We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sounded like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Stormfield, his house in Redding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loosely around his frame, signature cigar puffing white smoke between his fingers. After Twain’s leisurely walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daughters, Clara and Jean, seated indoors. Below you can see the original murky version, featured on our site way back in 2010. A digital restoration (top) does wonders for the watchability of this priceless silent artifact, so vividly capturing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find yourself reaching to turn the volume up, expecting to hear that familiar curmudgeonly drawl.
Shot by Thomas Edison in 1909, the short film is most likely the only moving image of Twain in existence. We might assume that Edison also recorded Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from portrayals of the great American humorist in pop cultural touchstones like Star Trek: The Next Generation and parodies by Alec Baldwin and Val Kilmer.
Kilmer’s surprisingly funny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch perfect impersonation Hal Holbrook had given us for the better part of sixty years in his masterful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal mannerisms have become a definitive model for actors playing Twain on stage and screen.
Given the number of Twain vocal impersonations out there, and Edison’s interest in documenting the author, we might be surprised to learn that no original recordings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film below, experimented with audio recording technology, but abandoned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylinders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them himself.
As narrator Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain impersonator and aficionado—informs us, what we do have is a recording made in 1934 by actor and playwright William Gillette, an able mimic of Twain, his patron and longtime neighbor. Like Holbrook, Gillette spent a good part of his career traveling from town to town playing Mark Twain. Below, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of students at Harvard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, reading from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Gillette’s performance is likely the closest we’ll ever come to hearing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our collection of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.