Hal Holbrook passed away on January 23, 2021. In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago. For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here. And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.
I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain. As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied. Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version. The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure. So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there. And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates. I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer. Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”
He awed me. In the end, my notes were mostly empty. I laughed. I was moved. A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light. He did pretty well.
Hal performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens. Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).
I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion). For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is). But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.
I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience. I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment). For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.
Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp
Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober
This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference. Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.
I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before. After a full day of conferencing, I meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early. In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking. Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin. As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage. That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.
Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention. In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras. My memory may not be exact. As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:
“I was in Austin recently.”
I replied: “I know. I saw you perform.”
“When was that?”
I pondered a moment. “Spring.”
“What is it now?”
“Sounds about right.”
And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.
The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family. I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment. While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter. I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.
After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat. There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life. For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact. A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera. I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too. Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon). I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect. I hope you enjoy. Click to see videos. Part 1–“So watch out!” Part 2–“I don’t know if it would book very well…” Part 3–“Clara was so dear to me, very sweet…”
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar Photo by Tracy Wuster (c) Tracy Wuster, 2012, 2015
HUMOR IN AMERICA SERIES
Penn State University Press
Series Editors: Judith Yaross Lee & Tracy Wuster
From Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain, Mel Brooks to Richard Pryor, Our Gang to Inside Amy Schumer, American humor has time and again proven itself to be more than mere entertainment: it has brought cultural norms and practices in America into sharp relief and, sometimes, successfully changed them. The Humor in America series considers humor as anexpression that reflects key concerns of people in specific times and places.
The series engages the full range of the field, from literature, theater, and stand-up comedy to comics, radio, and other media in which humor addresses American experiences. With interdisciplinary research, historical and transnational approaches, and comparative scholarship that carefully examines contexts such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and region, books in the Humor in America series show how the artistic and cultural expression of humor both responds to and shapes American culture. The series will publish mainly authored volumes–although we will consider edited collections–and will appeal to audiences that include scholars, students, and the intellectually curious general reader.
Questions or submissions should be directed to the series editors at: email@example.com and
Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric & Culture in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio (recently retired), and the author, most recently, of Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture.
Tracy Wuster teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the director of the Humor in American Project at UT and the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association. He is the author of Mark Twain, American Humorist.
Proposals should take the form of a three- to five-page proposal outlining the intent of the project, its scope and relation to other work on the topic, and the likely audience(s) for the book. Please also include a current CV. The editors note that although it is a logical fallacy to expect scholarship on humor to be funny, the best humor scholarship can be fun— and illuminate its exemplars’ comic spirit—while also being intellectually rigorous and a pleasure to read.
Series Editorial Board
Emeritus, University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign
University of Toronto
An older post. One that Roseanne herself commented on. See comments.
What did I do the summer after I earned my master’s degree? I spent the better part of my free time on the couch watching Roseanne reruns. An F4 tornado unceremoniously concluded my last semester at the University of Alabama, and the frightful costs associated with cleaning up my life and property kept me solidly out of vacation mode. Things had been rough even before that. Those closest to me were experiencing layoffs, long-term unemployment, and bankruptcy. My own medical bills were piling up, and to top it all off I was growing out my bangs.
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Photo by Jean-Marie Périer, 1964
Chuck Berry was a walking contradiction. An inquisitive and highly intelligent student, born into a stable middle class family, who found himself incarcerated at 19 after an armed robbery spree with a broken pistol. A black man in his thirties in Jim Crow America who found a way to speak directly, successfully, to white teenagers. A cynic with an unyielding optimism. A sensitive, introspective man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Coupe de Ville. A bitter man with a sly and relentless sense of humor. A loner and eternal outsider, who was at times the most beloved musician in America. A self-professed lover of performing live, who often seemed to consider his audience little more than a necessary annoyance. A consummate craftsman, who seldom bothered to rehearse or even tune. His only number one record, his worst song.
He saw the highest highs and the lowest lows of the American experience – from Bandstand to Lompoc, the colored window to the Kennedy Center – and he performed at times as brilliantly and as badly as an artist can. Through it all, he did everything on his terms.
Chuck Berry was the embodiment of America, and one of its greatest chroniclers and creators. Yes, he helped create rock ‘n’ roll and heavily influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones and everyone after. But Chuck Berry’s genius is not tied to his chosen genre nor dependant on the successes of later British bands. His genius is independent, wholly American, self-contained, and has only solidified with time.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by
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In October of 2011, Tracy Wuster took a chance and brought me on as poetry editor, even though I don’t have the academic credentials of my HIA colleagues.
Drafting seventy blog posts on a subject I’m passionate about has been a privilege and a great learning experience.
As my monthly participation in this collaborative writing project comes to an end, and tumultuous 2017 becomes a memory, I’m feeling a bit wistful. The only American Poem that mirrors my emotions and feels apropos is aimed at the heart instead of the funny bone. It was penned by anthologist, translator, critic and poet, Louis Untermeyer, who was born in New York City in 1885, and died forty years ago today.
End of the Comedy
Eleven o’clock, and the curtain falls.
The cold wind tears the strands of illusion;
The delicate music is lost
In the blare of home-going crowds
And a midnight paper.
The night has grown martial;
It meets us with blows and disaster.
Even the stars have turned shrapnel,
Fixed in silent explosions.
And here at our door
The moonlight is laid
Like a drawn sword.
— Louis Untermeyer
Warmest wishes for the coming year and beyond. Thank you for your readership. Keep reading and writing poetry!
Had Thomas McGuane’s life ended before forty, lost behind the wheel or in some small-town motel misadventure, he’d be remembered today with the same cultish sense of loss held for such late literary contemporaries as Fred Exley, Tom McHale, and George Trow. The epitome of the bad-boy author, McGuane spent his thirties, which nearly coincided with the 1970s, in the sway of heroic, largely picturesque excess. Somehow, against type, he survived.
His first novel, The Sporting Club, appeared in 1969 and launched a career of great length and depth. Nine others have followed, along with three short story collections, four filmed screenplays, and dozens of personal essays, published in three collections that address his life as a horseman and angler of some accomplishment.
His fiction’s larger themes are alpha male behavior, individual autonomy, and dread, and range from tales of criminal misadventure to sketches of contemporary life out west. A lot happens in all of them. The typical McGuane hero is a self-reliant, fairly skilled guy who, either by overestimating himself or underestimating others, screws up badly.
In righting his own ship, McGuane repaired to his Montana home, the Raw Deal Ranch, to raise horses and recast himself as a regionalist—a sardonic, graceful observer of small town Montana life, a social landscape that closely models the classic American tropes of heroic optimism and failure; his broad subject being: How the West Was Lost. For that he is one of our greatest, and certainly least appreciated, living novelists.
But McGuane was at the start a satirist of broad national concerns. His first four novels exemplify a variety of comic work that was itself going out of style as he wrote. Absurdist in their aim, emblematic of higher disorders in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the great comic novels of Heller, Bellow, Elkin, Vonnegut, and, yes, McGuane, along with the concurrent movies of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen were consumed at the time by an avid public, homeopathic remedies against the madness of the era.
The impulse to laughter remains the animating spirit of McGuane’s work, even as he’s found varied and subtler means of expressing it. His enduring strengths as a writer, obvious at the start, remain: a flair for subtle observation, dramatic, sometimes violent, action, a cast of vivid, often desperate characters, and arch dialogue that’s at once plain and ornate. Even his bit players are alive on the page. Tying it all together all is one of the great narrative voices in American fiction, right up there with Bellow, Ring Lardner and Flannery O’Connor.
The Sporting Club is a very able, conventionally told story of the increasingly lunatic goings-on at an upper-class hunting and fishing club in McGuane’s native northern Michigan. Its WASP membership, descendants of 19th century Robber Barons, run the gamut from conventionally uptight to barking mad.
Here, told in third-person narration, is James Quinn, a second-generation Detroit auto parts manufacturer in residence for the summer, and Quinn’s old partner in schoolboy crime, Vernor Stanton, whose immense inherited wealth allows him a perpetual juvenile revolt from the adult world of business and social standing. The novel’s tried-and-true satiric points include how easily social veneers are stripped away; the incompetence of a hereditary ruling class; and the loathing felt between it and its putatively respectful underlings. The latter are represented by Earl Olive, the club’s sinister groundskeeper whom Stanton gleefully goads into transformative violence.
The Sporting Club has a good first novel’s flaws: simple characterizations, reliance on set pieces, and over-determined gags (such as a club historian named Spengler). There is a gimmicky, multi-headed ending that includes a loony Lord of the Flies reboot, and the grand reveal of a very compromising antique photograph, found in a time capsule opened for the club’s centenary celebration.
Humor in America 2018
Call for Participants
American Humor Studies Association
Mark Twain Circle of America
“Humor in America” will be held on the campus Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago from July 12-15. The conference will feature paper panels and roundtables on all aspects of American humor and/or any subject related to Mark Twain.
Please send proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 1, 2018. Notifications will be sent by March 1. Please feel free to contact the conference organizers, Tracy Wuster, Larry Howe, and Pete Kunze, with any questions at email@example.com.
Proposals for paper presentations of 15-18 minutes should consist of a 250-word proposal and A/V requests.
Proposals for organized panels of 15-18 minute papers moderated by a chair should include individual 250-word proposals, an overview of 100 words, a proposed Chair (not required), ad A/V requests.
Each roundtable participant will speak for 7-9 minutes on a topic related to the larger theme (see below). Participants may present both a paper and participate in a roundtable, should space allow. If you wish to participate only in a roundtable, please indicate with your submission. Please submit a title and 100-word abstract if interested by February 1, 2018.
–Theory, Methodology, and Practice of Humor Studies: New Directions
–MT and Graphic Humor: Icon and Caricature
–Gender and Humor: Can Men be Funny?
–Race, Ethnicity, and the Study of Humor
–Mark Twain and Today’s satirists: Colbert, Bee, and Oliver
–The Publics of Political Humor and Satire
–Violence in the humor of Mark Twain
–Humor, Comedy, and Historiography
We welcome proposals for paper presentations and panels on any topic related to American humor and/or Mark Twain, broadly conceived. Scholars across the humanities are invited to present research on any of the following topics (or others related to humor, comedy, laughter, etc., etc.):
- literary humor (including but not limited to Chesnutt, Fanny Fern, Parker, Faulkner, Melville, Vonnegut, Ellison, Morrison, Kingston, Beatty, Ephron, Sedaris, etc.)
- humor and gender, race, sexuality, class, religion
- stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and other humorous performances
- radio comedy, television, and film comedy
- visual humor, comics, and graphic narratives
- podcasts, internet humor, memes, and other new media
- satire, ridicule, parody, and other forms of humor
- humor in “serious” contexts or works
- humor in regional, national, transnational, international, and other spatial contexts
- All topics related to Mark Twain (especially the following topics: Mark Twain language play, MT and Political humor, MT and stand-up, MT a and gendered humor, Laughter and the Color Line: Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Fantastic and The Comic in MT, The Comic Rhetoric of MT’s Speeches and/or Interviews)
We especially welcome proposals from scholars of color, junior scholars, and independent scholars. Graduate students attending the conference will be eligible for “Constance Rourke Travel Grants” to assist with travel funds. We highly encourage scholars to contribute to this fund. See the conference website for more information.
Attendees must be (or become) a member of the American Humor Studies Association or the Mark Twain Circle of America. Presenters will be highly encouraged to submit article-length versions of their work for possible publication in Studies in American Humor, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Humor Studies Association since 1974 and in conjunction with the Penn State University Press since 2015. Presenters on Mark Twain will be encouraged to submit article-length versions to the Mark Twain Annual, published by Penn State University Press.
The conference registration fee will be $40 for graduate students, adjunct faculty, and independent scholars, and $75 for tenure-track faculty members.
“Humor in America” is looking for contributions for an August issue. Started in 2011, this website publishes pieces about American humor and humor studies. We have published over 500 pieces, had over 350k visitors and over 600k page views, and have been attacked by Roseanne Barr (although Ricky Gervais tweeted a nice response).
In January 2017, we decided to go from a weekly (or thereabouts) publication schedule to a twice per year format, in which we hope to publish a number of high quality pieces each year in August and February. Thus, we are looking for contributors who can submit pieces by July 15th for publication in early August. If you are interested in writing a post, please write Tracy Wuster for more information.
Please review the types of pieces we tend to publish, which are largely focused on humor and its multiple roles in American culture. We generally to not publish humorous writing. We do not publish posts meant primarily to drive traffic or advertise something else. We are an academic community dedicated to smart writing about humor. We do not make money and we do not pay money for contributions.
A little different this year…
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about
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