Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain’s Daughter

by Thomas Larson

Hal Holbrook As Samuel Clemens As Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, among the greatest and most widely read authors in history, is known everywhere by his pen name, Mark Twain. This was the nom de plume Clemens adopted in 1863 as a frontier columnist for The Virginian, a Nevada newspaper. There, he wrote satires and caricatures, bald hoaxes (fake news) and ironic stories of the wild pioneers he met and whose tales he embellished even further. His writerly persona came alive when he began lecturing and yarn spinning from a podium. Over time, his lowkey delivery, his deft timing, coupled with the wizened bumptiousness of a country orator in a white linen suit, captivated audiences in America and Europe, and on world tours. No one has embodied America, in its feral enthusiasms and its institutional hypocrisies, better than Clemens. Dying at 74 in 1910, he played Twain—rather, he became him—for 47 years.

In the early 1950s, a young actor from Cleveland, Ohio, Hal Holbrook, adopted the Twain persona for a stage act, aping the man’s appearance and cornpone speech and dipping into the goldmine of material—raucous tales to tell and witty saws to quip. Examples of the latter: “Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to—both had their advantages: Heaven for climate, Hell for company.” “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”

Holbrook developed the act before psychiatric patients, school kids, and Rotarians in the Midwest, then launched a polished performance in 1954 as “Mark Twain Tonight!” The stage: Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he was on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.” He debuted Off-Broadway in 1959, the show hitting Broadway in 1966 when Holbrook won a Tony. He went on to play Clemens’s Twain more than 2000 times from 1954 to 2017 when he retired the act. A record, no doubt, for a single role: 63 years, a decade and a half longer than Clemens himself played Twain. Read more »


by Joan Harvey

If you can get the old voting against state-subsidized healthcare, and the poor voting in favor of cuts to inheritance tax, then democratic capitalism really is workable after all. —Malcolm Bull

As the objective view of the world recedes, it is replaced by intuition as to which way things are heading now. —William Davies

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine /in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,/a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways  —Maggie Smith “Good Bones”

Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Mark Twain, in his wonderful Letters from the Earth, nails the essence of human unreason. It’s not just the creation story with a talking snake, but how man has conceived of heaven, at least in Christianity.

[H]e has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!

It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!

A singing, harp-playing heaven is, as Twain points out, like the most boring church service ever, and for eternity. Yet this was the creative fantasy the main religion of the West landed on, and people for years somehow bought it. (The Islamic version is perhaps closer to what Twain had in mind, but still an extraordinarily shabby version of the imagined possible). If people are going to imagine an afterlife, not only could they be having sexual intercourse as much as they want with whoever they want with no negative consequences, but they could easily take it farther, giving themselves many more sex organs and erogenous zones and pleasures that put orgasms to shame. (I’m sure science fiction writers have gone there with no problem). Throw in some great powder skiing for me between bouts in the sack, and no knee pain. And for those who don’t like sex or don’t want it all the time, let heaven be whatever they like, endless gourmet meals with no weight gain, fantastic chess matches in Turkish baths, conversation with their philosopher heroes, horseback riding on perfect steeds. Read more »