Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. 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.
If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.
Hal has 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.