On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:
Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.
Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of MarkTwainStudies.org, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.
It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”
I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.
Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.
This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.
Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.
“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.
“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888
I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.
The following introduction and collection of television clips come from one source: David Bianculli, nationally known television critic, professor at Rowan University, and contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. CMTS is deeply grateful to Mr. Bianculli for his work on assembling these clips. CMTS hopes that this collection helps contribute to the academic discussion of Mark Twain’s portrayal in the television era and beyond.
INTRODUCTION by David Bianculli
Examining the topic Mark Twain on Television would seem to be an absurdly easy endeavor. Samuel Clemens died in 1910, several decades before the earliest experiments in TV. So, no Mark Twain on television, period. And though he was photographed extensively for most of his adult life, Clemens was an elusive figure in other media. If there indeed were audio recordings of his voice made when he visited Thomas Edison’s workshop, none has yet been known to survive. And on the then-new motion picture medium, Clemens was captured for posterity precisely once – at his Stormfield home, with daughters Clara and Jean, in 1909, the year before his death. So for media historians, at the moment, that’s the final score for Mark Twain appearances: Movies 1, Television 0.
But Mark Twain the character, as portrayed by others? That’s a different matter entirely, and it’s fascinating.
On television, the entire Mark Twain TV canon can be divided into two camps: before and after Hal Holbrook’s 1967 Hal Holbrook CBS production of Mark Twain Tonight! Before Holbrook, portrayals of Twain were all over the map in terms of looks, voice, and other physical manifestations. After Holbrook, almost every portrayal of the elder Twain borrowed heavily, and unashamedly, from Holbrook’s brilliant portrayal – down to the then anachronistic, but visually striking, white suit.
That and one other seminal early portrayal of Mark Twain on TV, the 1960 The Shape of the River teleplay on the CBS anthology series Playhouse 90, both have been investigated and dissected at length by my TV-critic colleague and fellow Twain enthusiast, Mark Dawidziak. But that still leaves plenty of Mark Twain TV portrayals to revisit and examine – and spread over the entire history of television, it’s a strange, as well as long, list.
Yes, Hal Holbrook impersonated Mark Twain on television – but over the years, so did Bing Crosby and James Stewart, James Garner and Woody Harrelson, and William Shatner and Vanilla Ice. This video presentation includes samples of them all.
Some of the approaches, like many of the performances, are full of surprises. The character of Samuel Clemens showed up on three different episodes of NBC’s Bonanza, played over the years by three different actors. Clemens, as Twain, also appeared on other early TV Westerns, drawing on partly autobiographical writings and articles: NBC’s Laramie, ABC’s The Rifleman, and the syndicated Death Valley Days. The first portrayal of Clemens on TV was on an ABC anthology series in 1953, called Cavalcade of America, in an episode called “Riders of the Pony Express.” Over the years, among the most dramatized portions of the author’s life were the latter years, especially the tragic death of his daughter Jean. Shape of the River got there first, with Horton Foote’s still-potent account – but the same tragedy was presented by, among other TV shows and specials, PBS’s Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter in 1979 and the CBS series Touched by an Angel in 1997.
The portrayals of Mark Twain on TV do, indeed, range from the sublime to the ridiculous: the former represented by Holbrook’s triumphant one-man show, the latter by, say, the Mark Twain we see in 2013 on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. It’s all here to sample and enjoy – straight up, or on ice. Vanilla Ice.
#1 – Mark Twain, 1909
The title card of this short silent film says it was “Photographed by Thomas Edison,” but there’s no proof of that. Filmed by someone from Edison’s film company, but still amazing. The only moving picture of the real Samuel Clemens, walking around his Stormfield property, and sitting with daughters Clara and Jean, in 1909. Both Jean and her father would soon be dead.
#2 – Cavalcade of America, “Riders of the Pony Express” (ABC, Dec. 15, 1953)
First TV appearance of the Sam Clemens/Mark Twain “character.” Twain doesn’t speak, but is filmed atop a stagecoach as he narrates quotes approximating those in Roughing It, witnessing a fleet rider from the Pony Express. Robert Cornthwaite plays the young Mark Twain.
#3 – Bonanza, “Enter Mark Twain” (NBC, Season 1, Episode 5, Oct. 10, 1959)
Sam Clemens, played by Howard Duff, writes under the name of Josh for Virginia City’s local paper, the Territorial Enterprise (just as Clemens did). Virginia City is right there on the Bonanza opening credits map, right next to the Ponderosa. Sam Clemens enters the newspaper office and introduces himself. First speaking role on TV.
Sam drinks with the judge’s wife, mentions Calaveras County and “fancy writing”
Sam Clemens plots with the Cartwrights to ridicule the judge and influence election. Then Adam reads a news clipping making fun of a “Professor Pronoun,” with the article signed “Josh.” (Keokuk’s The Gate City published such a story, signed by “Josh,” that was a dispatch from Clemens in 1863, under the headline, “Report on the Lecture of Prof. Personal Pronoun.”)
Clemens is writing story in the Enterprise office as bullets fly, and the Cartwrights defend him. Gives new meaning to the term deadline, and provides a “bonanza” about how the Mark Twain name really came about.
The Cartwrights read aloud from a new dispatch in the Enterprise about Professor Pronoun: “Prof. Personal Pronoun Won’t Be Around Any More.”
In Arizona in the 1870s, in Wyoming Territory, 12 miles outside Laramie, there’s a ranch that has a stage stop. One of the passengers is a villain named Jack Slade. Another is a man who wrote about him: Sam Clemens, played by Dabbs Greer, who identifies himself.
Sam Clemens leaves on the stage, discusses his next book with youngster Andy. Next scene, a package arrives for Andy: a copy of Twain’s Roughing It.
#5 – Playhouse 90, “The Shape of the River” (CBS, Season 4, Episode 16, May 2. 1960)
This was the penultimate production of Playhouse 90, written by Horton Foote, who focused on Twain’s last, difficult years and did a superb job. (So did Mark Dawidziak, who both wrote a book about this TV special and unearthed a copy of it, long considered lost.) Franchot Tone plays Mark Twain, and introduces the drama.
Lecture tour: snippets from Twain’s lecture tour, including quotes about kids and parents.
Jean dies in the bathtub on Christmas Eve day, 1909. The first of several TV depictions of this tragedy, and Twain’s reactions to it.
After Jean’s death, Twain discusses leaving for Elmira.
Twain writes of Jean’s death and the imminent return of Halley’s comet.
#6 – The Rifleman, “The Shattered Idol” (ABC, Season 4, Episode 10, Dec. 4, 1961)
Kevin McCarthy plays an embittered Clemens, who arrives by stagecoach, witnessed by Rifleman’s son.
#7 – Death Valley Days, “$275,000 Sack of Flour” (Syndicated, Season 11, Episode 2, Oct.1, 1962)
Credits and introduction, explaining premise of episode.
Sam Clemens is played by William Schallert, who enters a store in Clinton, sees Gridley (a friend from Hannibal, a.k.a. “Frogskin”), and suggests pulling a stunt in nearby Virginia City.
As the host explains in the conclusion to this episode, Twain wrote about this incident in Roughing It.
#8 – Bonanza, “The Emperor Norton” (NBC, Season 7, Episode 23, Feb. 27, 1966)
This is the second of three Samuel Clemens appearances on Bonanza, each played by a different actor. In this one, Sam Clemens is played by William Challee, and it’s a cameo, with Clemens arriving, briefly, as a character witness at someone else’s trial.
#9 – Mark Twain Tonight! (CBS, March 6, 1967)
This landmark TV special, capturing for posterity one of Hal Holbrook’s impressively researched one-man shows as Mark Twain, already has been authoritatively recounted, and again by Mark Dawidziak, this time in a presentation at Elmira 2013: The Seventh International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Most TV “appearances” by Twain can be divided into before and after Holbrook’s triumph. Before, the Twains could be wildly diverse. After, they are all, more or less, variations on Holbrook’s interpretation. In this opening segment, Twain discusses whiskey – and truth.
More Holbrook as Twain, talking of riding West on the Overland stage.
More Holbrook as Twain, discussing lies and Congress
#10 – Death Valley Days, “Ten Day Millionaires,” (Syndicated, Season 17, Episode 12, Dec. 21, 1968)
Tom Skerritt plays a young Sam Clemens, with Dabney Coleman as Calvin Higby, his partner during his short-lived Nevada mining-camp days. The second of two Death Valley Days featuring Clemens – this one in color.
The young prospectors reunite after a misunderstanding, and Clemens vows to survive wielding not a pick, but a pencil.
Conclusion to Death Valley Days, in which the host reads the opening to Twain’s Roughing It, dedicated to Higby.
#11 – Swing Out, Sweet Land (alternate title, John Wayne’s Tribute to America) (NBC, Nov. 29, 1970)
In this first TV special by John Wayne, he introduces Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, played respectively by Bing Crosby and Roscoe Lee Browne.
Twain and Douglass chat, in a conversation culled from their letters to one another.
#12 – Bonanza, “The Twenty-Sixth Grave” (NBC, Season 14, Episode 7, Oct. 31, 1972)
This is the third of three appearances by an actor playing Mark Twain on Bonanza. The first was in 1959, the second in 1966, and this third one, maintaining the once-per-decade pace, is from 1972. Sam Clemens is played by Ken Howard, who later starred in Puddn’head Wilson for American Playhouse on PBS in 1984. Here, after a Twain quote about “26 Graves” is displayed directly and accurately on screen, Howard spins stories at the newspaper office.
#13 – Huckleberry Finn (ABC, March 25, 1975)
This 1975 made-for-TV movies stars Royal Dano as Mark Twain, who “hosts” this adaptation of Twain’s masterpiece. The casting says it all: Huck Finn is played by Ron Howard, and Tom Sawyer by Donny Most. Their hit nostalgia sitcom, ABC’s Happy Days (on which Howard played Richie Cunningham and Most played Ralph Malph) had premiered the year before. Also featured, though not in this clip: Jack Elam and Merle Haggard as the nonsensical King and Duke, and Antonio Fargas (who played Huggy Bear on another ABC hit, Starsky and Hutch) as Huck’s raftmate, runaway slave Jim.
#14 – General Electric’s All-Star Anniversary (NBC, Sept. 29, 1978)
This NBC special is another one which, for this portion at least, was hosted by John Wayne. In this excerpt, Michael Landon, in his Western get-up from NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, gets the chance to travel magically through time and interview one of his idols, Mark Twain (as played by James Stewart). Twain reminiscences, in particular, about his days as a riverboat cub pilot on the Mississippi River.
#15 – Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter (PBS, Dec. 10, 1979)
In this often sad made-for-TV movie, Dan O’Herlihy plays Sam Clemens, who is greeted by reporters upon his return to America in Dec. 1909, and says he is anxious to get to his Stormfield home and spend Christmas with his daughter Jean. This special has a noteworthy collection of academic advisers in its credits, including Hamlin Hill, Frederick Anderson, William Gibson, Lewis Leary and Walter Blair.
In this Beneath the Laughter clip, as in The Shape of the River, Clemens is told of, and reacts to, Jean’s tragic death.
#16 – Great Performances: Life on the Mississippi (PBS, Nov. 24, 1980)
In this 1980 dramatization, a very young Sam Clemens is portrayed by David Knell, while the imposing riverboat pilot under whom he trains, Horace Bixby, is played by Robert Lansing. In this scene, young Sam applies for, and gets, the job as apprentice pilot.
#17 – Great Performances: The Innocents Abroad (PBS, May 9, 1983)
This movie-length dramatization quotes accurately from Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and this clip shows an example of that, followed by a scene in which young Sam Clemens, played by Craig Wasson, talks himself into becoming the Alta newspaper’s correspondent for the first-ever luxury tourist excursion cruise. Co-stars include Brooke Adams as Julia Newell as David Odgen Stiers as Doc.
Woody Boyd (played by Woody Harrelson) gets to understudy as Mark Twain in “Authors in Hell” play. Wears the white suit, adopts the persona, even when working as a bartender.
#19 – Mark Twain and Me, (Disney Channel, Nov. 22, 1991)
Mark Twain is played by Jason Robards, daughter Jean by Talia Shire, friend and biographer Albert Paine by R.H. Thomson. Amy Stewart portrays Dorothy Quick, the author of book remembering her time with Samuel Clemens in London, 1908. This clip features a preamble from Dorothy, and Clemens reflecting to Paine about his children after receiving a cable with bad news about daughter Susy.
#20 – Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Time’s Arrow,” Part 1 and Part 2 (Syndicated, Season 5, Episode 26, June 13, 1992; Season 6, Episode 1, Sept. 19, 1992).
Sam Clemens is played by Jerry Hardin. Crew members from the Enterprise travel back in time to Twain’s era, where he discusses his own fanciful time-travel musings in his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
#21 – Touched By an Angel, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” (CBS, Season 4, Episode 12, Dec. 21, 1997).
John Cullum plays Sam Clemens, who returns home to daughter Jean on Christmas Eve, 1909. She has a special gift for her father and slips it into the Christmas tree branches. He delivers some well-known Twain quotes, and tells Jean to get her rest.
Jean dies in the tub.
Clemens, that very day, writes of Jean’s death. Then Monica visits him, reveals herself as an angel – after which he angrily argues theology with her.
#22 – Mark Twain. Documentary by Ken Burns. (PBS, Jan. 14-15, 2002)
Kevin Conway as the voice of Mark Twain. The end of his life, including the prediction of Halley’s Comet returning as he died, is recounted in this nonfiction study.
#23 – Roughing It (Hallmark Channel miniseries, March 16, 2002)
James Garner plays Samuel Clemens, giving a speech to his daughter Susy’s graduating class at Bryn Mawr college outside Philadelphia. But she never graduated from there, and did not remain long. Regardless, Garner, in the famous Mark Twain persona (anachronistic white suit and all), gets to reminisce from the lectern about his old salad days, setting up flashbacks to his time in the Nevada territory, and the events recounted in the book Roughing It. Robin Dunne plays young Sam in flashbacks, with Adam Arkin as Henry and Jill Eikenberry as Livy Clemens.
#24 – Drunk History, “San Francisco.” (Comedy Central, Season 1, Episode 5, Aug. 6, 2013)
After series credits are shown, inebriated storyteller Derrick Beckles introduces his version of how Mark Twain’s literary career was launched. Steve Little plays Mark Twain.
The story is told, drunkenly, of how an overheard “Jumping Frog” story proved to be Twain’s “jumping-off point.”
#25 – Murdoch Mysteries (Alternate US title: The Artful Detective) “Marked Twain” (Ovation, Season 9, Episode 2, Oct.12, 2015)
William Shatner guest stars as Mark Twain, making a somewhat unpopular speaking appearance in Toronto as an avowed anti-imperialist visiting Canada on an international speaking tour. At his first speech, he’s shot at.
In this clip, undaunted, Twain returns to the podium at a later date – and gives a very modern speech about women’s rights.
#26 – The Ridiculous 6 (Netflix, Dec. 11, 2015)
This made-for-TV movie is a comedy Western, co-written by Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy, in which several familiar Western-era figures congregate tro play poker. General Custer, for example, is portrayed by David Spade – and Mark Twain steals the show, and concludes this presentation, as portrayed by…..Vanilla Ice.
Produced by The Mary Baker Eddy Library, the Seekers and Scholars podcast explores the relevance of Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) to contemporary scholarship in a variety of disciplines and fields. Guests have frequently conducted research in the Library’s collections, which have contributed to publications with notable academic presses.
Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was an influential American author, teacher, and religious leader, noted for her groundbreaking ideas about spirituality and health, which she named Christian Science. She articulated those ideas in her major work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875. Four years later she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, which today has branch churches and societies around the world. In 1908 she launched The Christian Science Monitor, a leading international newspaper, the recipient, to date, of seven Pulitzer Prizes.
Dr. L. Ashley Squires, guest speaker for the podcast episode “Mark Twain, Mary Baker Eddy, and the news,” has had two fellowships at the Library. Her archival research provided important information and insights for her book Healing the Nation: Literature, Progress, and Christian Science (Indiana University Press, 2017). Squires’s thesis seeks to fill what she perceives is a void in understanding Eddy and the impact Christian Science has had on literature and the media in the Progressive Era.
In this episode Squires explores Twain’s views on Eddy and Christian Science, discussing how we can better discern them. Twain is a key figure for Squires—a major literary and cultural force whose fixation with Eddy stands out. She notes that, while his critique of Eddy “is still the best known and most frequently studied . . . it is not particularly well understood” (Healing the Nation, 3).
The Library provides public access to original materials and educational experiences about Mary Baker Eddy; the ideas she advanced; her writings; and the institutions she founded and their healing mission.