Twain, Mark. Great Authors: The Humor of Mark Twain.
Performed by Thomas Becker. Produced by Commuters Library.
Arlington, TX: Entertainment Software, n.d.
6 cassettes. $34.95.
ISBN 1-883049-72-5.

Twain, Mark. "The Double-Barreled Detective Story."
Performed by Thomas Becker. Produced by Sound Room Pub., 1996.
(Commuter's Library of Unabridged Masterworks.)
2 cassettes. 135 mins. $16.95.
ISBN 1-883049-11-3.

The following review appeared 16 April 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Wesley Britton
Grayson County College
Denison, TX

Well, while being a few wisps, drawls, and twangs short of wonderfulness, most folks will find The Humor of Mark Twain a fine gift item for specialists and general readers alike. At just under $35.00, this handsomely boxed package of six cassettes containing both well known and lesser recorded short stories, essays, and sketches is a bargain. I can't imagine a true lover of Mark Twain able to resist it, despite some problems in packaging and selections of material.

Without bells, whistles, musical segues or sound effects, Shakespearean actor/English teacher Thomas Becker presents twenty-two unabridged Twain stories in a largely straightforward manner without the drawling, Midwestern accent typical of most Twain impersonators. But, then again, for the most part Becker is not attempting to be Samuel Clemens but rather a cast of characters ranging from Roughing It frontiersmen to Captain Stormfield. According to Joe Langenfeld, producer of the "Great Works" series of audiobooks, Becker threw himself into a variety of character voices, color-coding each voice on the printed page so he could keep each aural characterization distinct and true to what he heard in Twain's words. While the narrative material is often undramatic and slow-paced, particularly in the first three tapes, these characterizations are the set's strong suit even though few readings reveal much "acting."

Becker does well with such stories as "Punch, Brothers, Punch" and "A Canvasser's Tale," but most readings are carried by Mark Twain's words, not the taped renditions. The antics of the McWilliamses and the consternation of the distressed essayist in "Political Economy" need little embellishment, and I enjoyed hearing them anew. Perhaps the most effective dialogue is between the narrator and his conscience in "The Facts Regarding the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut." I am now convinced this is an underrated story and one that could be most interesting in the modern classroom. (Is this perhaps a parody of Poe?) I suspect "Cannibalism in the Cars" was the story most in need of color-coding, with a cast of characters nominating each other for breakfast. Becker is perhaps at his best with this story. "Excerpts from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," the set's grand finale, is also rendered in fine form, and I suspect the later stories work better because both author and reader improved with experience.

Other selections seem out of place. I suspect most non-Twainians will be puzzled by much of the content on tape three, primarily a collection of short essays. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" drags on and on and is probably of little interest to the general reader who's not intimate with the satirized subject. The notes in the short accompanying brochure do help out, but a non-specialist might require more background information. For some reason, "Tom Quartz" and "A Genuine Mexican Plug," the second and third stories on tape one, are not listed in the liner notes and no descriptions of these tales are in the brochure.

Much of this material has been previously released on two-cassette collections, but this is the first Twain anthology designed to emulate the vinyl record treasuries of old. This collection looks good and gratefully sounds good, but there are a few disappointments in packaging and production. As each cassette sits in the plastic binder without individual boxes, it is difficult to take one cassette out to hear in the car. And it would have been nice to have some music between each story to fill in the dead space. Becker's voice is recorded clearly, but the engineer could have turned the knobs up a peg or two for fullness and depth on smaller, one-speaker players.

Still, I can't think of a better way to introduce young readers to Twain, a generation often more attuned to media than printed pages. Many general readers are likely to appreciate the chance to read unabridged great literature with free hands. And, again, the price is amazingly right--the frills aren't necessary when so much material is available (over six hours).

One oversight should be mentioned here--the lack of any information about the reader. According to Langenfeld, this is by design; the company wants to emphasize the writer, not the reader. This is a common trend in bargain-line audiobooks these days, keeping prices down by not using well known actors. Still, some mention of Becker's background would be useful without distracting from the series' purpose. Finally, it would be helpful to have known the time length of each tale and the total time on each side. This is useful information that would not have driven up the costs of packaging in any way.

* * *

Becker also reads the unabridged "A Double-Barreled Detective Story" on a two-cassette set from Commuter's Library. After hearing the story anew, I now see this tale as a precursor to post-modernism, pre-Faulknerian in its jumps of perspective, tone, and voice. À la John Barth or John Fowles, two seemingly unrelated narratives are spliced together, the author interjects himself as a character, and Twain even provides literary criticism of himself midway in the text. In this instance, Becker's performance defiantly enhances the text, providing distinct, comic voices for Ferguson, Wells-Fargo, Ham Sandwich, and Fetlock Jones. Becker provides subtle humor of his own--the Sheriff riding in to save the day bears a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne, both textually and aurally.

Packaged in perhaps the most durable plastic on the market, Becker's rendition suits the material nicely; any puzzlement is due to Twain's unusual story, one booed by Sherlock Holmes fans as being the worst parody in the canon of similar attempts.

* * *

Below is a listing of the selections in The Humor of Mark Twain, largely read in chronological order.

Tape One
"The Notorious Jumping Frog"
"Tom Quartz"
"A Genuine Mexican Plug"
"What Stumped the Blue Jays"
"The Story of the Old Ram"
"The Great Landslide Case"

Tape Two
"Buck Fanshaw's Funeral"
"How I Edited an Agricultural Paper"
"Journalism in Tennessee"
"The Facts in the Great Beef Contract"

Tape Three
"The Art of Authorship"
"An Author's Soldiery"
"First Interview with Artemus Ward"
"Punch, Brothers, Punch"
"Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offence"

Tape Four
"The Canvasser's Tale"
"Political Economy"
"Experiences of the McWilliams Family and Membranous Croup"
"The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm"

Tape Five
"The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut"
"Cannibalism in the Cars"

Tape Six (both sides)
"Excerpts from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven"