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Tue, 14 Sep 2010 07:57:50 -0400
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_The American Claimant_. By Mark Twain. Narrated by Richard Henzel. The Mark
Twain in Person Audio Library, 2010. 7 CDs (7 hours 28 minutes). $39.99
Available at or as a download from $15.74.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.

Copyright (c) 2010 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

At first blush, this work by Mark Twain seems an unlikely candidate for an
audio book narration. It's stagy, and the complicated heavy plotting sags
under its own weight (it was salvaged out of a failed play, after all). It
comprises a sort of distant sequel to Twain's first novel, _The Gilded Age_,
itself one of Twain's weaker works of art (not all the fault of his
co-author, Charles Dudley Warner). But it's also freighted with more
dialogue than any other novel by Twain, and when that dialogue is brought to
life by a seasoned stage actor like Richard Henzel, this otherwise
forgettable tale springs to life.

Richard Henzel is probably best-known for his voice-overs as the two radio
DJs in the movie "Groundhog Day" where he woke up Bill Murray over and over
with "Rise and shine, campers!" But he's been performing as a Mark Twain
impersonator since 1967, performing that role more than a thousand times,
and he has more than one hundred television, stage, and film credits. Henzel
has previously produced audio books of _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_,
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
Court_, and other Mark Twain stories. The characters and situations in this
novel require even more versatility than these previous audios and Henzel is
perfectly matched to the task at hand.

Dialogue comprises more than 50% of the text of _The American Claimant_,
more than any other Twain novel with the possible exception of _The Gilded
Age_ (Twain's chapters are more than 50% dialogue; Warner's are less).
Twain's other novels contain far less dialogue, ranging from 28% _A
Connecticut Yankee_) to 41% (_Tom Sawyer Abroad_).* So, while it's important
that Henzel's narrative voice is a pleasant Twainian timbre without actually
trying to be a Twain impersonation, it is his handling of the dialogue which
becomes even more important as the listener prepares for more than seven
hours of listening. Lucky listener. Henzel's accents for the English
characters are spot on, old boy, I must say. An' by golly I do declayah that
sweet Sally sounds fluttery, and swoony, and oh so-suth'run. The assortment
of boarders around the table at the boarding house sound like boarders
babbling at a dinner table. Colonel Mulberry Sellers sounds just as loopy as
any reader might ever have imagined him, and Hawkins's voice is so
distinctive and reeking with earnest cluelessness that the listener looks
forward to appearances in the story by this simpering fool, no matter what
he happens to be saying.

All of this combines to make this novel a better listening experience than a
reading experience. The very funny moments in the text that read best
blossom into hilariously funny scenes when heard aloud. These better moments
are usually a result of the confused identities that are sprinkled into the
plot. Colonel Sellers mistakenly thinks that Berkeley (the son of the real
Earl who comes to America to renounce his father's title and live as a
commoner by his wits alone) was killed in a hotel fire and has collected
what he thinks are Berkeley's ashes. At one point in the story Sellers
considers sending back Berkeley's ashes to his father in several parcels
over a period of time--so as to break the news gently. Read this if you
wish, but hearing Sellers carefully thinking out his plans on what to do
with those ashes is grand. When Sellers and Hawkins decide to materialize
the dead to create a work-force of zombies (I did mention the plot is
complicated) the real confusions begin and almost every scene from that
point on involving Sellers or Hawkins or Berkeley becomes grist for the
humor mill, and all of these scenes are more fun to hear than to read.

Finally, this audio book raises an intriguing question. Twain was always
trying out new inventions and contrivances, and with this novel may have
become the first writer to use voice recordings to dictate a novel. Accounts
vary, but Twain recorded as few as three dozen or as many as one hundred wax
cylinders with his dictations, and this perhaps accounts for why there is so
much dialogue. At the time Twain was dictating this work wax cylinders held
about two minutes of sound (four minute cylinders did not appear until
later) and an estimate that he produced one to three hours of recordings
seems reasonable. Reading the text does not readily disclose which portions
of this work might have been dictated, and I'm sad to report that listening
to this audio book provides no clues either. This may simply reflect the
fact that Twain wrote as well as he spoke (and vice versa), or it may be
that he discarded his recordings and started over writing everything out
without them, or perhaps a listener with a better ear for such things might
make a discovery.

Twain's experiments with dictation did not begin and end with _The American
Claimant_. He later dictated letters and portions of his autobiography, but
he gave up using wax cylinders. His recordings of _The American Claimant_
are long gone, but this lively reincarnation is surely the next best thing.

*The reviewer is indebted to Kent Rasmussen for his statistical report on
the percentages of dialogue in Twain's novels. For those interested, the
approximate breakdowns for the other novels are _Adventures of Tom Sawyer_
(31%), _The Prince and the Pauper_ (35%), _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_
(40%), and _The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson_ (40%).