VIDEO TAPE PROGRAM REVIEW
Engel, Elliot. _Mark Twain, A Light and Enlightening Look_. Media
Consultants, 1996. (The Writing Wonders Series, vol. 4.) 51 minutes.
$39.95. ISBN 1-890123-05-6.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Tarleton State University
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1998. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
Perhaps the most interesting introduction to the video tape _Mark Twain, A
Light and Enlightening Look_ is the quote displayed on the videocassette
binder -- a quote by Cedric Charles Dickens, great-grandson of Charles
Dickens. Cedric Dickens is quoted as describing 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 the life of one
as varied and complex as that of Mark Twain's is a daunting task in itself.
To accomplish the task in the time span of a fifty-one minute video tape
is next to impossible.
_Mark Twain, A Light and Enlightening Look_ is a one-camera angle recording
of a lecture by Elliot Engel interspersed with occasional still photos of
Twain and illustrations from his works. The strength of the lecture relies
heavily on the personality of Elliot Engel whose resume lists him as a
former Woodrow Wilson Fellow at UCLA where he won the University's
Outstanding Teaching Award. Engel does have the ability to perform well
before the camera without extraneous props or visual aids and his
enthusiasm for his subject matter conveys 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 like 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 river pilot on the Mississippi River receives several
minutes of discussion which emphasize the difficulties in memorizing
thousands of miles of river terrain. 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 San Francisco
Chronicle by describing an uproar over a charity ball news article that got
mixed up with a miscegenation society editorial that sound strangely
reminiscent of the incident that actually happened when Twain was employed
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 against 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 _The Innocents Abroad_ came to be.
>From _The Innocents Abroad_, Engel slides into a discussion of _The
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 does mention a statement made by
Alcott against _Huckleberry Finn_ in his volume _Mr. Clemens and Mark
Twain_, if the Alcott letter to Twain does exist, it is not listed in
_Union Catalog of Letters to Clemens_.
Engel does provide some interesting commentary and quotes attributed to
Twain regarding his defense of _Huckleberry Finn_ and his views on blacks.
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
The audience level of this video is rated for ages twelve and above. Sound
and video quality are adequate. The still 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.