Mark Twain: Television Star

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.

David Bianculli

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.”

#4 – Laramie “Company Man” (NBC, Season 1, Episode 21, Feb. 9, 1960)

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.

#18 – Cheers, “Pudd’nHead Boyd” (NBC, Season 6, episode 9, Nov. 26, 1987)

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.

New Documentary focuses on Twain’s Time in Buffalo

For over three decades I poked around in the area of Twain’s connection to my hometown, Buffalo, NY.

Mark Twain’s home in Buffalo (472 Delaware Avenue) as pictured in 1947. The home was demolished in 1963.

I spent countless hours in the Grosvenor Room of the Central Library in downtown Buffalo flipping through pages of the over one hundred volumes of the Local History and Local Biographies scrapbooks, taking notes from pasted newspaper clippings that contained relevant information. I read and cross-referenced entries in Buffalo City Directories of the late 1860s and 1870s searching for names and addresses of Twain’s Buffalo Express colleagues, his fellow renters in a boarding house on East Swan Street while he was still a bachelor, various friends and associates that he socialized with, and neighbors in the posh Delaware District community that he moved into once he married Olivia Langdon. A kind and trusting Buffalo History Museum research librarian once even let me borrow an 1869 Buffalo City Directory that had belonged to Millard Fillmore for a weekend so I could study it at home.

I also logged hour after hour hunched over at cumbersome, hand-cranked, dimly-lit microfilm reader machines at public libraries in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Elmira, at the former Buffalo Courier-Express library, at the Niagara Gazette library, at the Elmira College archives, and at SUNY Buffalo State’s E.H. Butler Library, scrutinizing each issue of the Buffalo Express, the Buffalo Daily Courier and the Buffalo Commercial-Advertiser from 1869 to 1871 for any references to items related to Twain and the Buffalo he resided in, worked at and wrote about.

Finally, I spent much of those thirty-plus years exploring leads gleaned from obituaries, tips from human sources and hunches that led me to identify and contact living descendants of Twain’s Buffalo professional and social circle who generously shared nuggets of family lore about their forbearer’s association with Twain. I was extremely fortunate to have mentors, too, like Vic Doyno, Bill Loos, Charles Brady, and Martin Fried, and countless other librarians, scholars, friends and family members, to nudge me in the right direction. The research was never tedious or boring. Rather, the detective work was gratifying, often exhilarating. Along the way, I published bits of my findings in academic journals, magazines and newspapers, delivered presentations at Twain conferences and gave illustrated lectures to many service organizations.

Next, I embarked on a book-length project intended to comprehensively document Twain’s affiliation with Buffalo. The result was the publication of Scribblin’ for a Livin’—Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo in 2013. In the four years after its release I participated in over sixty book talks and signings. Occasionally, I met people who provided new insights into Twain’s relationship with Buffalo, and on my own I continued to make startling discoveries. Frankly, I was surprised to be stumbling across heretofore unknown facts in the aftermath of what I had hoped would become the “seminal” book about Twain’s Buffalo experience.

I decided that I wanted to add these new revelations and discoveries in a second, revised version of the book. Unfortunately, after the initial print run of 1,500 copies was fully distributed and sold, the original publisher insisted on only filling subsequent orders “on demand.” These print-on-demand (POD) products were inferior—smaller than the original book, with virtually photocopied pages, and with a lower quality cover–in short, an embarrassing-looking book. Furthermore, when I inquired, the publisher was not at all interested in sponsoring a revised edition with new, additional insights into Twain and Buffalo.

So, in January of 2018 I hired an attorney to pursue termination of my contract. Within a few weeks a legal agreement was struck terminating the contract and reverting all rights for the book to me. By springtime, I had lined up a new publisher, NFB Publishing, and by the end of June, a new, expanded version of Scribblin’ for a Livin’, with thirty additional pages of text, a couple of new images, an improved index, and a colorful new cover design, was available.

Around that time I had noticed on NFB Publishing’s website that one of their book titles—a biography of hall of fame 1920s-30s boxer Jimmy Slattery—was accompanied by an entertaining 10-minute documentary about Slattery; the film was meant to tie-in to the new Slattery biography. When I asked if something similar could be done in conjunction with my expanded edition of Scribblin’, the publisher, Mark Pogodzinski, put me in touch with videographer Kevin Heffernan of Rise Collaborative. I invited Amy Pickard, curator of Rare Books for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and supervisor of their Mark Twain Room, and Bob Butler, an Emeritus Professor of English at Canisius College, to be interviewed for their thoughts on Twain’s life and times in Buffalo, and I sought permission ffrom various sources to include still images. Kevin Heffernan filmed the interviews with Bob, Amy, and I in late September and early October of 2018 at Canisius and at the Central Library.

In late November, the 10-minute documentary went public, including a sparkling narration by Holly Kirkpatrick, and extra video “bonus commentaries” by Amy and me. The film covers Twain’s Buffalo period and helps to promote the expanded edition of my book. To my knowledge, it represents the first extended documentary ever produced that focuses on Twain in Buffalo.

COMMENTARY: Scribblin’ For a Livin’ – Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period In Buffalo

BONUS COMMENTARY: Mark Twain Used his Bully Pulpit to both Help his Family, Denounce Racism

BONUS COMMENTARY: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library’s Manuscript of Huckleberry Finn

Twain for Teachers: 88 Days In The Mother Lode Documentary

It is safe to say that most secondary school students know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from their novels. But they do know less of the enormous variety in Mark Twain’s literary output and the extraordinary triumphs and tragedies of his life. If using class time to show a film, teachers must have precise learning objectives, making certain to engage students’ attention and prompt them to respond with fuller appreciation of the subject matter.

There are several fine documentaries on Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ life, some of which give special attention to his meteoric rise to fame following the publication of “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” in 1865. This n’ That Films’ 2015 documentary 88 Days in the Mother Lode: Mark Twain Finds His Voice provides a superior exploration of this vitally fascinating genesis to Clemens’ budding career. Director John C. Brown and his co-Producer Bern Simonis show how in eighty-eight days Clemens went from “local newspaper reporter to eventually becoming an international celebrity” in the words of the very passionately enthusiastic Calaveras storyteller and author James Fletcher, one of the film’s narrators. The 70-minute film shows the significance of Clemens’ California stay at Jackass Hill in Tuolomne County and Angels Camp in Calaveras County from December 1864 to February 1865. To say that Clemens heard the jumping frog story in an old mining camp and set down a few brief lines does neither justice to the story nor, more importantly, to this highly formative time in his life.

Fletcher is accompanied in his commentary by five authoritative narrators: Victor Fischer, Principal Editor of the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley; James Caron, Professor of English at the University of Hawaii; Michelle Gordon, Assistant Professor of English at USC Los Angeles; and Rob Gordon of the Tuolumne County Historical Society. They are extremely engaging about this area in Mark Twain Studies. Their insightful and pertinent viewpoints are interwoven with a great variety of period photographs of Twain and his contemporaries, the Nevada territory, and California. Students’ attention is pleasingly held by the voice of Thomas McGuire as Mark Twain.

In addition, 88 Days features actors in period dress and locale moving and talking in voiceover in key scenes that capture the different atmosphere and emotional tones experienced by Clemens. The music is uplifting and many sweeping, aerial shots are used to give bird’s-eye views of Jackass Hill.

The film shows that the Civil War ended Clemens’ river piloting career and so he traveled with his brother Orion to the new Nevada territory. He tried his hand at silver mining without success, but his letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise earned him a job offer as its city editor. Here he would meet Steve Gillis, the newspaper’s managing compositor – a task Clemens knew from the “printer’s devil” apprenticing days of his youth in Hannibal. Their friendship was “instant,” says Fletcher. In fact, Rob Gordon notes that eventually the entire Gillis family was instrumental in the development of Clemens during his time in the West.

From Clemens’ reporting mixed with fictionalizing characters and dialogue emerged “tales” which are recognizable, like Caron says, as “really Mark Twain!” But after telling lies with no apology, it was safer for Clemens to leave for San Francisco. Many students experience repeated failures in trying to find their talents in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities. They can connect with Clemens who, in his time as a reporter for The Morning Call and The Californian, is unhappy. Though he wrote important articles, they did not satisfy the talents he didn’t yet know he had.  His life in late 1864 is very sad and desperate. He was destitute and may have even considered suicide.

A barroom brawl involving Gillis cost Clemens $500 in bond money he didn’t have, after which he left San Francisco. He joined Gillis’s quartz-mining brother on Jackass Hill, where he waited for things to blow over.  There he meets Dick Stoker, Jim Gillis’s mining partner, who gives Clemens an impression that will last him a lifetime. Jim tells elaborate stories about Dick with “voracious history,” soberly pretending that they are true. As Fischer says, Jim’s “brilliant ability to spin these yarns and mesmerize his audience” gets into Clemens’s books later on. Michelle Gordon adds that Clemens “has a real ear for the pacing, the humor, the narrator’s posture or pose and how all this can shape how a story is told.”

One year earlier, he was influenced by Artemus Ward, the era’s greatest stage performer and the first to burlesque the serious lecture. These two exposures coincided with his time at Angels Camp in Calaveras County. Bartender Ben Coon’s serious tale of a rigged jumping frog contest awakened him to sharpening his gift for storytelling. As Rob Gordon argues, Ward’s successful lecturing style and willingness to help Clemens get started coalesce in “a spoken voice” for the platform which builds on the Mark Twain persona.

Fischer sees this as a time during which Clemens was inspired to try writing again. He buys a journal to record memories and observations which he feels could someday be useful either for tales or lectures, much like we require of our own students. Journaling is a great way to motivate students to practice writing with low-stakes, while also developing useful building blocks and a long-range plan for formal writing assignments.

Clemens realizes he cannot stay away from San Francisco forever and must earn money, so he travels back in February of 1865. He finds letters from Ward asking for a sketch. He revises and sends him the “jumping frog” story for publication, which becomes his vehicle to national fame.

The film also follows Twain’s trip to the Sandwich Islands to write travel letters for the Sacramento Union. Upon his return, theatre owner Thomas Maguire urges him to give a lecture. As Caron remarks, Clemens’s “natural conversational style drew in the audience with perfect timing, as though he is yarning back at the cabin again!” He is made “aware of ‘Mark Twain’ as a commercial brand and runs with it.”

Fletcher concludes the film with Clemens’s rising estimation of his written and oral talents, motivating him to leave the West, go back East, and sign up for the Holy Land Tour, which Twain aficionados know will result in his first long-form literary success, The Innocents Abroad.


Manzanita Writers Press has an accompanying book Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode & Stories of the Gold Rush (2015) written and compiled by Fletcher. In addition to studying many fine photographs, students will relate to reading about the annual four-day Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee. also has a fifteen-minute interview of Director Brown and “Miner Jim” Fletcher prepared and conducted by the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau.

What my students said they gained from watching and discussing this film was foremost a reminder that their education involves the constant sharpening of critical listening skills. Samuel Clemens was not merely born with an innate understanding of the rhythms and structure of good storytelling. He developed that talent by carefully listening and analyzing the storytelling techniques of both professionals (like Ward) and skilled amateurs (like Coons). Furthermore, they respect that Twain’s literature and lectures only came to fruition through a laborious process of drafting and revising.

What is useful for teachers is that this film shows the early and persevering efforts of Mark Twain. Students see that in order to speak confidently and effectively in front of a classroom, a boardroom, or even an audience-filled theater, whether for entertainment or persuasion, they must devote themselves to methodical and deliberate preparation and rehearsed delivery.

They witness that his final work products in journalism, storytelling, and lecturing certainly did not come easy. Clemens persevered through hard work, determination, self-examination (including bouts of insecurity), resilience, and finally a recognition, acceptance, and development of his peculiar style as a writer and lecturer. His climb to success was not rapid.

Indeed, Fischer says that Clemens “had so much time to absorb all he saw for sketches, books, and memoirs all his life.” This reminds students to appreciate the vast amount of time given to them by virtue of their youth. They can relate to Mark Twain as a young person with ambition who had to overcome failures and reinvent himself before he found success.

Ultimately, I believe my students gain a fuller appreciation of the timeless gift of storytelling that is so vital to have in today’s complex world. Fischer comments that the Old West had its own culture and Clemens drew from it. This film challenges students to mine the ore of their own cultures and so understand and report to those around them.


John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.  

21st-Century Students Respond to Sensitive Texts

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Jocelyn Chadwick responded to the recent removal of “sensitive texts,” including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum in Duluth Public Schools by asking “When will WE listen?” This week, Dr. Chadwick and John E. Grassie, co-authors of Teaching Literature in the Context of Literacy Instructionshare with us the voices of some of the students who they have been listening to as they tour U.S. classrooms.



In so many ways and for so many reasons, we practitioners of English language arts find ourselves not only explaining what we do and how we do it but also be asked to explicate in detail just how our discipline, K-16, provides a lifelong foundation for children — cradle to grave. The time has indeed come for us to review, reflect upon, and define what we do, and why what we do IS critical to daily living, college, and career. We must provide these answers in words and from voices that parents, the community, local, state and federal leaders and policymakers can understand, as Jim says, “by de back.”

To make the argument reliable and powerful, no voices can be as explicatory and definitive as our students’. This video provides some of the compacted insight of students from around the country, who explain why they should be allowed to read sensitive, uncomfortable texts. We work with these teachers and students, and so many more. Listening to students, empowering them to rethink, reanalyze, and reevaluate these cherished texts. Through the distinct experiences of this generation of students old texts relevant are made newly relevant.



Jocelyn A. Chadwick is a life-long English teacher and scholar. She is currently President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and is a form Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she still lectures occasionally. She has worked with Ken Burns and PBS (WGBH, WNET), and is currently a consultant with NBC News Education and NBC Learn. She was panel member for the series Celebrating America’s Authors, and an invited guest at the White House. Among her published works are The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shiftsand numerous articles on education and Mark Twain. She is currently working on a new book, entitled Writing for Life: Using Literature to Teach Writing.

When Will WE Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Duluth Public School District in Minnesota recently decided to drop two novels from their curriculumAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. Jocelyn Chadwick, current President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and a former Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Educationis both an expert on secondary education in the U.S. and an acclaimed scholar of Mark Twain, having authored The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry FinnShe takes this opportunity to discuss the importance of these controversial texts to contemporary students. 

“I use the word nigger, and I don’t think much about it. So, I want to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for myself so that I can understand the history around the word and think about it again for myself.” – Student, Capitol Preparatory Magnet School (2017)

That we as adult citizens of the United States of America yet find ourselves seemingly inextricably enmeshed in the morass that is racism continues to be disturbing. Of course, parents and we who educate children, especially English language arts teachers, are not only cognizant of troubling social issues, including racism and America’s dark history, but also other isms and the accompanying violence that are increasingly prevalent. Both Minnesota’s Michael Cary and Stephan Witherspoon articulated these concerns most recently within the context of students’ reading two texts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird:

“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”


“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”

At present, because of the social and political and economic upheavals our children have and continue to experience, our English language arts classes — PreK-16 — are the places and spaces where our children can explore, question, analyze, and evaluate serious issues, troubling moments, and sensitive topics, particularly, the issue of RACE.

Interestingly, some who would censor such texts as Huck Finn and Mockingbird often overlook what lies at the core of just how such texts foment conversations and thoughts which have populated our children’s’ minds. Difference and/or the issue of Other permeate students’ minds and experiences; ethnicity including race, comprises a portion but decidedly not the whole of challenges and concerns our children encounter and confront every single day as they head out to school, to community activities, to play, to interact on social media, even to interact with family members.

As a life-long educator and Mark Twain scholar who remains in schools across our country from elementary to college, my question always is, Where are the students’ voices? I agree with Mr. Cary and Mr. Witherspoon that our nation’s children have been surrounded by the dis-comfortable discourse they encounter online, on television, in their communities, and on the streets of America. All too often, our nation’s children see, watch, hear, read, sometimes sing to and/or dance to songs with the history-laden and blood-soaked word nigger, or some variant iteration of it.

Rather than our hiding away and pushing down exploration, analysis, research, and open-discussion, our nation’s English language arts classrooms are safe spaces that do not, as Freire says “deposit” information into students’ minds; rather, today, our ELA classrooms and educators create sustained learning and exploratory opportunities for our students—instructional opportunities where students’ voices and perspectives are encouraged and honed for both daily living and college and career. The literature our students experience from fairy and folk tales to sobering fiction and nonfiction — all allow them to peer deeply into life’s troubles, challenges, discomforts, decisions and consequences, encountering noble and ignoble individuals and actions, but from a safe distance. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are no different from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Beloved, Othello, Merchant of Venice or Douglass’ Monthly, to cite a very few formative and critical texts. All are sensitive, all controversial, all totally reflective of the world then and now: verisimilitude. And all contain some form of sensitive, historical usage.

Just what are the consequences of our not fighting on behalf of our children to keep these texts in front of our children? For me the answer to my ever-present query emerges with an interesting juxtaposition between Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. I frequently reference these two speeches:

Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech to the citizens of Rochester, NY “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Mark Twain’s 1907 speech to The American Society in London on “The Day We Celebrate.” I frequently recommend this pairing to teachers and also share myself with students because Douglass and Twain, without conscious intent, literally recreate a rhetorical call and response, using compelling, written prose. Douglass states his ire and the irony of his being asked to address the import fellow Abolitionists (most of whom are white) place on celebrating a national holiday that neither champions him nor his kind. He concludes the sobering and blistering speech with his call:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. . . . The conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.

55 years after Douglass’ speech, Mark Twain would galvanize an audience with his response:

. . . The Fourth of July, and the one which you are celebrating now, born, in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776—that is English too. It is not American. . . . We have, however, one Fourth of July which is absolutely our own and that is the great proclamation issued forty years ago by that great American . . . Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s proclamation, which not only set the black slave free, but set the white man free also. The owner was set free from the burden and offence, that sad condition of things where he was in so many instances a master and owner of slaves he did not want to be. That proclamation set them all free.

Provided even these short excerpts, our students today through their unique lenses hear, see, and reflect quite differently from students of the 20th century: not just equality but equity; not just equity and equality, but both set within an ethical and universal context.

We now exist in an environ where those who should know better regularly give verbal life to such limiting and, yes, racist ideas that if one is not of the specific color, then one cannot write about a different race or ethnicity. Just what does such a stance express to our children of the 21st century? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Henry James, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jacqueline Woodson, Jimmy Santiago Baca—and so many, many more have shown us this position is one devoid not only substance but also and more importantly, such positions lack Equity, Equality, Ethics. Though many of our children may indeed be challenged and constricted by economic class, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, religious practice, as well as other social and personal contexts — regardless of ethnicity and because of it — our consciously limiting access to and for them through the literature experienced in ELA classes is faulty logic and incredibly dangerous.

Students today across our country view works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird quite differently than did we, than did our parents, or even our grandparents. Students today view these works as informative because they find themselves ensconced in the 24/7 turmoil Mr. Cary and Witherspoon cite, across racial lines. The classroom, especially the ELA classroom, provides a safe distance through which our nation’s children — all of them — can inquire, examine, and make meaning through their lenses — not ours.

The one and primary caveat about which we ELA educators must remain ever-vigilant: the imperative of better preparing educators who feel they are not wholly prepared for such instruction. We who can help must help. We must help because these books and others like them are important. We dare not censor history, not even its language, for when we do, we sanitize it and our children’s Memory fades forever. How can they learn and move forward into their future without sustaining and always holding onto their and our Memory?

The Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest

The Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest

CMTS is pleased to announce the creation of creative writing contest for elementary school students.  Three winners will be awarded a tour of Quarry Farm, including inside the main house.

A PDF copy of this assignment can be found by clicking here.

Mark Twain on the Quarry Farm Porch

The Center for Mark Twain Studies encourages local elementary school teachers to discuss Mark Twain’s legacy in Elmira and the Southern Tier region of New York State.  2nd grade to 6th grade students from local schools are encouraged take part in this writing contest and submit their creative writing stories.  A “local school” is defined as being no more than 25 miles away from Quarry Farm.  Quarry Farm is the home where Mark Twain lived for over twenty consecutive summers and is the place were Twain penned The Adventures of Tom SawyerAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other important texts. The deadline for the stories is April 16, 2018.  Three winners from three different schools will be chosen by the CMTS Staff.  Winners will be given a personal tour inside of Quarry Farm and be able to read their story right next to the Quarry Farm Parlor Fireplace.  Winners will also be able to bring their class or entire grade (depending on overall size).  The tour of Quarry Farm will conclude with Mark Twain’s favorite dessert: gingerbread, vanilla ice cream and lemonade!

All the fireplace tiles and a full virtual tour of Quarry Farm can be found at  The virtual tour can be found by clicking here.  The fireplace tiles can be found by clicking here.

Submit all your stories to the Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College, 1 Park Place, Elmira, NY 14901


The Writing Assignment and Writing Prompt

Susan Crane on the Quarry Farm Porch

It was July of 1886 and my parents and I had been invited to join Susan Crane and her husband Theodore for dessert at Quarry Farm, their home overlooking the city of Elmira, New York, the Chemung  River Valley and the hills beyond.  As our carriage made its way up East Hill, we passed the Elmira Water Cure Sanitarium and directly across from it the home of the Reverend Thomas Beecher and his wife Julia.  Our drive up to Quarry Farm was filled with great anticipation for not only would we be spending the evening with the Cranes but also with Susan Crane’s sister Olivia, Olivia’s three daughters and her most famous husband, Mark Twain.  As our carriage stopped at the side of the big front porch, I spied out on the lawn a series of little pegs.  My parents had told me about the lawn game that Mark Twain had devised to teach his children English history and, too, about Ellerslie, the playhouse that Aunt Susie Crane had recently had built for her nieces.  I had heard that the playhouse had it’s own fireplace!

Quarry Farm Parlor and Fireplace

My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the welcoming greetings of the Susan Crane who appeared on the Quarry Farm porch, followed by Olivia, her daughters and several cats.  But, Mark Twain was nowhere to be seen!  As we were led into the cozy home, I saw the dining room to my left and on the large table I noticed that a plentiful and lovely dessert had been laid out. And then, as my eyes wandered across the hall into the parlor, I noticed a man with a big bushy mustache, smoking a cigar.  This was Mark Twain himself! He was sitting in front of a beautifully tiled fireplace, a tortoise-shell cat curled up on his lap.  As he rose from his chair, I gathered  the courage to ask the name of his cat and he replied that his name was “Sour-Mash.” Mark Twain then asked us to gather around the fireplace with him for he had a creative task for us.  This evening, instead of reading from the pages that he had written during the day, he invited us to choose a favorite tile that decorated the hearth and then to imagine a story to accompany the tile.  I noticed that there were little scenes of animals on the tiles and I was quickly engrossed by several of the scenes.  He told us that one of the best storytellers that ever lived was a person from a long time ago named Aesop and that the scenes around the fireplace were all about his stories. Mark Twain explained to us the various details that must accompany our new story and told us that we would all share our stories after dessert.  He chuckled and left us with our thoughts as we moved back into the dining room for a splendid dessert that had been prepared by Mary Ann Cord, their cook.

Here are the details that Mark Twain instructed us to consider when creating our stories.  Each storyteller should do the following:

1.  Look at the fireplace in the Quarry Farm Virtual Tour and then select one of the tiles that captures your attention.  A Virtual Tour of Quarry Farm and the Parlor can be found here.  High-definition images of each fireplace tile can be found here.

2.  Understand that the tiles illustrate fables written by the Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop whose stories are illustrated in these tiles. Almost all of Aesop’s fables contain animals who speak as humans and illustrate a moral lesson.

3.  Write your own fable, different from Aesop’s original, based on the tile that you have chosen.

4.  The narrative should include the following:

         A.  A description of what is happening in the scene.

         B.  A description of the setting (time of day, season, landscape).

         C.  A description of the relationship of the characters.  Are they strangers?  Do they know each other?

         D.  A description of what the characters are saying or feeling.

         E.  A statement of the problem or dilemma that the characters are discussing in your story.

         F.   A moral or a statement that sums up the lesson in the story

         G.  A title for your story.

When we had finished our dessert and were summoned back into the parlor, Mark Twain asked each of us to tell our story.  I was a bit timid because his daughters, Suzy, Clara and Jean, had done this many times and I was quite new at this.  But we all took our turns and shared the stories that we had created and Mark Twain seemed happy with all of our efforts…even mine!  This was an evening that I will always remember!!


The Quarry Farm Cats


Olivia Langdon Clemens, and her daughters, Suzy, Clara, and Jean


Mary Ann Cord


For Teachers and School Administrators

CMTS has made this assignment fit neatly into the New York and Pennsylvania Common Core Standards.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

#3    Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Grade 5: Text Types and Purposes:

Orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.

Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, and pacing, to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.

Use a variety of transitional words, phrases, and clauses to manage the sequence of events.

Use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely.

Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events    

While this assignment demonstrates the 5th grade Standards, these standards can apply to the 2nd trough 6th grade levels. For example the 2nd grade Standard reads: Write narratives in which they recount a well- elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

Many thanks to Elmira College alumna, Mary “Cookie” Shultz ‘65, and the Elmira College Education Department for their help with this project.

A PDF copy of this assignment can be found by clicking here.

Twain For Teachers: Market Your Own Patent Medicine

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series focused on adapting Twain to the classroom. If you have an assignment, activity, lesson plan, syllabus design, or pedagogical narrative which you would like to share with other teachers, please consider writing it up (500-1200 words) and sending it [email protected]

Now approaching its third year, the English elective “Writings of Mark Twain” at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey explores the life, works, and world of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This is one of very few secondary school courses that focus on a single author for an entire year, and apparently the only one in the United States devoted to Mark Twain, which is a shame, since, in the words of Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain connects with everything!”

The course is open to juniors and seniors and this past year, in addition to studying a wide range of his sketches, essays, letters, and short stories, we took a class trip to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford and Skyped with several noted Mark Twain scholars. The novel I selected for this year was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Obviously Twain’s literary output is enormously varied and the choice of a novel is a delightful challenge. The junior year English requirement focuses on American literature and has featured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for decades, so most students have heard of Tom Sawyer, but never read it. When we teach Huckleberry Finn, there is a noticeable frustration with the opening pages, as students realize they are reading a sequel without knowing what happened in the first installment. They are excited to read Tom Sawyer, especially for Huck’s first appearance, and to see how much the characters have changed.

I ask the students if they were ever jealous of another individual. Did they ever feel a teacher was personally determined to lower their grade? Did they have Saturday plans ruined by their parents who had daylong chores set aside for them? Did they ever get bored in Sunday school or by sermons in their houses of worship? Did they ever dig up their mothers’ rose beds looking for buried treasure? Were they ever told to stay away from a friend in their neighborhood or an abandoned house at the end of the street? Did they ever have to take a horribly foul-tasting medicine? Perhaps most of all, do they remember their first crush?

The answers are enthusiastically “Yes!” every year. They are ready to read and appreciate Tom Sawyer’s sense of lost freedom, his desire for adventure, outdoors and away from parents and teachers, and, most interestingly, they appreciate the seductive, but potentially deceptive allure of unfamiliar people and products.

In conjunction with the novel, students do a project called Market Your Own Patent Medicine using information given in Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain for Kids: His Life & Times (Chicago Review Press, 2004).

Even though students wish they could have spent their younger years outside with Tom and his friends, they are surprised to learn that there were not the medicines and antibiotics that we take for granted today. Indeed, Dr. Rasmussen emphasizes the continual threat of little known diseases when Clemens was young, as well as their origins, preventions, and treatments. 21st-century students are astonished that there was no Food and Drug Administration to test and approve medicines with names like “Perry Davis’s Pain-Killer,” “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil,” and “Dr. Parmenter’s Magnetic Oil.” Rasmussen explains that most of these so-called “patent medicines” had harmless ingredients. Because an otherwise healthy body has the ability to recover from most common illnesses on its own, “people who took the patent medicines thought that the medicine had cured them” and were “happy to write glowing endorsements” that were used by salesmen to “sell more of their useless ‘medicine’”.

To give the students a true hands-on approach to creating and marketing a patent medicine, I wanted them to support Aunt Polly’s steadfast conviction when she tries to get Tom out of his depression in Chapter 12.

Per Rasmussen, a more authoritative “doctor,” the young men had to prepare their medicines with mixing bowls, sugar, water, food coloring, clean bottles with lids, felt-tip pens, plain adhesive labels, and writing paper.

The key was then to think of an appealing name for their “cure-alls” and to write a one-page advertisement listing “the ailments that the medicine can ‘cure’ (such as colds, rheumatism, dandruff, or backaches).” The advertisement “should also include endorsements, which they can write as if they had come from satisfied users, that rave about the good things that the medicine has done for them.”

My class of 24 students was broken into six groups. Each group was expected to “sell” their patent medicine to the rest of the class, with every member required to contribute something to the sales pitch. No digital technology was to be used. They were to draw with their hands and use their most powerful tool: imagination.

When they began working, the boys were quietly reluctant and asked very few clarifying questions.

But, I think that what they said when it came time to “sell” would have caused Mark Twain’s eyes to twinkle with satisfaction. The boys surpassed my expectations. They gave speeches about what the medicines cured and created poster-size endorsements, many from Twain’s literary characters and, amusingly, from the Mark Twain scholars whom they had Skyped with earlier in the term. Several groups uniquely personalized their modern “ailments.” Instead of curing a cold, they focused on shyness, ugliness, or laziness, sometimes at the expense of other members of the group, who laughed heartedly and returned the favor.

From this academic activity students connect more directly with some of Tom Sawyer’s actions. They worked with their hands as well as their minds, conspired like a band of robbers, used humor as a persuasive tool, as Twain so often does, and were able to appreciate aspects of this period in their country’s history that they otherwise wouldn’t think about at all. If nothing else, they have a fuller appreciation of the healthcare that they benefit from today.

 John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.