Hal Holbrook on jackasses and Mark Twain’s wound

Pushing 90 and back in town again to give America's most famous literary impression, the actor talks about Twain's wit, wisdom, and savage bite

Hal Holbrook turns 90 on February 17, and he’s been portraying the great American writer, humorist, and social critic Mark Twain for more than 60 of those years. His one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” has become an American institution, a roving, garrulous, and sometimes sharply satirical entertainment that shifts with the times and somehow always seems to link the pitfalls and ridiculosities of Twain’s 19th and early 20th century world to our own. The man smiles, and shows his teeth. On Saturday, January 31, he returns to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to impersonate Twain once again. We’re re-running below our interview with Holbrook that we first published on January 27, 2012, before another Portland performance of “Mark Twain Tonight!” The story is still pertinent, and the man is still deeply worth listening to.

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The last time I talked to Hal Holbrook before this month was in 1988, which, like 2012, was an election year. At the time Holbrook was a spry young 63-year-old, and about as far from retiring, as it turns out, as John Dingell, who first showed up in the U.S House of Representatives in 1955, is from quitting politics. After a while, a job becomes what you are.

Samuel Clemens in later years. Library of Congress

Samuel Clemens in later years. Library of Congress

What Holbrook is, and has been since the idea germinated in the late 1940s and sprang to full form in 1954, is the modern American voice of Mark Twain. It’s been a rare and abiding partnership: good for Twain, good for Holbrook, good for America. All three, as it turns out, are obsessed with this circus parade called politics, and with the queasy suspicion that somehow we’ve turned the parade route over to the clowns. “One of my favorite lines of Twain’s,” Holbrook told me 24 years ago, “he called Washington ‘a stud farm for every jackass in the country.’” If anything, Holbrook’s satirical bent has deepened in the ensuing years to an anger tinted with moroseness. “Common sense,” he told me glumly a couple of weeks ago, “is out of place in Washington.”

On Saturday night, less than a month shy of his 87th birthday, Holbrook returns to Portland to perform his remarkable show Mark Twain Tonight! at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall [This year’s performance, also at the Schnitzer, is Saturday, January 31]. My story about my recent interview with him is in this morning’s A&E section of The Oregonian and online here.

As constant as he seems in the American imagination – Holbrook was, is, and will be our public concept of the voice and carriage of Samuel Clemens – a man can change in 24 years. In Holbrook that change seems a firming and quickening of traits that were already there, and perhaps an urgency that comes with age: time’s running short, and things must be done and said. Our conversation, this time around, was much more a matter of Holbrook talking and me listening. Things were on his mind, and he wanted to be sure he got them out.

Much of what was on his mind was the deterioration of public life, and the role that political cynicism has played in it.

“We’re in it together,” he said. “And we’re in a mess. And we’re in a mess because people are not telling the truth. … Everybody is trying to twist the truth around to make a point. When you take truth out of a society based on a democratic principle, people lose faith.

Caricature of Twain by Leslie Ward (pen name "Spy"), from the May 13, 1908 edition of Vanity Fair. University of Virginia Fine Arts Library/Wikimedia Commons

Caricature of Twain by Leslie Ward (pen name “Spy”), from the May 13, 1908 edition of Vanity Fair. University of Virginia Fine Arts Library/Wikimedia Commons

“… I find myself looking back at what the country used to be. And I hear our politicians calling for a return to our Founding Fathers. These people don’t know what our Founding Fathers believed in.”

More and more, Holbrook  finds his attention pulled to Twain’s biographical writing – “to the essays, To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Twain’s excoriating 1901 anti-imperialist satire.

Perhaps surprisingly for a man of such ranging curiosity, Holbrook isn’t much of a reader beyond the considerable amount he does for work, and when he does read he generally prefers history to fiction. When we talked in 1988 he was enthusiastic about one novelist – the Western writer Louis L’Amour. “Just pick one out,” he told me then. “Don’t matter which one. They’re all pretty much the same story. I challenge you to read just two pages. You’ll be hooked.”

Still reading him? I asked.

“Oh! Louis L’Amour! That’s long in the past.”

As it turns out, he picked up L’Amour from the Tennessee family of his late wife, the actress Dixie Carter, and kept at him partly because it gave him something to talk about with his father-in-law, a man he got along with famously but not in all areas of conversation. “We couldn’t talk politics too well. I had to avoid saying anything about Ronald Reagan in less than holy terms. I ended up reading damn near 60 of those Louis L’Amours.”

The Southern outlook of Carter’s family, which Holbrook came to look on as also his own, got inside his skin. “You do not dishonor somebody from Tennessee,” he told me in 1988. “If you do, he will kill you.” He paused, then added with the subversive comic candor of Mr. Clemens: “I find that kind of refreshing.”

Indeed, what makes Twain refreshing and the great literary figure he remains is the toughness, the candor, the sometime bleakness that lay so close beneath his genial cream-colored surface. When Lewis Leary assembled his landmark collection of essays on Twain in 1962 he titled it, appropriately, Mark Twain’s Wound.

Maybe that’s why Holbrook seems so suited to the role that life has given him. In his recently published memoir Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twainhe freely discusses some of his own wounds, including a childhood spent partly in a school run by a sadistic headmaster:

“Holbrook.”

He didn’t say the name harshly. It was more like the sound of someone who wanted to share something nice with you. A friendly thing. It meant you had to line up outside his office and be punished. He never told you why.

When you entered his office, he would move about quietly in a familiar way. He was not an imposing figure. He was short and rotund and balding, and perhaps he thought of himself as benevolent, a twin version of the mother and father you didn’t have.

“You know what to do, Harold. Take down your pants.” You unbuckled your pants and let them fall.”Both of them.” You pulled down your underpants.”Assume the position.”

You took hold of the arms of a chair that had been neatly placed for you and bent over. Meanwhile, he would be searching in the closet for something. It was a one-by-three flat stick from a packing crate, about three feet long. Probably pine. You waited while he got this stick and then you held your breath while he moved across the room toward you. Whack! Whack! Whack! Three. Whack! Four. Whack! Five. You tried not to cry out, because the boys waiting outside would hear that. Whack! Six. If you cried, he’d stop, but—Whack ! Seven. Am I bleeding? Maybe he’ll stop if I cry—Whack! Eight. A sob. Whack! Nine. Tears. Tears. Crying. It’s over. He just wanted the sound of crying.

“All right, Harold. You can go now. Pull up your pants.”

“The Headmaster is a crippled figure,” Holbrook wrote. “After seventy-six years I cannot love him. Something having to do with the awful sorrow of life has helped me forgive other people, and that helps me to forgive myself. But I haven’t been able to forgive him.”

In his essay Humor in Fiction, which discusses Cervantes, Voltaire and Twain, John Updike quotes a long, luxuriant passage from Huckleberry Finn of Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi, isolated beneath the curtain of the moon and stars from the outside world, in a kind of bubble of natural calm. “Only the fact that this immensity seems benign,” Updike observes, “prevents the underlying sadness from drowning us.”

That sadness surely runs through America’s tortured relationship with Huckleberry Finn, which is routinely praised as the great American novel and also reviled for its liberal use of the derogative “nigger’ in description of its most admirable character, and regularly the object of efforts to remove it from libraries, especially in schools. As you can imagine, Holbrook has thought a good deal about the controversy surrounding the novel.

“The message there is never going to go away,” he said. “I don’t think the impulse toward being racist is ever going to go away. We have to fight against it all our lives.”

He understands why young black men in particular are offended by the book, and why so many communities fight to have it removed from school curriculums. “When I was in school we did not have integrated classrooms,” he said. “When you take a book as deeply honest as Huckleberry Finn … the responsibility upon teachers (to put it into historical and cultural context) is beyond the capability of most teachers. I think Mark Twain would be the first one to say, ‘They don’t have to read it. The book will survive.’”

The answer is not, Holbrook said, to excise the offending word from the text, as one recently published version of the novel does. “I don’t believe in altering the work of a great author who has given so much to us. I think it’s important to understand that the most important word in Huckleberry Finn is the word ‘nigger.’ Which is why it’s used over 200 times.

“The reason is not incidental. Anyone who thinks that word is an accident is close to being foolish. … Every time you read that word in the book it reminds you that you have to face who is racist. The finger is pointing at you. And me.”

That’s plainer and more honest talk than anything you’re likely to hear in the presidential debates. But then, the debates are only politics. And as Twain understood and Holbrook continues to remind us … well, a jackass is only a jackass. Even after all these years.

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