Get lit at TwainFest

Posted: August 17th, 2018 | Features, Top Stories | No Comments

By Kit-Bacon GressittFree family event celebrates great American literature

Does the mere thought of the “Western literary canon” send you screaming for an “Archie” comic book? Or do you hear a hint of Walt Whitman on public radio and settle in with your brandy snifter? Something in between?

Whatever your taste in literature, the TwainFest has something for you — and the children. Produced by San Diego’s Write Out Loud, a live literary performance group, TwainFest will offer a smorgasbord of experiences intended to introduce all ages to the joys of 19th-century literary classics and their authors.

The free festival will take place on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., in the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

(l to r) A Kamishibai storyteller and an actor portraying author Mark Twain (Courtesy TwainFest)

Now in its ninth year, TwainFest is named for Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, a U.S. literary hero with an acerbic wit often used to skewer the famous and foolish of his era.

In addition to Twain, festival-goers can enjoy cleverly fun experiences with an array of works and their authors, including, Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Woman”; Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre short story; beloved poet Emily Dickinson; renowned African-American poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar; “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll; and the children’s poet famously illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, Eugene Field.

The festival grew from a Write Out Loud concert program of Twain works, according to the organization’s artistic director, Veronica Murphy.

“We realized Twain had a big draw,” Murphy said. “We thought: Twain was from the 1800s, and we had the Old Town state park, and they were happy to help us make [the festival] happen. Chuck Ross, of Old Town’s Fiesta de Reyes, has been one of our financial sponsors from the start. We also get money from the county, the city, several small foundations, and we have partners who provide in-kind things for us. And the library helps us market it. One of the great things about its being free is it’s accessible to anybody. We want anyone — anyone — who is interested to be able to come, so it is completely free.”

Actor Monique Gaffney tells a story (Courtesy TwainFest)

Festival events for readers of all ages — and those still working on the alphabet — include:

  • Local San Diego actors performing 19th-century stories and poems by Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Eugene Field, Lewis Carroll and many more.
  • Descendants of Early San Diego, who will provide stories of historic San Diego figures.
  • Giant puppets of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Edgar Allan Poe wandering the park’s green.
  • The TwainFest Cakewalk, for which cake is, inevitably, the prize.
  • Needle in a Haystack, a game in which children search for hidden idioms in a haystack and guess which words the expressions are missing — with help from volunteers, if needed.
  • Tom Sawyer’s Fence Painting, for which Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher enlist children to find things to trade with Tom in exchange for permission to help whitewash the fence.
  • And, The Election of 1872, Jim Hawkins Treasure Hunt, Wheel of Fiction, The Never-Ending Story, and sack races, ring toss and other 19th-century games that just about complete the day’s agenda.

The Authors Salon, though, provides a very special opportunity to meet a star-studded list of authors, portrayed by local actors. Visitors to the park’s Cosmopolitan Hotel will be greeted by Emily Dickinson, played by Rhianna Basore; Charles Dickens, by Paul Jacques; Mark Twain, by Tim West; Helen Hunt Jackson, by Elizabeth Matthews; Henry David Thoreau, by Steve Smith; Louisa May Alcott, by Melissa Baldwin; and Walt Whitman, by David Cohen.

Giant Puppets of 19th-century literacy roam the park (Courtesy TwainFest)

Live period music will be heard throughout the day, played by the Armory Band on vintage instruments. There will also be a Civil War Field Encampment, replicating the roles of soldiers and nurses, and providing classes for all ages in fife and drum. For those who want to dress up in period attire, there will also be a 19th Century Literary Costume Contest.

To remember the day, a free, gently-used book from the Book Emporium will be given to each festival guest who participates in five or more activities. There’s so much happening at TwainFest this should prove an easy goal.

Like Mark Twain, who died in 1910 but whose quotes — and misquotes — regularly appear in popular media, the books celebrated at the festival remain vibrant contributions to contemporary culture. Although Twain might have said about any one of them, “It’s a classic … something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” this would be the rare occasion when the venerable author would be wrong.

For more information about the festival, visit

Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She now writes for her site and she is the publisher of She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read author series and open mic, and teaches Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Cal State system. Reach her at

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