Post, Jim. Mark Twain and the Laughing River.
Evanston, IL: Woodside Avenue Music Productions, Inc., 1996.
34:16 mins., CD. WA 006-2.
The following review appeared 21 December 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Louis J. Budd <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Duke University (emeritus)
Thinking toward this review led me back to where Tom Quirk's Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn (1993) contends: "Like it or not, Twain criticism must take into account and to a degree respond to popular reception and understanding. . . . Scholars and critics who remain indifferent to popular belief about the man or his work will have missed much that is significant in their subject." Quirk warns that "if their methods or vocabulary are persistently arcane or obscure, the response of the common reader, sooner or later, will serve as tonic corrective" (107).
That helped me to stay aware of audiences, to remember even when pontificating for the Mark Twain Forum that it has a mixed constituency--enthusiasts all, of course, but beyond that varyingly intent on expertise or on dusting off anybody who slights the true facts (as apprentice writers put it for emphasis). Some Forum-ers, however eager to enjoy Twain's writing and personality, are even purists. They will find enjoying the video of Mark Twain and the Laughing River distracted by five worries.
First, they will distract themselves by wondering whether the monologue is authentic and so will keep trying to identify what texts Post is quoting. Second, having decided that he is rewriting as well as inventing, they will keep trying to distinguish between the ur-texts and his versions; since so many counterfeit maxims get peddled around, Twainians develop that habit. Third, purists, though not so loyal as to deny that Twain should have blotted out many a line, will sidetrack from the fast-moving script to ponder the wisdom of or just the reason for some minor change--such as "sassafras tea" for "sarsaparilla" in the "all the whiskey I want" anecdote. Fourth, when Post uses his own material they will inevitably compare his gift for humor with that of the master--probably and unfairly with the best of Twain, who sometimes strained as hard as anybody far less gifted. Fortunately, Post imitates Twain's simpler moves rather well and never violates his values. Fifth, purists will fret when the running biography gets too inventive, as when it has Jane Clemens sending Sam to Uncle John's farm "for one week each month," and they will sigh when Post improves (and renders) dramatically the tall-tale of Twain's spurning a plea to invest early in the telephone.
Post can legitimately respond that he never planned a time-warp back to the Hannibal of the 1840s. "Beside economic gain"--his semi-private puff to Taylor Roberts declares with Twainian honesty as well as motive--he aimed at an "entertainment piece," which "took liberties because we know Twain was one of the great liars of all time." More specifically, he aimed to recreate the essence of the "boy-man" through a white-suited raconteur who not only rhapsodizes about his childhood but slips in and out of its voice and gestures. Within a familiar outline Post draws boldly, then bolder still, projecting a "totally uncontrollable boy" of seven or eight whom his mother whipped often (she "could raise blisters on my butt by walking across the room with bad intentions") and who capered so notoriously that Horace Bixby had already heard about him (from Will Bowen). Of course, such a figure segues far less often into socio-political criticism than most Twain impersonators, though Post makes clear Sam's resistance to village Christianity.
For a teacher the operative question is whether to show the video in class. Judging from the timbre and also the peaks of the applause, often louder for Post's jokes than certified maxims like "Heaven for climate, and hell for society," it was filmed with a young audience. Evidently, teenagers (or even those pre-teeners who intimidate me with their precocity) will give it four stars or electric guitars or whatever. For a college audience, I would choose some other brand of "tonic corrective."
However, though undergraduates chortle at my musical taste, I do recommend trying the CD on them. (It has twelve numbers, two more besides those used for the video.) Post wields a strong, clear tenor backed by an emphatic ensemble along with a few choice sound-effects, and his lyrics are both imaginative and appropriate. Several of the songs keep bouncing through my head, especially "Uncle John's Farm" and "Huckleberry Finn"; and on my chart "Mighty Big River," the signature piece, should have already become a toe-tapping hit. If "Steamboat's Comin'" seems easier to compose, that doesn't lessen its charm, while "Naked Little Boy"--about Sam's practicing his bear act--makes a surprising subject work out totally. There are several or at least a few Twain monographs that I would trade away for this CD.
If I were reviewing this video and CD for one of those weeklies given away in every place that deserves to call itself a city, I would condition myself with Quirk's further counsel: "Mark Twain is 'ours' by virtue of a participation in a social community that forges and forever modifies a consensual view of all its institutions. Mark Twain and Huck Finn are not to be found in archives and libraries alone." Ultimately, Quirk persuades me that a committee, chaired by a non-academic, would make the best reviewer here. But, rebounding to the opposite pole and joining the parade of Twain impersonators, I will put myself into his mind, particularly after he had got somewhat used to being imitated. I believe that he would have enjoyed Post's visual presence, tone of voice, underlying persona, and at least some of the invented material. I know he would have liked the lyrics and the music.