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Ken Sanderson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 15 Sep 2011 13:38:56 -0700
text/plain (277 lines)
Hear, hear!

On 9/15/2011 9:05 AM, Caroline Lawrence wrote:
> What a wonderful review! Thank you.
> Caroline x
>> Date: Thu=2C 15 Sep 2011 11:25:50 -0400
>> From: [log in to unmask]
>> Subject: BOOK REVIEW: _Harold=2C the Boy Who Became Mark Twain_. Hal Holb=
> rook.
>> To: [log in to unmask]
>> =20
>> =20
>> _Harold=2C the Boy Who Became Mark Twain_. Hal Holbrook. Farrar=2C Straus=
>   and
>> Giroux=2C 2011. Pp. 468. Hardcover. $30. ISBN 978-0374281014
>> =20
>> Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from =
> the
>> TwainWeb Bookstore=2C and purchases from this site generate commissions t=
> hat
>> benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit<>
>> =20
>> Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
>> Kevin Mac Donnell.
>> =20
>> =20
>> Hal Holbrook has explained that he is drawn to Mark Twain because Mark Tw=
> ain
>> tells the truth and because we all need somebody who tells the truth. Eve=
> n
>> Huck Finn fails to give Mark Twain such high praise as Holbrook=2C pointi=
> ng
>> out that "there was things which he stretched" but Huck would approve of
>> Holbrook's new book. It frankly tells some painful truths and attains a
>> confessional level that Mark Twain himself never achieves in his own
>> autobiography. Hal Holbrook has been Mark Twain longer than Sam Clemens w=
> as
>> Mark Twain=2C but it took decades for Harold Holbrook to become Hal Holbr=
> ook=2C
>> and then find Harold again. Holbrook's book=2C the first volume of a plan=
> ned
>> two-volume autobiography=2C chronicles the first thirty-four years of tha=
> t
>> often painful and sometimes hilarious journey.
>> =20
>> Try to imagine a little boy whose mother leaves the family when he is six
>> years old and whose father is soon sent to an asylum=2C leaving him and h=
> is
>> sisters to be raised by grandparents. The little guy is continually beate=
> n
>> and abused by a schoolmaster=2C and one of his sisters later dies from a
>> botched abortion. As a young man during World War II he watches an army
>> drill sergeant work an older recruit to death and his best friend is kill=
> ed
>> in action in Belgium. After the war he drinks too much and has an affair.
>> His marriage fails and he belatedly realizes that he has failed his
>> children. Years later he has an epiphany and realizes he was an abused
>> child. I've skipped the grimmest details=2C but you've just met Hal Holbr=
> ook=2C
>> who describes in a matter-of-fact manner how these events shaped his life=
> .
>> He recalls his feelings at the time=2C and brings you back in time with h=
> im as
>> he evokes the sounds and smells=2C the very texture of being in each of t=
> hese
>> moments. Mark Twain once described biography as the "clothes and buttons"=
>   of
>> a man=2C not the man himself. Holbrook gives himself.
>> =20
>> Faced with cruelties and tragedies beyond his understanding=2C Holbrook t=
> ries
>> to escape into mere "clothes and buttons." He craves attention=2C at one =
> point
>> holding his breath under water until frightened onlookers dive in to save
>> him=2C pushes himself to run beyond his limits in track=2C and fears meet=
> ing a
>> fate like that of his own father. But two things save his life. During th=
> e
>> long intervals of confusion and unhappiness he experiences brief acts of
>> kindness by others and he discovers the contents of the trunk his mother
>> left behind.
>> =20
>> Holbrook recalls a simple hug by a piano teacher who sensed that her youn=
> g
>> student had reached the end of the tether and could not go on. So=2C she =
> sat
>> quietly beside him as any mother would=2C hugging him as he cried out his
>> heart=2C a moment her student has never forgotten. These small moments of
>> kindness punctuate Holbrook's story with a power far beyond their tempora=
> l
>> allotment in the narrative. There is the poised girl at the dance who has
>> the priceless grace to pretend not to notice that Holbrook=2C her dancing
>> partner=2C can barely dance and is stepping on her feet. There is Holbroo=
> k's
>> buddy Ace=2C who talks him through a crisis like a true friend. All are
>> testaments to the power of kindness.
>> =20
>> In the cellar of his grandparent's house Holbrook made a discovery that
>> would change his life. First=2C he found his mother's record collection a=
> nd
>> established a connection to her as he listened to her favorite music. Nex=
> t
>> he found mementos of his mother's career in show business. He enrolled in=
>   a
>> drama class and soon found comfort in pretending to be somebody else. His
>> early life on stage was not an easy one=2C with long road trips=2C freque=
> nt
>> rejections=2C and some hilarious blunders. The funniest moment in the boo=
> k may
>> be when Holbrook=2C playing an army captain delivering a telegram to Pres=
> ident
>> Wilson=2C rushes onto the stage to make his delivery=2C forgetting to bri=
> ng the
>> telegram with him=2C dashes back off-stage to get it=2C and then returns =
> to the
>> stage so flustered that he forgets to give it to the other actor=2C and a=
> ll
>> the while the other actors are adlibbing their lines to cover for him=2C =
> and
>> trying not to laugh as a thoroughly bewildered Holbrook sweats off his
>> makeup=2C bringing down the house. For thespians=2C Holbrook also provide=
> s
>> candid insights into how an actor practices his art. Mark Twain became pa=
> rt
>> of Holbrook's repertoire when he included Twain among the pieces he and h=
> is
>> first wife performed in a traveling show for schools in 1949.
>> =20
>> Before Holbrook=2C there had been a history of Mark Twain impersonators a=
> nd
>> imposters. They plagued Sam Clemens from the 1860s to the very last years=
>   of
>> his life. While the imposters were an affront to Twain's dignity=2C
>> impersonators were not exactly flattery personified. A Brooklyn dentist=
> =2C J.
>> Jay Villers (1836-1912) made a career of performing "twenty-five comic
>> impersonations" including Mark Twain. In 1874=2C Alfred P. Burbank was do=
> ing
>> the same in Saco=2C Maine=2C and about that same time a self-styled "Prof=
> essor=2C"
>> R. L. Cumnock=2C was killing audiences in Great Falls=2C Montana with his
>> impersonations presented under the banner "a night with Shakespeare and
>> Dickens." Twain got third billing. In 1878=2C George Lyon was doing the s=
> ame
>> in Iowa=2C with the help of supposed testimonials from appearances in New
>> York=2C Missouri=2C Nebraska=2C and Kansas from the previous two years. O=
> ne W. W.
>> Cranes of Kansas City advertised his Mark Twain impersonations in the 188=
> 0s=2C
>> promising to make his audiences "laugh or cry!"
>> =20
>> On the evening of June 5=2C 1877=2C at the Seminary Hall in Hartford=2C a=
>   Twain
>> impersonator made a debut that changed everything. William Gillette
>> (1853-1937) who later became famous playing Sherlock Holmes in the movies
>> impersonated Twain that night and recited the story of the jumping frog.
>> Having delayed his annual summer departure for Elmira for a few days=2C M=
> ark
>> Twain himself sat in the audience=2C and said Gillette's performance gave=
>   him
>> "one more reason for being sorry I [Gillette] was born" (Zecher=2C _Willi=
> am
>> Gillette_=2C pp. 528). This was a compliment. Twain and Gillette were fri=
> ends
>> and neighbors=2C and spent a good deal of time together. The combination =
> of
>> Gillette=92s talent at mimicry and his familiarity with Mark Twain=92s sp=
> eech=2C
>> were a boon. Twain and his wife helped Gillette in his stage career=2C lo=
> aning
>> him $3=2C000 to get started=2C and got him a role in the stage version of=
>   "The
>> Gilded Age" with John T. Raymond. Gillette went on to more enduring fame=
> =2C
>> but continued performing his impersonation of Mark Twain into the 1920s a=
> nd
>> 1930s.
>> =20
>> When Holbrook heard a recording of Gillette=92s impersonation of Twain fo=
> r the
>> first time=2C he=92d recently debuted his own show=2C "Mark Twain Tonight=
> !" He'd
>> met Bim Pond=2C the son of Mark Twain's lecture agent=2C James B. Pond=2C=
>   who'd
>> once worked for James Redpath=2C Twain's previous lecture agent=2C and wh=
> o later
>> managed the Twain-Cable tour of 1884-85=2C and the first leg of Twain's w=
> orld
>> tour in 1895. Bim had known Twain and he helped Holbrook with his act. Bi=
> m
>> Pond provided Holbrook his first direct link to Mark Twain. Pond
>> demonstrated Twain's drawl for Holbrook and encouraged him. Soon Holbrook
>> was reading all of Twain's books he could get his hands on as well as
>> critical works about Twain by Dixon Wecter=2C Bernard DeVoto=2C Arthur L.=
>   Scott=2C
>> Philip Foner=2C and Fred Lorch. A ride on a steamboat gave Holbrook insig=
> ht
>> into Twain's unusual gait which was confirmed when he later watched the
>> Edison film of Twain sauntering around Stormfield. He also met Madame
>> Charbonnel=2C who had known Twain in Vienna. She reminded Holbrook that
>> Twain's humor was drawn from a deep well of seriousness. Until then=2C
>> Holbrook=92s impersonation of Twain was just a generic imitation of a fun=
> ny
>> old man. It wasn=92t long before Holbrook was using Twain=92s own words t=
> o deal
>> with hecklers and choosing pieces for his show that would relate to then
>> current issues like McCarthyism and Civil Rights.
>> =20
>> In 1958=2C Holbrook met with the elderly Isabel Lyon several times in her
>> Greenwich Village home=2C where she would prop herself up with a pillow=
> =2C pour
>> a Scotch=2C and smoke a pipe given to her by Twain as she told Holbrook t=
> hings
>> that she made him promise never to "publish." She denied being in love wi=
> th
>> Twain=2C or his being in love with her=2C but Holbrook has previously sai=
> d it
>> was from Lyon that he got a better feel for Mark Twain than from any othe=
> r
>> person he ever met who had known the great author. On April 12=2C 1961
>> Holbrook visited Clara Clemens=2C who praised his impersonation and then
>> startled him with the suggestion that after mastering Mark Twain he shoul=
> d
>> give Jesus a try. Accounts of these encounters with Bim Pond=2C Isabel Ly=
> on=2C
>> and Clara Clemens have been published elsewhere and although this book ad=
> ds
>> some information about his meetings with Bim Pond beyond what Holbrook ha=
> d
>> already written in his first book=2C _Mark Twain Tonight!_ (1959)=2C he d=
> oes not
>> mention his meetings with Clara or Isabel. Those encounters will hopefull=
> y
>> be described when Holbrook publishes the planned second volume of his lif=
> e
>> covering the years 1959-2011.
>> =20
>> This first volume of Holbrook=92s life story is rightly subtitled "the bo=
> y who
>> became Mark Twain" and deserves a reading by every Twainian. The events o=
> f
>> Holbrook's early life led him to the act that has brought him an enduring
>> fame for more than fifty years=2C a recognition that stands entirely sepa=
> rate
>> from his many distinguished achievements on stage=2C television=2C and mo=
> tion
>> pictures. In this single volume Holbrook does for himself what it took th=
> e
>> last four decades of Mark Twain biographies to accomplish for Mark Twain =
> --=20
>> he humanizes himself. He does this by bravely stepping out from behind th=
> e
>> mask that every actor uses as a shield. And like Mark Twain=2C who is mor=
> e
>> fully understood thanks to the biographies by Hamlin Hill=2C Ron Powers=
> =2C Karen
>> Lystra=2C Jerry Loving=2C Laura Trombley=2C and Michael Shelden=2C we are=
>   drawn to
>> Hal Holbrook for the same reasons he is drawn to Mark Twain. Holbrook's
>> experiences will remind readers of the joys and terrors Tom experiences i=
> n
>> _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_=2C and when Holbrook tells the rest of his=
>   life
>> story=2C that next book could be his own _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_=
> .
>> =20
>> <end>
>   		 	   		=