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Where In The World Is Mark Twain's Voice?

Mark Twain’s voice is missing.

"It's increasingly likely that no living person will ever hear Mark Twain speak,” said Rod Rawlings, a voice and stage actor who portrays the iconic author, speaker and best-known American of his era.

Scholars and devotees of America’s first celebrity would think it sensational if a recording of Twain’s voice were found, he said, but most have abandoned or suppressed that hope.

If the discovery should happen, it could be almost anywhere on earth, he said -- in the United States or Canada where the literary giant traveled and spoke most extensively, in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria or England where he lived for years, or in other parts of the world he visited, including Europe, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, lived 1835 to 1910. While he was enchanting 19th century audiences with stories and speeches, Rawlings said, sound recording devices were being invented, improved and marketed widely.

Twain was known to personally make use of recording machines for dictation, and to have been recorded by others, but nothing containing his voice is known to survive.

“No institutional collection now claims a Twain recording,” Rawlings said, “so if one is to be found, it lies elsewhere, unknown or unrecognized, and time is surely running out.”

The dominant audio technology of his time employed non-electrical, wind-up devices to inscribe grooves of sound vibrations on rotating wax cylinders, a nearly simultaneous triumph of invention by Alexander Graham Bell and Twain’s friend, Thomas Edison.

Wax cylinders are susceptible to degradation over time, primarily from temperature changes and the growth of mold. They can be damaged or destroyed if improperly played. Many thousands still exist around the world. Some are housed in museum collections. Others, Rawlings is certain, are stored in forgotten containers on dark shelves of attics, basements and back rooms.

He believes there is a credible chance that someone, somewhere not only captured Mark Twain’s voice over a century ago but also safely stored it away for posterity.

In 1957, for example, an unlabeled box of wax cylinders was discovered behind Edison’s desk in Menlo Park, New Jersey. To avoid damage, the cylinders were left unplayed until better technology could be developed.

“In 2011,” Rawlings said, “a device called an Archeophone safely played the cylinders and converted the sound to digital audio. It was astonishing that one of Edison’s wax cylinders revealed the voice of Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first Chancellor, as he spoke and sang in 1889.”

At the time an Edison technician was recording Bismarck, Mark Twain was already admired world-wide, Rawlings pointed out, having published four of his more eminent books, Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his undisputed masterwork, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

“His voice would have been the most famous on earth in that day,” Rawlings said.

“Twain was the international rock star of his era. He was the subject of numerous interviews, features, sketches, paintings, advertisements, caricatures and busts. Long before there were professional paparazzi, it seemed that every amateur with Kodak’s new Brownie camera stopped him to take a picture.”

In 1909 Edison visited his aging friend at Stormfield, Twain’s estate in Connecticut, and brought his recent invention of a motion picture camera. The result was a silent film of less than two minutes. It is the only known film of Twain, and shows two scenes of the white-haired and white-suited celebrity, first as he vigorously walks around the home while smoking a cigar, next as he sits at a veranda table to take tea with his two adult daughters, Clara and Jean.

Did Edison record Twain’s voice? It is purported that he did, but no one has verified it or produced the result.

Did others record Twain’s voice? Yes. One noted collector claims to have found twice as many occasions of Twain being recorded as are generally known, but that research is not published.

In line with his own profession, Rawlings credits Twain’s polished stage presentations for elevating the art of solo performance. “William Dean Howells, a writer and editor, wrote in a note to his friend, Twain, after seeing a performance -- You simply straddled down to the footlights and took that house up in the hollow of your hand and tickled it.

“And there was Twain’s remarkable oratory, which always refreshed an audience,” Rawlings said. “He couldn’t be boring or ordinary, and his talks became essential for the most important banquets, dedications, testimonials and commemorations.”

Scholars credit Twain’s writing with liberating American literature from stilted grammatical perfection and moving it toward the freer expression of daily speech, Rawlings said, adding “His writing opened doors to science fiction, to historical fiction and, above all, to timeless humor and sharp satire.

“He was the most conspicuous person on the planet, by his own account. He was heard live around the world. It’s a shame and a great loss that today, after all his appearances on stage and his lasting influence on global cultures, no one can hear the tone or timbre of his voice, the distinctive drawling style of speaking, or what Twain himself called his long talk.

After 23-year old Rudyard Kipling visited 63-year old Twain in 1889, he wrote that Twain had "the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world."

“To read the several descriptions of Twain's voice is perplexing,” Rawlings continued. “They report different, even opposing vocal characteristics. They don’t fit any recognizable model.

“They say his voice is strong and clear but also mumbling; that it carries a southern twang, a western lilt and a Yankee clip; that the slowness of it is annoying, yet charming; that it is deep, but rises to sing soprano. How can you assemble all that into one voice?”

Lacking an actual recording, Rawlings said that many Twain fans consider the voice of Hal Holbrook, the acclaimed actor who has portrayed Twain on stage for 58 years, to be nearest to Twain’s. Early in his career, Holbrook met with the author’s only surviving daughter, Clara Clemens (1874-1962), who approved his characterization.

Other “Twainiacs” content themselves with the tantalizing recording of William Gillette, an actor who had lived next to Twain as a boy, and who had performed his imitation in front of Twain as an adult, receiving the master’s approval.

Gillette was recorded in 1934 near the end of his life when he was a guest of an English professor at Harvard University. In the recording, he portrays Twain narrating the introduction to the story of The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

“So what we really hear,” Rawlings said, “is a monologue of Gillette imitating Twain in the manner that Twain would imitate the speech of a fictional character in his story. That is three times removed from a true Twain voice, and just not close enough.

“I’ve posted a video with Gillette’s recording on my website, but with a disclaimer.”

Could Twain’s voice be recognized if a recording were found?

Twain collectors believe it is likely that a recording could be authenticated, Rawlings said.

How much would a true recording of Twain’s voice be worth?

“It’s been called a Holy Grail, so depending on the recording’s length, subject matter and audibility, it could be worth a great deal,” said Rawlings. “Until it’s found, the only certainty is that there would be an unknown reward.

“We are the posterity it may have been saved for, so who will find it, when and where?

“More questions than answers,” he said, “just the kind of mystery Twain would relish.”



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Words & Phrases
Tweaked by Twain

agone ● badge-holder ● badwords ● bath-tub ● Bibless ● bit-champing ● blame-fool ● book-talk ● born days ● bounce ● brain-plow ● brash ● breath-taking ● buck ● bull-frog ● burn ones bridges ● business-head ● buzzard-roost ● chipper ● chunk ● cipher ● conspirator-in-chief ● corn-crib ● corpse-maker ● county-seat ● crackless ● cubby ● cut out ● daintily ● dander ● dead-center ● death-grip ● deducer ● deep-thinker ● disenjoy ● disremember ● dod-dern ● doff ● double-team ● drat ● dumps ● dust-rag ● eagerness ● earned run ● euchre ● exalted ● firmament-obliterating ● fizings ● foo-foo ● frills ● galoot ● geewhillikins ● goner ● gumption ● half-consciousness ● halvers ● hang out ● hauloff ● heap ● heeled-holt ● hefty ● hifalutin ● hookey ● hooraw ● human-beingship ● indeedy ● indoors ● inharmoniousnesses ● insanity ● jeans ● jolt ● knock around ● lady-bug ● land-office business ● laws-a-me ● lawsy ● letter-perfect ● lip ● lit into ● live-oak ● looky here ● lubber ● lunkhead ● missionarying ● mud-dobber ● mud-turtle ● multi-billionaire ● nary ● nub ● one-hoss ● other place ● ouch ● over described ● paingiving ● peach-vine ● peeled ● perhapser ● plug ● polished off ● poor mouth ● preforeordestination ● privacy ● privileged sex ● procrastinaturalist ● puddn'head ● quarter-civilization ● ragged edge ● reckon ● remainders ● roustabout ● rowdy ● saloon ● sam hill ● say-so ● scare ● scrawny ● shebang ● shucks ● shyster ● silvery ● slow-motioned ● slumgullion ● sofa-shifter ● soul butter ● spit-ball ● square deal ● sweat ● tan ● third degree ● tongue-lashing ● toot your own horn ● tote ● town drunkard ● ungetaroundable ● unhand ● unhandkerchiefs ● vacation ● waddle ● watermelon-tree ● whang ● whoopee ● work ● writing-gait ● yes-siree-bob ● yonder-way

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Mark Twain
in Popular Culture

● The1944 biographical film of his life, The Adventures of Mark Twain, featured Fredric March as Clemens and Alexis Smith as his wife Olivia.

● Broadway, television & cinema actor Hal Holbrook has been performing his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! annually since 1959, with each show somewhat different in Twain content.

● Sam Clemens is one of the main characters of the Riverworld series by Philip Josť Farmer (1971–1983). In particular, the second book of the series, The Fabulous Riverboat, describes the quest of the character Clemens to build a paddle-boat to travel the vast river, with many echoes from the life of the real Clemens.

● Winston Churchill recounts being introduced by Mark Twain during his American lecture tour following the Boer War, and writes of making his friendship.

● Mark Twain appears in To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987), part of Robert A. Heinlein's Lazarus Long Cycle, as a family friend of the protagonist.

● Samuel Clemens is a character in the 1987 novel Never the Twain by Kirk Mitchell. In the story, Howard Hart, the last living descendant of Western writer Bret Harte, a contemporary of Twain, travels back in time in an attempt to prevent Twain's literary career from taking off and overshadowing his ancestor's.

● Clemens is a major character in a series of mysteries by Peter J. Heck. In the series, Clemens hires a travel secretary before leaving on a lecture tour, which provides a variety of settings (such as New Orleans and London) through the course of six books.

● The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Time's Arrow" (1992) featured a fictionalized version of Mark Twain, played by Jerry Hardin.

● Twain appeared in a comic strip story featuring The Phantom. The story featured the 16th Phantom meeting Twain in the wild west.

● Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett has written three songs based on Twain's travelog, Following the Equator ("That's What Livin' is to Me", "Take Another Road", "Remittance Man") and has paraphrased Twain in other songs. He also gives Twain a nod in his own literature, most notably by naming a main character's horse Mr. Twain.

● Samuel Clemens is a main character in Fires of Eden (1994) by Dan Simmons. The main protagonist, Eleanor, follows in her aunt's footsteps, recreating a journey Aunt Kidder took with Clemens to the volcanoes on the Big Island of the then-Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). The book alternates between Eleanor's modern day experiences and the events described in the diary.

● Samuel Clemens appears in the book How Few Remain (1997) by Harry Turtledove. In this work of alternate history, he works as a newspaper editor in San Francisco and writes many a scathing editorial against the ongoing Second Mexican War (1881-1882) between the United States and the Confederate States of America.

● The web comic series Achewood features Mark Twain as a character in one of the strip's story arcs. This arc features a narrative written in an imitation of Mark Twain's style, as Twain journals his encounter with two of the strip's central characters, who time-traveled from the modern day to the late 19th century.

● Another web comic, Thinkin' Lincoln, features a zombified Mark Twain as a frequent character.

Wonder of the Worlds is a 2005 novel depicting Twain joining Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla on a journey to Mars in 1893.

● In The Five Fists of Science (2006) Twain teams up with Nikola Tesla to defeat the evil plans of Thomas Edison.

● In 2006, Twain appears in The Transformers: Evolutions "Hearts of Steel" comic series set in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Mr. Twain is attacked by a steam powered Puma.

● The film The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), directed by Will Vinton, features a series of vignettes extracted from several of Mark Twain's works built around a plot that features Twain's attempts to keep his "appointment" with Halley's Comet.

● An audio-animatronic of Mark Twain acts as co-host of a show named The American Adventure at Epcot, Walt Disney World.

Late Show with David Letterman occasionally featured a segment titled "Mark Twain Tonight", in which a man dressed as Mark Twain does a short comedy solo while sitting on a rocking chair.

● An episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, titled "Rolling Down the River", had Mario and Luigi helping a caricature named Mark Twang win a riverboat race against Bowser.

● The Histeria! episode "Super Writers" featured a sketch about Samuel Clemens taking on the Mark Twain identity on suggestion from Chit Chatterson. Twain also appears in the same episode as a member of the Legion of Super Writers.

● Mark Twain appears in Joe R. Lansdale's Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal in 2010, an omnibus of Lansdale's novels Zeppelins West and Flaming London.

● In the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Clarence, George Bailey's Guardian Angel, gives George a copy of the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In it, he writes: "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence." Clarence also mentions that Twain is writing a new book (presumably in Heaven).

● The street in Detroit, Michigan was named originally after him with Mark Twain that located on Detroit's North Westside.

● Twain is mentioned in Tom Petty's song "Down South" from his album Highway Companion.

● On November 30, 2011, Google celebrated Mark Twain's 176th birthday with a Google doodle. The Google logo depicted the famous whitewashing scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

● Three episodes of Bonanza are about Samuel Clemens publishing The Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. They were "Enter Mark Twain", from October 10, 1959; "The Emperor Norton", from February 27, 1966, and "The Twenty-Sixth Grave", from October 31, 1972.

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Mark Twain Makes News
(Yes, Recently)

A Modern Collaboration with Mark Twain

Free Download of All Mark Twain Works from Project Gutenberg

Mark Twain Commemorative Coins Unveiled

New Theory on the Origin of "Mark Twain" Pen Name

How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain... and Vice Versa

Mark Twain's 10-Sentence Course on Branding & Marketing

Mark Twain Riverboat Captain at Disneyland

New from The Atlantic Books: The Mark Twain Collection

Mark Twain's (MO) House Takes On Mark Twain's (CT) House

Proud Confession: 2013 Film "Mud" Stole from Mark Twain

Mark Twain's "Advice to Little Girls" Republished

Smithsonian Scholar Names Twain Travel Book to Top Ten

Mark Twain's Historic Hartford House Named to Top Ten

Mark Twain House to Host "Graveyard Shift Ghost Tours"

Ellen DeGeneres Receives 2012 Mark Twain Award

Norman Lear Wonders What Twain Would Think of Today's Politics

Tragicomedy: The Suicide of Mark Twain

A Ghost Story at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT

BOOK REVIEW: 'Mark Twain and the Colonel'

Huck Finn: Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

Was Mark Twain Unpatriotic?

New Play Premieres -- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mini-Biography of Mark Twain

Cherimoya: The Fruit Mark Twain Called "The Most Delicious"

Ending to Huckleberry Finn is Psychologically Sound

Redlands Native Pens Huck Finn Sequel

The REAL Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain's Friend

Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers

Scientists Say We Are Just One Among Many Animals

School Kids Missing Mark Twain

Books Twain "Dictated" From Beyond the Grave

Mark Twain on Waterboarding

Nightmare: Mark Twain's Debut at the San Francisco Opera

Writer/Editor 3, Mark Twain Project, UC Berkeley

Which U.S. President was Addicted to Cocaine?

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn May Get Steam Punk Sequel

"Big Blue" Tahoe Reigns as USA's Best Lake

Stage Coach Horrors as Told by Mark Twain

Champaign-Urbana Readers Choose Tom Sawyer

Spike Lee Hears Mark Twain Storytelling in Mike Tyson's "Undisputed"

Mark Twain House is Favorite Connecticut Destination

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