Mark Twain on the Lecture Circuit, by Paul Fatout
(Indiana University Press, Bloomington)
Paul Fatout's Mark Twain on the Lecture Circuit, gives a thorough biographical account of Sam Clemens's development of the Mark Twain persona as a lecturer and international celebrity, detailing individual lectures and experiences throughout his career. Beginning with his first lecture in 1866, chronicled in Roughing It, Twain continued to tour intermittently for the next forty-three years as a lecturer and dinner speaker. Fatout describes Twain's lecture topics, speaking style, reviews, and life on tour throughout this period in his book. Chronologically tracing Twain's public career, Fatout gives insight into the Mark Twain image, as well as Clemens's personal life, while allowing for the ambiguity between the two personas.
This account is a relevant accompaniment to The Autobiography of Mark Twain, as it parallels many of the writer's own anecdotes, while attempting to remove Twain's dubious slant by comparing his own statements with historical records and commentaries. Fatout juxtaposes personal and professional reviews of Twain's lectures with the speaker's own reaction to his audiences, creating an interesting study of the reciprocal relationship between Twain and his fans. This relationship, Fatout explains, often inspired Twain's writing and lecture topics, citing for example Twain's novel Following the Equator, as an account of an international tour. Fatout also describes Twain's tendency to fabricate stories about his lectures, as with other aspects of his life, such as the sketch "A Wicked Fraud," which details Twain's attempts to humor an audience member who he later learns is deaf, dumb and blind.
A repeated theme in the book is Clemens's contradictory attitude toward the lecture circuit and life on tour. Throughout his career, Clemens continually vowed never to lecture again, only to begin another tour or dinner series shortly thereafter, often citing money as his motivation. Fatout describes Clemens's distaste for life on tour, while also explaining his love of the spotlight, summing up these feelings with Twain's confession, "an hour upon the stage was worth many aimless hours preliminary to it" (186). According to Fatout, many of Clemens's doubts about the lecture tour seemed to stem from his struggle to maintain a family life while traveling, as Fatout often cites family influences as the motivations for Clemens's touring hiatuses.
Similarly, Fatout also highlights Twain's contradicting views in regards to money. Ironically, Clemens commonly claimed financial trouble as his motivation for lecturing, although he spent exorbitant amounts on the finest accommodations while on tour, sometimes barely breaking even after a circuit. Fatout frequently notes the varying profits from individual lectures, a point which Clemens obsessed over and even discussed on stage. This play between Clemens's contradicting remarks and actions regarding his career is largely covered in the book. Because such ambiguity surrounds the Twain character as an extension of Clemens's true personality, it is often difficult to distinguish between Twain's contrived commentary and Clemens's true thoughts, particularly when discussing the lecture circuit of the public persona in relation to its effects on the private man.
Another complication addressed by Fatout is the lack of relevant primary sources in establishing a true impression of Twain's lecture style. While many of Twain's anecdotes and commentaries are well known, the shortage of complete transcripts, as well as Twain's constant improvisation and revision of his lectures, leaves a vague impression of what an actual lecture would be like. While the many reviews, both personal and professional shed some light on this issue, Twain himself calls some of these reviews libelous, and often cites his audience's inability to perceive irony and wit as the explanation for negative critiques. It also seems that critics sometimes gave superfluous praise in attempts to appear cultured. Throughout the book, Fatout provides examples of public reactions to Twain's lectures, and discusses their validity. This commentary, along with quotes and tales from Twain's actual lectures and writing, develop a decent impression of a Twain lecture, however there is still ambiguity as to exactly what it would be like to be in attendance. Part of this problem is also due to the lack of any audio recordings of Twain's voice, although Fatout makes a concerted effort to describe his drawl based on comments by both Twain and his audiences.
Despite the difficulties of thoroughly depicting the life and lectures of Sam Clemens as Mark Twain, Fatout takes a thorough stab at it, giving as many details and anecdotes as possible, sometimes to the point of excess. While the richness of Fatout's account may be overly extensive for class purposes, this book could be the best impression one could get of Twain's lecturing career and style. While an impersonator could give a representation of Twain's stage presence, since the only records of Twain's voice and demeanor are written, this book would be more accurate, albeit less entertaining than someone's interpretation of these descriptions. Its parallels with Twain's autobiography, as well as anecdotes from many of his travel narratives and novels create an interesting juxtaposition between Twain's accounts, and the reality behind these well known stories.