Can we hear Mark Twain's voice?
For many years, the optimists among us were sure the answer was
Long ago (1955) I saw an old-fashioned acetate recording, supposedly
made by Twain himself, on display in the Mark Twain House in Hannibal,
MO. I was never able to learn anything further, nor what became of that.
We do know there used to be some recordings of Twain. In early 1891 he
attempted to dictate a new novella, The American Claimant, into a
phonograph rented for him by his friend William Dean Howells. But he
quit after "filling four dozen cylinders," complaining, "You can't write
literature with it."
There also must have been many other opportunities for him to make
recordings — he was friendly with the best high-tech brains of his day,
after all — but apparently none is known to exist today.
Luckily, William H. Gillette (1853-1937), one of the great actors and
playwrights of pre-World War I America, happened to be a close friend of
Mark Twain, and 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 — his text was the
opening of the celebrated “Jumping Frog” story — and the performance
was recorded by Professor Frederick C. Packard, Jr. of the Speech
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 contemporaries as Ezra Pound,
Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. Thanks to this happy confluence of
interests, we can have a reasonably authentic (albeit second-hand)
experience of Mark Twain’s living voice.
Is it a faithful rendition? I think we can safely assume it is. Gillette was not
only a gifted mimic, but he knew Twain intimately for decades—in fact, he
made his stage debut in the 1875 Hartford production of The Gilded Age.
The recording offered here was found online by Jerry Dean, who kindly
forwarded it to me. It has been processed to remove some of the hiss
and other background noise. For ease of comprehension, a transcription
is included below.
Link: William Gillette "Does" Mark Twain
When I was young [Gillette said] I traveled around the small
towns of New England giving imitations of actors and celebrated
people, and among them was an imitation of Mark Twain. I'd
lived next to him all my early life.
The celebrated story of Mark Twain's, the one that first, I
believe, made him famous, was called 'The Jumping Frog of
Calaveras County' . . .
"Well, there was a man around here in the Spring of Forty-Nine
named Jim Smiley, and he was the most — worst man you ever
saw about betting on anything, that is if he could somebody to
bet on the other side; and if he couldn't, he'd change sides.
Anything what suited the other man would suit him; just so he'd
got a bet, he was satisfied.
"But he was lucky, too, uncommon lucky. There couldn't be no
solitary thing mentioned but that feller'd offer to bet on it. If
there was a dog-fight, he'd bet on it. If there was a cat-fight,
he'd bet on it. Why, if he seen two birds a-settin' on the fence,
he'd bet you which one would fly first. If he even saw a straddle-
bug start to go anywheres, he'd bet on where he was going and
he'd follow that straddle-bug to Mexico before he found out
where he was going and how long he was on the voyage.
"Old Parson Walker's wife laid very ill once, and for a long time
it looked as if they warn’t going to save her; but one day the
Parson come in kind of lively-like, and one of the boys said,
'Well, how’s the wife, Parson?'
"And he said, 'Well, she’s considerably better, thank the Lord
for his infinite mercy, and with the help of Providence, she'll get
"'Well, I bet you two-to-one she don't, anyhow!' says Smiley,
before he thought a word about it!
Mark Twain Speaks! (sort of)
Mark Twain Pages
have pointed out
that Mr. Gillette's
They should feel
free to wait for
to turn up.