The following review appeared 8 February 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Barbara Schmidt <email@example.com>
Tarleton State University
Perhaps the most interesting introduction to the video tape Mark Twain: A Light and Enlightening Look is the quote on the videocassette binder, by Cedric Charles Dickens, great-grandson of Charles Dickens. Cedric Dickens describes the video as "Brilliantly entertaining and full of fascinating information."
Having previously lectured for PBS Television on Charles Dickens, Professor Elliot Engel turns his attention to Mark Twain in this program from The Writing Wonders Series. To provide an enlightening look at a life as varied and complex as Mark Twain's is a daunting task in itself. To accomplish the task in a fifty-one minute video tape is next to impossible.
Mark Twain: A Light and Enlightening Look is a one-camera recording of a lecture by Elliot Engel interspersed with still photos of Twain and illustrations from his works. The strength of the lecture relies heavily on the personality of Engel, whose resume lists him as a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow at UCLA, where he won the University's Outstanding Teaching Award. Engel performs well before the camera without extraneous props or visual aids, and his enthusiasm for his subject is conveyed well to the audience.
However, the major problem this reviewer found with the program is that some of the statements that were presented as facts just aren't supported by the historical record.
Engel begins his lecture by discussing Twain's early life in Missouri and states, "Most of his greatest writing took place in Missouri." Engel further states that Twain
hated his home state. How do we know this? He gives us two clues. First--Mark Twain left Missouri before he was twenty years old. And he never, ever went back there unless he was paid big money to do so.
Engel also tells his audience that much of the hate for Missouri was related to the family Twain was born into, by stating, "None of us would have liked to be part of Mark Twain's family when he was growing up."
After a few brief comments relating to Twain's father and mother, Engel next provides an animated discussion of Twain's position as an assistant editor for the Hannibal newspaper, and how the struggle to determine the difference between a typeface p and a typeface q led to Twain later writing a famous essay--for which he received no credit--about "minding your p's and q's."
Twain's life as a pilot on the Mississippi River receives several minutes of discussion that emphasize the difficulties in memorizing thousands of miles of river. Twain's life in Nevada rates about one sentence of discussion--after which the sequence of facts presented by Engel somehow don't add up to historical accuracy. According to Engel,
[Twain] gets a job as a reporter on the second best paper in the West, which was in Virginia City, but he is so good as a reporter--because we know how great he is with words--that everyone is saying, "Why are you wasting your time with the second best paper when you could get a job at the best paper in the West?" This probably won't surprise you--back then it was the San Francisco Chronicle. So he goes to the San Francisco Chronicle desperate to get a job on that great paper. He shows up. There's one position open--it is position of society page editor. Nobody in the history of journalism was less qualified to be society page editor than Mark Twain.
Engel completes his tale of Mark Twain's career with the Chronicle by describing an uproar over a charity ball news article that got mixed up with a miscegenation society editorial, which sounds strangely reminiscent of the incident that actually happened when Twain was on the staff of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in Nevada. However, according to Engel, the miscegenation society story was the reason Twain was "kicked out of San Francisco," went to the Sierra Nevada gold mining camps depressed, and considered suicide.
"The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" receives a few minutes of animated comment in Engel's lecture and is credited with being the first American story written in American dialect and the first American story to display a sense of humor.
After the success of the "Jumping Frog," Engel moves Twain to Massachusetts, where one day he reads in his Massachusetts newspaper about a group of rich, stuffy Episcopalians who are planning a trip to the Holy Land. According to Engel, Twain has decided the formula for his success in writing lies in writing funny things about wealthy people. Twain therefore lobbies the newspapers in New York--who hated wealthy Episcopalians--to fund his trip on the Quaker City cruise; thus, the Engel version of how The Innocents Abroad came to be.
From The Innocents Abroad, Engel slides into a discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Engel credits the entire success of Huckleberry Finn to Louisa May Alcott and the uproar she created against the book. According to Engel, not only did Alcott personally write Twain a letter disparaging the book, but also had a law passed banning the book in Massachusetts. Although Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966) does mention a statement made by Alcott against Huckleberry Finn, if her letter to Twain does exist, it is not listed in Paul Machlis' Union Catalog of Letters to Clemens (1992).
Twain's birth and death--each coinciding with the appearance of Halley's Comet--is the concluding topic in Engel's lecture. Noticeably lacking in the program is any mention of Twain's marriage, other travels, or business ventures, although Engel does provide some interesting commentary and quotes attributed to Twain regarding his defense of Huckleberry Finn and his views on blacks.
This video is rated for viewers aged twelve and above. Sound and video quality are adequate. The photos and illustrations that accompany the lecture have appeared in previous publications devoted to Twain's life and times. The strength of the program relies heavily on the charm and personality of Engel to tell Twain's story. The charm and personality succeed but the story fails to be historically accurate.