This collection of unpublished essays and stories is a real find for Twain lovers; even the pieces left incomplete are amusing. John Lithgow doesn't make the mistake of trying to imitate or channel Twain, à la Hal Holbrook. On the other hand, he doesn't quite have the cadence or lilt or tone that would fit Twain; there's something a bit dry or stiff or abstract about his performance. Still, it's clear, energetic, and well paced, and his comedic timing is (no surprise) excellent. He brings out, subtly but plainly, Twain's use of irony, exasperated satire, and joshing. He shines when there are characters to play, though one piece, in "black" dialect, is rather painful. Overall, a fine performance of a batch of hidden treasures.
In "Jane Austen," Twain wonders if Austen's goal is to "make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters." "The Privilege of the Grave" offers a powerful statement about the freedom of speech while "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair" will make you appreciate modern dentistry. In "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" Twain plasters the city with ads to promote his talk at the Cooper Union (he is terrified no one will attend). Later that day, Twain encounters two men gazing at one of his ads. One man says to the other: "Who is Mark Twain?" The other responds: "God knows - I don't."
Wickedly funny and disarmingly relevant, Who Is Mark Twain? shines a new light on one of America's most beloved literary icons - a man who was well ahead of his time.
©2001 The Mark Twain Foundation; (P)2009 HarperCollins Publishers
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