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.
It was seven years ago. June 13, 2006. After watching the Mark Twain Forum rage for a week about a neocon skeleton’s consideration as the next Mark Twain, I offered no additional comment as my first contribution to the listserv, but a link (no longer active) identifying direct passages of her work lifted from others. I’m not controversial, just contextual. Within an hour I received an email from my father, copying my text with a forward:
Be careful what you say the walls have ears.
Long before the NSA, but steeped in George Orwell, I was dumbfounded. Not by the sentiment but the speed of reaction. Where did—How was—Who? My dad does not participate in socialist academia. He appreciates baseball, Goldwater republicanism, and the mafia (don’t ask)—all of them stoically. And John Wayne in one particular movie. That’s it. So whence came my inoffensive copy with such haste?
The answer came from mom—my father’s publicist—who revealed my network of expansive relatives connected an interest in Mark Twain with that of a family friend. My dad’s twin brother knew a guy named Larry. Larry grew up working in my grandfather’s tool and die preaching progressive reform during the summer of love while my father supported the Vietnam War with the Young Republicans. Larry was part of the Forum, recognized the last name—a rarity outside of Brazil—and forwarded the message to my uncle with a “Hey, is he one of yours?” My uncle turned it around to my father, and suddenly I was worried about over-sharing.
Clearly that didn’t last. I cut out the middlemen and contacted Larry, and thus began a three-year direct correspondence about Mark Twain that finally put a face to liberal sentiment when we both attended the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, held in Elmira, New York.
Mark Twain scholars from all over the world are packing their scholarly papers, writing their names in their underwear (in marker, please), and getting ready to head to “Mark Twain Summer Camp”–better known as the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies.
Held every four years in Elmira, New York–the location of the summer home of Clemens’s in-laws, and where he wrote many of his best known works–the conference is undoubtedly the best conference in existence. Ask anyone.
Four years ago, as a weak-kneed, but semi-well-funded graduate student–the conference was a paradise of Twain studies and conviviality. The conference was where I first met Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, and ABE (who went by a different name, back then). Now, as an unfunded Ph.D., the conference still portends to be a paradise, but a costly one.
In addition to high-quality papers on Mark Twain and related subjects, the conference features themed dinners, fancy speakers, Twain scholars singing songs, and storytelling. Hal Holbrook telling stories on the original sight of Mark Twain’s study was an event we will all remember for the remainder of our lives (you can read more about the last conference and listen to Holbrook speaking here).
Part One of Holbrook’s story
This year promises to be equally exciting, if the program is to be believed. The conference theme celebrates the 150th anniversary of the use of “Mark Twain”–a fact that will be marked by an exhibition of material from his western years:
“He used it for the first time in the Territorial Enterprise in Nevada,” said Barbara Snedecor, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. “This exhibition kind of highlights those years in the West and that moment when he first chose that pen name.
“People are coming from very far away — China, Japan, Germany, Europe and all over the United States,” Snedecor said. “About 175 people will be there. It’s open to the public too. Some of the papers are of great interest.” (source)
I would hope that some of those papers of interest would be Sharon McCoy providing keen insights on “Tricks and Tools: Practical Jokes, the “Evasion,” and the Limits of Love.” Jeffrey Melton discoursing on “Mark Twain and the Legacy of the Pastoral Dream”, ABE holding forth on ““Dear Sir”: A Post-Structuralist Impression of Charles F. Browne’s Influence on Mark Twain,” or me stumbling through ” “Mark Twain”: The Humorist.”
Every four years, the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, New York sponsors a conference on Mark Twain–this year is the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Don’t let the formal name fool you. This is fun. I prefer to call it “Mark Twain Summer Camp.” There are sing-a-longs, fancy dinners (with fancy wines), and a good number of “camp buddies” to make. There are also great papers and presentations on Mark Twain, of course.
Most of us who attended the last conference would agree that it was among the best–if not the best–conference we have ever attended, and we are all eagerly looking forward to August in Elmira, especially if the humidity stays mostly away like last time.
The highlight of the last conference was the presence of Hal Holbrook, especially his storytelling on the site of Mark Twain’s study lit by the moon and cigars. I wrote about this event and posted the audio of his storytelling in a previous post.
Anyway, proposals for the conference are due in just about a week. If you have anything on Twain, do yourself a favor and work it up for this conference. The full call can be found here: Elmira2013CallforPapers
Editor’s note: Remember to check out the “Announcements” section above for updated CFP and other news of note.
I have been out of town a lot recently, so please excuse any irregular timing of posts. But now I am back, gainfully employed, and ready for you to submit a post to publish here on “Humor in America.” On what subject, you ask? Well, if you would read the “Write for Us” section, you would find this:
Humor in America” is a blog dedicated to the discussion of humor and humor studies in America. Contributors are welcome to submit on any aspect of American Humor, broadly considered, although submissions are not guaranteed to be published.
We are interested in short articles (300-3000 words) focused on (but not limited to) the following areas:
*pedagogy of humor, including syllabi
*theory of humor
*recovery of sources/authors
*interviews with comedians, humor scholars, or other figures
*focused musings, thoughts, or polemics
*responses to humor in popular culture, academic research, or any other venue that seems fertile
*movies/book reviews (apart from recent scholarly works)
But the main answer is, we are looking for good writing on humor. If you have something you are thinking about, email me (Tracy) at email@example.com.
***Join us on Twitter: @HumorInAmerica. We post all our new posts along with important articles and thoughts on humor and humor studies.
In other news in the world of Humor Studies:
***The American Humor Studies Association has a new website. Soon, the name of the website will be “americanhumor.org,” but that switch has not taken place yet. The site includes history, membership information, links to past conference panels, and other information. If you have any comments, suggestions, additions, or concerns, please email the webmaster: Tracy Wuster (firstname.lastname@example.org).
***The AHSA web platform also includes a new site for “Studies in American Humor”: studiesinamericanhumor.org. The website includes Table of Contents for Series 3 of the journal, from 1994-Present. If you have TOC’s from Series 1 or 2 that you could send us as a text file or pdf, we would greatly appreciate it. The AHSA also has a Facebook page.
***Speaking of Mark Twain, the Mark Twain Project is hiring.
***The Center for Mark Twain Studies has sent out information on next summer’s conference. I know that many who attended the previous conference would testify that it was the best conference ever. See our post on Hal Holbrook for video/audio of Mr. Holbrook telling stories on the site of Mark Twain’s study. Here is the announcement:
We are just a year away from Elmira 2013: The Seventh International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. The Call for Papers has been posted on the web. Google Elmira 2013 Call for Papers for information about submitting a Developed Abstract of 700 words — due Monday, February 4th, 2013. Final papers must be suitable for a 20-minute presentation. Please send your attached abstract, via electronic submission, to email@example.com. Provide your name, mailing address, and email address. Developed abstracts will be reviewed anonymously for acceptance by selected panel chairs.
We look forward to greeting you in Elmira on August 1 through 4, 2013.
***For more CFPs, please see our announcement section, or the conference announcement page of the AHSA webpage. And since I am in charge of both, you can send me announcements and take care of both places.
According to the opinion piece–Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia–in a recent Washington Post, academics love them some Stephen Colbert. So much so, that we write about him. Now, in the opinion of this author, writing in the voice of Colbert’s character, this is silly. He writes:
…ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him.
And while the piece starts as a satire of the study of satire, it segues into a discussion of the reasons Colbert is a good person to study in our current political moment. In a way, I wish the article had continued its conceit of being written in Colbert’s voice–exploring the liberal arts and questioning the serious study of the funny. In other words, I would like to hear what Stephen Colbert thinks of the study of Stephen Colbert. [If you want to do an interview, Mr. Colbert, contact me.]
But the piece also got me thinking about which current comedians/humorists academics are interested in beyond their entertainment value for what they might say about our society and the role of humor in it. Based on the relatively small sample of our posts on this page, the most significant–academically speaking–living humorists are listed in the poll below. Please vote. Your vote won’t mean anything. Superpac money will allow you to vote multiple times.
If you chose “other” and wrote in a name, please consider writing a post for us on that person.
Yesterday, we posted on Ellen Degeneres winning the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. Today comes news that Hal Holbrook has been awarded the first ever “Mark Twain Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. The press release reads, in part:
Hannibal, Mo. – The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum celebrated its centennial May 15 in part by announcing the establishment of the Mark Twain Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize someone whose life’s work has furthered the legacy of Mark Twain in a significant way.
Hal Holbrook was selected as the first recipient of the award.
The Museum will present the award to Holbrook this fall when he returns to Hannibal. Holbrook will appear in “Mark Twain Tonight!” at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Hannibal High School.
“After 100 years of preserving Twain’s legacy by caring for his boyhood home and related properties, we felt it was an appropriate time to establish this award and recognize others who also preserve Twain’s legacy, but in different ways,” museum executive director Cindy Lovell said.
The performance is sponsored by the museum. Tickets will go on sale June 1 to museum associate members and June 15 to the general public.
Many kudos to Hal Holbrook. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Holbrook at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (i.e. Mark Twain Summer Camp) in Elmira, NY. I told the story of our meeting and posted clips of Mr. Holbrook telling stories awhile back.
Click below for a discussion of our own award…
from the Kennedy Center website:
About the Mark Twain Prize
“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The event is created by the Kennedy Center, and executive producers Mark Krantz, Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, and Cappy McGarr. The Kennedy Center established The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October 1998, and it has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), and Tina Fey (2010).”
The award seemingly always generates a good deal of discussion, sometimes consternation, on the Mark Twain Forum discussion list. Over the years, posters there have suggested others who deserve the award. I have placed some of these nominated folks in a poll below.
So, here is your chance to have a say in next year’s award–not any sort of say that matters at all, but a say. Vote–it’s your scholarly duty.
Feel free to comment on this year’s show, or to nominate people for next year’s poll…