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. Vimeo.com 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.