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Mark Twain Sort of Speaks to Us

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This week’s recorded sound update is a guest post by Jan McKee, Reference Librarian, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

Mark Twain photographed by Mathew Brady, detail.
Mark Twain photographed by Mathew Brady, detail.

Mark Twain was known to have made recordings on three occasions; unfortunately none of them are known to have survived.

The earliest recording was made by Thomas Edison in 1888.  In 1891, the author himself made a number of cylinder recordings of himself dictating portions of a new novella, The American Claimant, into a rented phonograph. But he quit after “filling four dozen cylinders,” complaining, “You can’t write literature with it.” Finally, a cylinder recording was made by Gianni Bettini in 1893, in which Twain interrupted Nellie Melba’s rendition of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. None of these recordings were every commercially released.

A reporter who visited Bettini’s New York studio and listened to the 1893 cylinder described it as follows in an article from the December 15, 1896, issue of The Phonoscope.

The next cylinder was one labeled ‘Melba’ which was truly wonderful; the phonograph reproducing her voice in a marvelous manner, especially on the high notes which soared away about the staff and were rich and clear.  Mark Twain interrupted the singer with a few remarks on the experience he had in trying to make practical use of the instrument.  The humorist is now on his lecturing tour around the world and the record he made in the phonograph was taken in December 1893.

Nellie Melba 1859-1931, detail, full length, seated at table, facing left.

Contemporary descriptions of Mark Twain’s voice describe it as “unmistakable.”  While many newspaper reviewers usually referred to him as having a drawl and emphasized the slowness of his delivery, many listeners found it a vital part of his humorous presentations.

Over the years librarians in the Library of Congress’s Recorded Sound Section have repeatedly puzzled over the existence of Twain’s recordings, and even contacted the actor Hal Holbrook to ask about the origins of his impression of Twain’s voice. Holbrook, a noted impersonator of Mark Twain, stated that he had heard a recording that he had originally thought to be Twain’s voice, but later discovered it was a 1934 recording by Professor Frederick C. Packard, Jr. of the Harvard Speech Department.  Packard had recently established a record label, The Harvard Vocarium, to collect examples of local dialect and traditional ballads as well as recordings of their own work by such contemporary authors such as Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. 

William Gillette c1918 July 6.
William Gillette c1918 July 6.

The recording that Packard made in 1934 was of William H. Gillette (1853-1937), one of the great actors and playwrights of pre-World War I America, who also happened to be a close friend of Mark Twain and had known him for decades.  As a sideline, he used to do impersonations of Twain and other popular figures. In 1934 Gillette reprised his Twain impersonation for a group of Harvard students   Gillette in his recording reads a portion of Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” 

Listen to William Gillette’s impersonation of Mark Twain .
There may have been other opportunities for Mark Twain to make recordings.  After all, he was friendly with the best high-tech brains of his day and clearly had embraced the new recording technology, but no other recordings are known to have existed.  Until the day that some other recording emerges from a dusty attic or is identified among unlabeled cylinders in an archival collection somewhere, William Gillette’s impersonation may be the closest we will ever be able to come to knowing what Mark Twain sounded like.

Comments (2)

  1. Jan, Thanks for the sideways plug for the Library’s new book on MT, just published. Mark Twain’s America makes extensive use of the Library’s holdings in many divisions, but unfortunately not Recorded Sound.

  2. I did not hear Mr. Twain’s interruption.

    I have portraying Mark Twain since 2009, seriously as a profession since September of 2017. It is now joyously my life’s work. I would dearly love to hear his voice to see how close I am coming. I also portray Albert Einstein and began doing so before I heard his voice; I was very gratified to hear that my Einstein voice is very much on the mark (no pun intended).

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