Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn and Other Works.
Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1998.
FFH 7960. CD-ROM, Mac/Windows.
$149.00. Price includes public performance rights.
The following review appeared 26 July 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Joseph B. McCullough <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Two recent companion publications produced by Films for the Humanities and Sciences, one a video entitled The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Understanding a Classic, and the other a CD-ROM entitled Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn and Other Works, assess the impact of Mark Twain's enduring presence in American literature, specifically focusing on Huck Finn. Both the video and CD- ROM are hosted, directed, and produced by James H. Bride II, and feature extensive and ranging interviews with three Mark Twain scholars: Justin Kaplan, Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Lionel Smith. Both productions enrich our understanding of Twain and provide useful and often stimulating perspectives. However, given the inherent limitations of a video and a CD-ROM, many viewers and readers will not find all parts equally valuable.
The video, which runs approximately 34 minutes, uses various techniques to hold the viewer's attention and to further the audience's understanding of one of America's classics. The film begins with a brief introduction by Bride, then moves to several minutes of interviews with each of the three guest scholars, in which they explore a number of issues important to understanding the novel. David Smith suggests, for example, that Huck Finn is not only concerned with race; it is also concerned with the coming of age, cruelty, the consequences of greed, the meaning of civilization, and freedom. Race is put into context with these other inquiries. While this segment of the film is not organized in any discernible way, the issues explored early on gain resonance as the film progresses. Interspersed among the interviews are illustrations taken from the first edition of the novel, and captions which appear from time to time containing a quotation, often humorous, from Twain.
The film then moves to a brief, sketchy biography of Twain's life, narrated by Bride, again with discussions by the three scholars interrupting the narration in order to link Twain's life to various settings (e.g., the Mississippi River, and Hannibal, Missouri) and incidents in the novel, as well as to explore incidents in Twain's life which influenced his writing career. Shelley Fishkin, for example, shows how Twain's passionate social views could not be expressed as straight editorial positions, so he turned to irony and satire in order to get his ideas into print.
During this second segment of the film, Shelley Fishkin and David Smith spend considerable time discussing African-American influences from Twain's childhood that are reflected in the novel, and suggest that these references are often misinterpreted by readers and form the basis for charges that Twain was a racist. All three scholars provide a balanced discussion of Twain's racial views and ably refute recent irresponsible and vitriolic attacks against Twain and the novel. Incidents from his life, including his vehement anti-slavery and anti-racist articles, are used as convincing counterpoints to the charges. In maybe the film's strongest moments, all three scholars demonstrate how readers must constantly understand Twain's use of irony to avoid misinterpretation of many incidents and speeches in the novel. Finally, this segment also includes an informative discussion of the condition and treatment of African-Americans during the post-Reconstruction period as background for understanding the novel and appreciating attitudes that would have been held by Twain's contemporary audience.
In the film's final segment, the narrator summarizes the plot of the novel and focuses on major characters, interspersed by the guests commenting on the characters and on the thematic significance of various episodes. The scholars use this time as an opportunity to discuss the controversies surrounding the ending of the novel, again defending Twain against his detractors. It is curious, by the way, that the narrator summarizes most of the novel's episodes but neglects to mention perhaps the most famous episode in the novel--Huck's decision to go to hell rather than return Jim to slavery. I point this out merely as an illustration of what I consider one of the film's weaknesses. Often incidents are cited which viewers already familiar with the novel would need no introduction to, while less familiar episodes or ones more central to understanding why the novel is a classic are overlooked.
While I suspect that all viewers will find something of value in the film, some weaknesses are apparent. One of the film's minor annoyances is the awkwardness of many of the elisions, and the lack of consistent development of many of the novel's central themes and artistry. This may have more to do with the editing than anything else, as the comments by the guests are usually informative and stimulating, but at times their comments are folded into the narrative in awkward and unsystematic ways. Another weakness of the film, and one which I consider more important, is that while it spends some time discussing the art of the novel, the discussions are clearly more concerned with the ideas in the novel. Furthermore, there is virtually no discussion of the humor found in the novel. These weaknesses aside, however, the film succeeds admirably in its goal to further our understanding of Huck Finn as an American classic.
The CD-ROM, Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn and Other Works, is also a valuable scholarly companion which provides useful information that allows students to gain an appreciation of six major works: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "The $30,000 Bequest," "A True Story," and "Sociable Jimmy." Broader in scope than the film, this work is also hosted, directed, and produced by James H. Bride II, and features the same three Twain scholars in video clips discussing various topics related to Twain's life and times.
The CD-ROM contains four main features: (1) a program overview; (2) a screening room containing interviews with the three Twain scholars; (3) the full text of all six works, fully searchable by word or phrase; and (4) eleven essays and a bibliography in a section labeled "contexts". All of the text is easily accessible with a click of the mouse to "turn" the page, and sections pop up by moving the cursor over the text.
The interviews in the screening room each run anywhere from 50 to 100 seconds, and are organized under three broad categories: Characters, Themes in Huck Finn, and Twain's Era. Each of these categories contains subsections with topics for each speaker identified: Characters ("Jim's Importance," "Huck and 'Sivilization,'" "What Tom Sawyer Represents," and "Jim's Imprisonment"); Themes ("Opening Images," "Race and Other Themes," "Huck and Jim's Dream," and "Sir Walter Scott and the South"); Twain's Era ("Political Contexts," "Sociable Jimmy," "A True Story," "A Twain Editorial," "Hannibal, Missouri," "Early Years," and "Clemens Becomes Twain").
The section on contexts contains three categories, the first two of which feature short written essays for each topic, with the sources for the articles usually indicated at the end of each piece. The third category contains an annotated bibliography, divided into two parts: Bibliographies and General Studies (ten entries), and Books about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (nine entries). The essays in the first two sections are identified by topic: American Issues ("Anti-Imperialism," "'Gilded Age' Corruption," "International Copyright," "Reconstruction," and "Subscription Publishing"); and Twain's Personal Life ("William Dean Howells," "Olivia Langdon," "Paige Compositor," "Was Twain a Racist?," "Twain's Early Years," and "Twain's Twilight Years").
As with the film, readers will find much useful information on the CD- ROM. It is not clear how valuable having the full texts available may be, as my experience has been that few students read full works on a CD- ROM. This is especially the case for having all of Huck Finn on the disk--although the search feature is useful, even if one does not read the entire work in this format. I would have preferred to have given over this space to more articles and a much fuller annotated bibliography, as well as more discussion by the guests of the short works contained in the package and additional articles linking the short works to the novel.
The bibliography, for example, while containing many useful works, is unnecessarily abbreviated, and does not include many works which students would find at least as useful as some of the works included on the list. To use but two brief examples, any bibliography of Huck Finn should include Walter Blair's Mark Twain and Huck Finn, and Tom Quirk's stimulating series of essays on the novel in Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn would add variety and depth to the constricted list. The same holds true with those works cited in the general studies section. One, for example, might wish to see such central works in Twain scholarship as Henry Nash Smith's Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer added to the list.
One final comment: Prior to writing this review I had the opportunity to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a typical undergraduate class this summer, and decided to preview the film in class and solicit responses from the twenty students, as well as make the CD- ROM available for viewing. Of the twenty responses to the film, thirteen were positive to very positive; seven students were less enthusiastic. The negative comments usually focused on the film's organization and editing, the lack of any serious discussion of Twain as artist, and what was perceived at times to be a preoccupation with the racial aspects of the novel, sometimes to the neglect of other important social and artistic aspects of the novel. Of the nine responses to the CD-ROM, most were positive, although questions were raised about the advisability of including the full texts on the CD, the choice of selections of stories included, the lack of any discussion of the stories, and the inadequacy of the bibliography.
All of the students felt that the two works taken together were useful companions to understanding Twain and Huck Finn, though they all suggested that the price of the package was prohibitive for most students and would probably be found mainly in libraries. Together with my students, my final conclusion is that these two works deserve one and a half thumbs up.