild war-whoop” where Hannibal now stood, but were now “scattered abroad . . . far from the homes of their childhood and the graves of their fathers” (14). Likewise, Sam’s brother Orion expressed sympathy for the displaced Indians of the region just a few years later when he penned an essay about Keokuk for the town’s first directory which he printed while Sam was in his employ.

But the brothers’ attitude toward Indians did not remain in sync. During their years in Nevada, Orion continued to express sympathy for the local Indians, while Sam’s view evolved in the opposite direction. With the exception of a single letter, he viewed the local Indians as violent, ignorant, lazy, untrustworthy, and filthy “savages”–describing them with contempt, amusement, and sometimes pity (72-73). Orion would retain his sympathy for Indians for the rest of his life, but not even the charitable views of Sam’s friend William Wright (Dan De Quille) could soften Sam’s bias. Twain could even distinguish cultural differences between the local tribes while sustaining his prejudices toward all of them. As Driscoll observes at one point, Sam Clemens “sees, in other words, but does not comprehend” (74).

.continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on The Mark Twain Forum

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.


TV Critic David Bianculli Explores Mark Twain’s Representation on the Small Screen in the Next “Trouble Begins” Lecture

The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, October 17 in Peterson Chapel, Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus. The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

The lecture, “Mark Twain, TV Star,” will be presented by David Bianculli of Rowan University and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The real Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens, appeared in only one film in his lifetime, shortly before his death: a short silent movie of him walking around his Stormfield home, photographed by Thomas Edison’s Edison film company in 1909. But since then, Mark Twain has been on television dozens of times – immortalized, and impersonated, by a frankly startling array of actors on the small screen. The best of them, Hal Holbrook in his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, you know, and should. But the rest of them? Other actors portraying Mark Twain, in various programs over the 70-year-history of television, have ranged from Jimmy Stewart and Bing Crosby to Woody Harrelson and William Shatner. The character and image of Mark Twain have been kept alive by shows ranging from Bonanza and The Rifleman to Touched by an Angel and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bianculli will discuss and show clips from all these and more.

TV Critic David Bianculli

Bianculli has been the TV critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he also appears as occasional guest host, since 1987. Beginning in 1975, he has worked as a TV critic for newspapers in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, most recently for the New York Daily News from 1993-2007. Currently, he is a full-time professor of television and film history at Rowan University, and editor of the website TV Worth Watching (, which he launched in 2007. Bianculli has written four books – The Platinum Age of Television: From ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘The Walking Dead,’ How TV Became Terrific; Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’; Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously; and Dictionary of Teleliteracy – and has written chapters for and co-edited, with Douglas Howard, Television Finales: From ‘Howdy Doody’ to ‘Girls,’ to be published by Syracuse University Press in November. Bianculli has a B. S. in Journalism and an M. A. in Journalism and Communications, both from the University of Florida.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Mark Dawidziak Celebrates Will Vinton, Oscar-winning Director, Producer, and Revolutionary Animator

Will Vinton, Oscar-winning director and producer of short-stopped animated films passed away on October 4, 2018 at the age of 70.  Here is his obituary in The New York Times.  To The Mark Twain Studies community, Vinton is best known for his work in the Claymation animated movie The Adventures of Mark Twain.

At Elmira 2013: The Seventh International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, Mark Dawidziak presented the paper “Feat of Clay: Will Winton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, Being the Story of Mark Twain, Halley’s Comet and a 1985 Film Way Ahead of its TIme.”  Dawidziak is a television critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as an acclaimed author, playwright, director, and actor who often portrays Twain in performances. A recognized Twain scholar, he has edited several books on the author, including Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing (1996), Horton Foote’s The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain (2003), Mark Twain in Ohio (2015), Mark Twain’s Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness (2015), and Mark Twain for Cat Lovers: True and Imaginary Adventures with Feline Friends (2016).  Dawidziak’s paper on Vinton’s animated groundbreaking work is below.

Mark Twain assured us that, “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”  In the mid-1980s, the man with a new idea was Will Vinton, the innovative filmmaker who coined and trademarked the term Claymation.

Vinton was the Oscar-winning director and producer of short stop-motion animated films. That wasn’t the new idea. Stop-motion animation had been around almost as long as filmmaking. Stop-motion (or stop-frame) is that painstaking process where models are moved and photographed frame by frame, creating the illusion of movement. The title character in the 1933 version of King Kong was an eighteen-inch model brought to life by stop-motion photography – move the model imperceptibly, expose one frame of film, move the model, expose a frame, move the model, expose a frame. Do that twenty-four times and you’d have one second of film, since film moved through a camera at the rate of twenty-four frames per second.

Unlike Kong, Vinton’s models were fashioned from clay. Hence the term Claymation. His idea was to make a feature-length film using only this technique.

The result was The Adventures of Mark Twain, a daring and imaginative 86-minute film that was acclaimed by many critics but baffled most audiences when it hit movie theaters in 1985. A feature-length animated film meant only one thing to audiences of 1985: kid’s stuff. Offbeat, whimsical, challenging, and sometimes quite disturbing and dark, The Adventures of Mark Twain wasn’t quite Mickey Mouse fare. The target audiences for Vinton and his team were teenagers and young adults. But, much to the frustration of the people who worked on it, The Adventures of Mark Twain was marketed as a movie for kids.

“I’ve never been interested in doing animation for children,” Vinton said during an interview for this paper. “And when I got started, 99.9 percent of animation was for children. Doing The Adventures of Mark Twain, we were entertaining ourselves, pursuing adult themes, dark humor, and subjects that interested us. We thought what interested us might interest others, too. But it unfortunately got put into a matinee-only release, and that was pure babysitting time at movie theaters. We got great what I’d call highfalutin reviews, but the marketing was completely wrong.”

Predictably, The Adventures of Mark Twain didn’t make much of a splash in 1985.

The reviews were encouraging. While some critics clearly were perplexed, among the most enthusiastic reviews was the one appearing in The New Republic, not exactly the parents’ guide to kiddie-matinee fare. The New York Daily News raved: “The Adventures of Mark Twain is an unexpected treasure. It is a classic.”

High praise, no doubt, but remember that Twain defined a classic as, “A book which people praise and don’t read. In 1985, that familiar quote could have been amended to a film which people praised and didn’t see.

“This isn’t really a children’s movie, and it was never meant to be,” said the film’s executive producer, Hugh Kennedy Tirrell. “We tested it, and it played best with college kids and teens. Then it got a G rating. It killed our target audience before we started. We were stunned and very disappointed.”

Timing is everything in show business, and The Adventures of Mark Twain was both ever-so slightly and light-years ahead of its time. Slightly ahead of its time?

“That’s the part that galls me the most,” Tirrell said. “The very next year, Will Vinton had the California Raisins commercials, which became an international phenomenon. If that first commercial had been a year before this film, it would have got the attention it deserved. So now I hope people will find it.”

He’s talking about the recent blu-ray and DVD collector’s editions by Magnolia Home Entertainment. With the audio and video transfers in the crystal range, this release vividly underscores how The Adventures of Mark Twain also was way ahead of its time. Ten years after its initial release, the Pixar–produced Toy Story made computer-animated feature films all the rage for all ages.

“Today’s digital effects are spectacular, but it’s all done in the computer,” Vinton said. “We were doing it all in the camera, and there is a joy in that purist’s approach. People used to say that stop-motion wasn’t capable of doing incredibly smooth animation. This is the film that proved them wrong, and I like to think it showed the way for those later animated films. When I think of the limitations we had, I’m amazed at how well it did turn out.”

Tirrell is more emphatic. “Even knowing how far computer-generated animation has gone, The Adventures of Mark Twain holds up gorgeously well,” he said. “This was done completely with clay and stop-motion. No computers. Even the sets were all clay. And we did it all on a shoestring. Nobody got rich creating this.”

He’s not kidding. The budget was a mere $1.5 million. Working in the basement of a house in Portland, Oregon, Vinton and his adventurous crew of about 17 people took four years to complete the film. To put that in some perspective, consider the 2009 Pixar film Up. It had a budget of – ready? – $175 million and a crew of about 1,000 people.

The idea for The Adventures of Mark Twain started with Tirrell, and his interest in Twain was sparked by a youthful encounter with Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of the writer.

“I was the Mark Twain aficionado,” Tirrell said. “It was my brainchild, but the execution was an extraordinary effort led by Will. I originally approached Will about doing a half-hour adaptation of Twain’s diaries of Adam and Eve. The closer we got to it, the more I started thinking about a feature film that also would incorporate some of his other wonderful pieces.”

As Tirrel had hoped and planned, the idea expanded as Vinton got to know more about Mark Twain and his writings.

“Hugh kept talking Twain to me, and I kept putting him off,” Vinton said. “Then Hugh sent me a massive volume of Twain’s works. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I was aware of Twain the humorist, but when I read this . . . wow! With the diaries of Adam and Eve well on the way to becoming a short film, Hugh felt he could raise the money for a feature film. And we had the perfect team for it.

Susan Shadburne wrote the screenplay, drawing on works by and about Twain. Composer Billy Scream tackled the music. And despite the tight budget, Vinton and Tirrell managed to snare James Whitmore as the voice of Twain.

“We wanted Hal Holbrook, of course, but he turned us down,” Vinton said. “So how did we get James Whitmore? That was Hugh again.”

“Jim Whitmore did it because we agreed to fly him to Oregon from Houston, where he was appearing at a dinner theater,” Tirrell said. “We were lucky. He didn’t need to make a lot of money at that point in his career. And we didn’t have a lot of money to give him. We had him for about two days. He was actually terrific, but, while we were recording his voice, he never wanted to hear a playback. He would say, ‘If you like it, then let’s go on. If you don’t like it, I’ll do it again.’ How lucky can you get?”

What emerged from that basement in Portland is one of the very few outstanding films inspired by either Twain’s life or his works – in this case, inspired by Twain’s life and his works. To make that case, let me take you back to 1985. Let me set the scene for you. Try to see it. Try to see the magnificent airship sitting in a Missouri field, surrounded by astounded gawkers. With a paddle wheel at the stern and a gaudy pilot house perched at the top, it appears to be some kind of delightfully bizarre high-flying hybrid: part Wizard of Oz balloon, part Mississippi steamboat, part carnival attraction.

A banner hanging from the red blimpish center proclaims, “Halley’s Comet or Bust.” Standing at the lower deck, Mark Twain addresses an understandably curious crowd, explaining the meaning of those words. Twain, dressed in his trademark white suit and brandishing a cigar, tells the wide-eyed onlookers that he intends to rendezvous with the celestial visitor. “I go to meet the comet,” he proclaims. “Yes, indeed, I surely plan to.”

It is the last adventure, as he well knows. Shadburne’s opening scene with Twain, paraphrases an actual Twain quote. “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” Twain said in 1909. “It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that!”

He will make this trip. He will make it in this spectacular vessel of his own construction and design. See it? See it sitting in that Missouri field under an incredibly blue summer sky?  Tom Sawyer sees it, and he can’t resist the temptation to climb on board and share the adventures. Well, how could he? Huckleberry Finn is reluctant to accompany his comrade, but, as Tom tells him, “You couldn’t see an adventure hanging from the end of your nose.”

Before long, the ship is taking off with not only Tom and Huck as stowaways, but a frog named Homer, too. Becky Thatcher is on board, as well, and there might just be some type of mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows. With Twain as our lightning pilot, we are along for the ride as the magical airship makes its way toward his destined rendezvous with Halley’s Comet.

The vehicle and the journey suggest the Jules Verne-ish Tom Sawyer Abroad, one of many Twain tales slyly referenced in Shadburne’s script. There are rattling echoes of this 1894 book, and we quickly see how splendidly Claymation can be utilized to visualize moments from Twain’s writings.

The film begins in a lighthearted mood with the children (and us) charmed by the witty, grandfatherly Twain. Noticing Homer, Twain remarks that he’s “an uncommon fine frog.” It was a frog like Homer, he explains to the children, that put him in “the writing business.” It’s a short Claymation hop from there to a playful telling of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Homer literally melts into the tale, becoming part of the familiar proceedings as a superbly expressive Dan’l Webster. When an outraged Jim Smiley realizes he has been hornswoggled, Homer jumps out of the tale, back with Twain, Tom, Becky, and Huck.

This is just one of dozens of fanciful little touches sure to delight those familiar with Twain’s life and works. When the ship’s load needs to be lightened, one of the items gleefully tossed overboard is the Paige typesetter that caused Twain so much trouble. As we make our way toward the comet, we are treated to excerpts from the “Diaries” of Adam and Eve, “The Chronicle of Young Satan,” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” Serving up intriguing insights into Twain’s mind and writing, Shadburne’s script also features regular borrowings from Life on the Mississippi, Puddn’head Wilson, Following the Equator, the autobiography, the letters, and the speeches.

Given the film’s history, it’s not surprising that the longest and most touching excerpts feature Adam and Eve, but the most deeply disturbing is the scene from “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” The film glides into spooky and unnerving territory when Tom, Becky, and Huck wander into a dark room where a young angel named Satan molds a village and people from, well, clay. They watch in horror as an emotionless Satan casually crushes the village and destroys the crude humanoid forms. Satan’s mask transforms into a death mask, shrinking into the merest glint in Twain’s eye. Vinton pulls back the perspective to reveal Twain’s pain-etched face. It’s a haunting and unnerving sequence that brilliantly exploits the flexibility of Claymation storytelling.

“Sometimes the old man seems powerful unhappy,” Huck says. Sometimes he is. Taking on darker tones, therefore, the movie keeps the children guessing why Twain seems so mirthful one moment, so miserable the next. Even the interior of the airship plays skillfully on this troubling contradiction, with bits and pieces suggesting the Clemens family’s Hartford house, a steamboat cabin, and Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, featured in two Jules Verne novels. There is much humor, of course. There are messages of hope. There also is much talk of death and dying. That’s because, before this dreamy, sometimes nightmarish voyage is over, The Adventures of Mark Twain will explore the theory that the writer was an endlessly fascinating study in duality.

Few adages get trotted out more reliably and regularly than the one that assures us, “There are two sides to every story.” This familiar proposition certainly has been assiduously applied to Samuel Langhorne Clemens ever since Justin Kaplan kicked the whole duality approach into high gear with his landmark 1966 biography, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.

The title of Kaplan’s incredibly influential work trumpeted the idea that there were two sides to Mark Twain. And Twain provided no end of fuel for this psychological line of inquiry. There was his deep fascination with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were all those stories with twins and doubles. There were the numerous and fascinating contradictions. There was that plaintively provocative line from Following the Equator: “Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”  There was his very choice of a pen name, with its tease for two and two for tease.

So, understandably, many a Twain scholar has followed Justin Kaplan’s lead, deciding that this is, indeed, the story of a man with two sides in constant conflict. It has become the stuff of academic studies, analytical criticism, and, yes, rich debate. And how about an animated feature film? Why not?

“It began with the concept of the dark and the light,” Shadburne said. “Anyone who has read Twain, knows anything about him at all, knows that he had a very depressive side, and that his humor – fun and funny and light as it could be – also had a very dark side.”

So Tom, Huck, and Becky are encountering two Twains: the one in the white suit representing the genial humorist and beloved family author; the other, in a dark suit, representing, well, the dark Twain.

“That was in there by design,” Vinton said. “Another thing we worked very hard at was making as many lines as possible verbatim Mark Twain. It was a very long, very involved, but incredibly rewarding process. Through it all, we never lost track of the fact that we were thoroughly enjoying the process. There was nobody in this tight-knit group who didn’t fully understand the vision and mission.”

It turns out to be quite the exhilarating ride, infinitely more faithful to the spirit of Mark Twain than the earlier film titled The Adventures of Mark Twain (the 1944 Warner Bros. “biography” starring Fredric March) or the many disappointing Hollywood adaptations of his novels. A constant marvel in look and content, Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain is a stirring realization of Shadburne’s goal when fashioning the script. “That’s a film that speaks to grownups who are looking for meaning,” she said. “And an awful lot of animation doesn’t do that anymore.”

No, it certainly doesn’t. So, interested? Then I’d advise you to follow Tom, Huck, and Becky. Climb on board this airship and head for the comet. It’s a trip well worth taking, and you couldn’t be in better company. It was, in fact, in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Twain told us, “I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Travel with this crew and there’s a very good chance you’ll find plenty to like – plenty to intrigue you, and plenty to dazzle and delight your senses. Fueled by an appreciation of Mark Twain and his work, Vinton’s film truly is nothing less than a remarkable feat of clay.

2018 Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium Recap

Last weekend (October 5-7. 2018) CMTS hosted the 2018 Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium “American Literary History and Economics in the New Gilded Age.”

The economic expansion of the U.S. during Mark Twain’s lifetime was unprecedented, in this country or any other. Twain was fascinated by the technological innovations that transformed commerce and industry, the volatile financial markets that strained to keep up with the demands of entrepreneurs and investors, the infamous magnates that accumulated private fortunes unimaginable to previous generations, the corrosive symbiosis of private wealth and public servants, the precarious plight of consumers and laborers who both drove the economy and were periodically driven over by it, and the fledgling field of philosophical inquiry, political economy, aimed at understanding the organizing principles of capitalist society.

Before anybody suspected he would become the literary figure who defined this era, Twain gave it its lasting nickname, the Gilded Age, recognizing that the luxurious lifestyles of America’s nouveau riche celebrities and the bedazzling technologies advertised by American entrepreneurs disguised deep disparities of wealth, exploitative employment practices, systemic corruption, and widespread financial fraud. As we find ourselves in what is now frequently called “The New Gilded Age,” characterized by many of the same phenomena, CMTS’s Fifth Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium featured scholars who explore the intersections of economic history, economic theory, mass media, and literature.

The symposium was organized by Henry B. Wonham (University of Oregon), Lawrence Howe (Roosevelt University), and Matt Seybold (Elmira College). Wonham and Howe’s collection, Mark Twain & Money, was published in 2017, while Seybold’s Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (coedited with Michelle Chihara) was just published this year.

The official symposium program with full abstracts of all the talks can be found here.

The festivities began with an opening reception on the Elmira College campus.  After a welcome address from Dr. Charles Lindsay, President of Elmira College, Professor Matt Seybold (Elmira College) kicked off the talks with an introductory address.  Dr. Seybold’s talk can be found here.  The opening reception was highlighted by David Sloan Wilson (Distinguished Professor of Biology & Anthropology at Binghamton University) delivering the keynote address “Mark Twain, Cultural Multilevel Selection, and the New Gilded Age.”  This provocative talk challenged literary scholars to theorize the multilevel selection of systems of meaning and maladaptive economic systems.  An audio-recording of Professor Wilson’s talk can be found here.

The majority of the symposium took place at beautiful Quarry Farm, where 11 papers were delivered in an intimate section.  A number of the talks were recorded.  All of the recorded talks can be found in the Trouble Begins Archives. After all the papers were delivered, all attendees enjoyed a cocktail hour on the Porch at Quarry Farm, followed by a dinner in the Barn.

They symposium concluded with a farewell breakfast at Quarry Farm where attendees conversed and said their good-byes to old and new colleagues.

CMTS is pleased to announce that we are already working on the 2019 Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium, tentatively titled “Mark Twain and the Natural World.”   This gathering will explore the relation between human beings and the natural world. This broad scope allows for critical examinations of Twain’s writing about the natural world in any number of ways: as nature writing; as a form of environmentalism; as commentary on animal welfare, technology and science, and travel; and as a forerunner to mid-20th to early 21st century writers (Krutch, Abbey, Kingsolver, Quammen, and Gessner) who offer comic responses to nature as well as recognize the comic in the natural world and in our relationship to that world. The conference organizer is Ben Click (St. Mary’s College of Maryland).  Professor Click is the current editor of Mark Twain Annual and plans to publish a special issue of MTA in conjunction with the symposium.

Images from Friday’s Opening Reception and Saturday’s Paper Sessions