The following review appeared 29 June 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Twain Forum
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There is a tendency for those familiar with Mark Twain's writings to frown when his penultimate book is mentioned. Is Shakespeare Dead? is often dismissed as an anomaly, a literary misadventure, an embarrassing exercise by an old man whose powers were waning. Twain himself was wildly enthusiastic about seeing it into print, but Albert Bigelow Paine, Isabel Lyon, and his editors at Harper Brothers tried to talk him out of it, without success. Twain's contract with Harper's forced their hand and it appeared in April, 1909, in a plainly lettered dark green cloth binding, quite different from the eye-catching bright red pictorial bindings then being used by Harper for Twain's other new works. It stood apart from his other writings from the very beginning, and has remained there ever since. It deserved better then, and it deserves better now, and Richard Henzel gives Twain his due.
The trouble began when Twain, charmed by Helen Keller's second autobiographical book, The World I Live In, invited her to visit him at Stormfield. He also invited her miracle-working teacher, Anne Sullivan, and Sullivan's husband, John Macy. When Helen and her entourage arrived, Isabel Lyon, as was her habit, recorded their visit with her Kodak camera. That evening Twain read aloud all of Eve's Diary to Helen and her friends, bringing Helen to tears when he read the famous last line that reflected Twain's love for his late wife, Livy. At some point that afternoon John Macy (an editor) handed Twain a copy of William Stone Booth's Some Acrostic Signatures of Francis Bacon, a new 600 page tome that presented a mass of complicated "evidence" supposedly proving that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-Bacon debate was nothing new to Twain, but Booth's elaborate clues and confusing calculations captured Twain's imagination and he stayed up late that night trying to make sense of it all. Everything about their visit was infused with autobiography. Helen Keller's book that prompted Twain's invitation was autobiographical, Isabel Lyon's photographic documentation of their arrival was an autobiographical reflex, and the emotional high point of Twain's reading that evening was rooted in his own autobiography. So it must have seemed only natural to Twain that on the very same day that Helen, Anne, and John left Stormfield, he sat down and began a new "chapter" in his ongoing autobiography.
Twain subtitled his book "From My Autobiography" and clearly intended it to be read as a chapter in his sprawling ongoing autobiography, of which some previous chapters had been published a few years before in The North American Review. When Is Shakespeare Dead? is read in that context, it makes more sense than if read as just another screed in the Shakespeare-Bacon "controversy." In fact, the shopworn controversy functions more as a touchstone for Twain to write about himself, injecting himself as prominently into the text as Shakespeare. While Twain makes clear that he did not think Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, he does not firmly side with the Baconians, and calls himself a Brontosaurian instead. He also makes clear that he doesn't think for one minute that his book will change the minds of anyone who thinks Shakespeare was the world's greatest playwright. Much of Twain's discussion centers on comparisons between Twain's own life and that of Shakespeare. Twain points out that he had worked at many trades during his life but that Shakespeare had not, and yet Shakespeare seemed to possess expert knowledge of many trades. Twain also compares his own widespread fame and abundantly documented life with the dearth of factual information that documents Shakespeare's existence. Twain's arguments ignore historical contexts and bend the bounds of logic at times, but they hold the reader's attention as they reveal more about Twain than Shakespeare. Along the way Twain weaves in some of his favorite subjects --his intimate familiarity with Satan, his early life in Hannibal, some quotes from one of his favorite books, Richard Henry Dana's Two Year's Before the Mast, and some digs at two of his favorite targets, Bret Harte and Mary Baker Eddy.
Twain begins his book with one of his favorite themes--a long list of claimants, and he portrays the Bard as one more claimant in a long line. Hearing Richard Henzel run down that list of pretenders and frauds is fun. When Henzel gets to the best chapter in the book, 'Irreverence,' the best listening moments occur. Twain explains why irreverence is useful, even necessary from time to time, to fight injustices by deflating the "sacred" beliefs that lead to injustice. He gives some examples, showing that he had mastered this art, and in the next moment turns the joke on himself when he lets loose with an irreverent string of name-calling: "One of the most trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolators, these Shakesperoids, these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit." At this moment, Twain's words and Henzel's voice are at perfect pitch, but the entire audio book is a tribute to Twain's comic sense and word-play.
Mark Twain is the first-person narrator of the entire book (with
the exception of some material quoted in the text from other sources), and
it might seem reasonable to expect an audio book to render this work in imitation
of Twain's own voice. Richard Henzel, who is best-known for his voice-overs
as the two radio DJs in the movie "Groundhog Day" has performed
as a Mark Twain impersonator since 1967, but Henzel makes no attempt to imitate
Mark Twain's familiar stage voice, with long hesitations, the lazy drawl,
and nasal tones. In past works Henzel has moved effortlessly between the voices
of different characters in Twain's major works, but in this audio book he
maintains a mild but steady Twain presence, with a soft drawl, appropriate
pauses and phrasings, and pleasant modulations. He moves the text along in
a convincing first-person voice without resorting to the exaggerated cornpone
twang that might distract his listeners from Twain's message. This audio book
respects the difference between Twain's stage presence and his more subdued
narrative voice. If Is Shakespeare Dead? is one of Mark Twain's works
that you've resisted reading until now, this audio book is an enjoyable way
to experience one of Twain's last autobiographical writings.