November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.
You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, 1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough. And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…
That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.
Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.
Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.
But what does it matter?
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.
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal. Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:
So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)
Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.
Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.
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.”