Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

Reader Benjamin David Steele remarked this month that he didn’t know I was from Iowa. It’s true, I don’t talk often about being from somewhere, part of my goal of not talking directly about myself as much as many successful blogs do.

Perhaps that’s my contrary streak. Yet if one has that trait, it may be that it can change direction on itself and careen 180 miles an hour the other way. Here’s something I was going to include as an aside in one of the two Mark Twain pieces preceding this one, but it was too long to be that.

Twain’s books weren’t all I thought of when I performed those Twain pieces ribbing poetry and poets this month. I thought of Hal Holbrook, who liked to say that he played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did, and I also would think of a beautiful, silent library—but to get to those places I need to think first of my father.

My father had no straightforward vocational life, much like the one I later had. If one thinks of the midcentury male American life as the one-job man during those decades, you may be demographically informed, but wrong about him. He set out to be a Protestant minister, as his father and one of his brothers had been. He changed his mind, ran the third grocery store in a tiny town (didn’t work out), worked on a loading dock, and then took a job driving a bread-truck delivery route between the many little towns in my section of Iowa. The workday was long, the trucks leaving from a barn on the outskirts of the county seat 30 miles away at dawn, driving there on the tractor-putting two lanes and repurposed stagecoach routes. In the afternoon on his route, he’d come through my hometown supplying the two grocery stores that still remained on the one-block main street. In the summer, I could arrange to ride along with him, sitting on the bare treadplate step to the right of the only seat, the driver’s, in his bread van as we’d both leave off for another small town. Behind his driver’s seat and my sideways crouch, the entire back of the box truck was filled with sliding wire racks to be filled and then emptied of loaves, buns, dessert bread products, and doughnuts. Between us, a doghouse cover for the truck’s engine and the long shift lever. My dad had a small transistor radio on a ledge near the windshield which, if there wasn’t an afternoon baseball game, was tuned to a country and western station—but there was music in the truck too, a thrum from the engine between us and an ostinato chiming from all those metal racks behind us.

We talked some, but it was mostly these loud musics and the everyday weight of the afternoons.

I sometimes wonder now if I’m recalling that sound when I play a Telecaster with its bridge pickup that can chime and clangor moreso than any other electric guitar: that sound of 1960 country music combined with those metal racks, all jumping like yapping puppies on their ledges as we traveled over the rural roads.

In each town, a store or two, the bread from trays transferred onto shelves, a few commercial words and small talk with the store owner, and back to the truck and eventually back to the county seat and the bread company’s office and truck barn. There my dad would unload the retrieved old bread and do by hand a series of books on the day’s commerce, something that took about an hour.

I watched this once or twice from my adolescent what’s-this-got-to-do-with-me nonchalance. Most days I had a more desired way to spend this hour.

The county seat had two things our smaller town didn’t have, a hobby store that is another story, and a library multiple times the size of the small one in my hometown. I could be dropped off within walking distance of either while my father did his end-of-day business.

The Kendall Young Library had all the things you’d find in most larger libraries then: multiple levels with steep stairs, the Dewey Decimal System arrangement, a card catalog, newspapers threaded onto majestic wooden rods as if daily Torah scrolls, a quiet and light somehow better than any other quiet and light: a romantic, forest of books light, a quiet of words.

My mother had worked out how to get books by mail from a statewide library system, and that kept me largely supplied throughout my childhood, but there’s a something difference in being in the presence of books and their specific possibilities. History was my main passion then, so that if some of these books in the library were old,* that was no drawback.

On one day there, I may have collected some books more quickly than usual, and I wanted to see what else was in this place. At one side of the largest room there were a couple of record players, a selection of records, and headphones.  I don’t know if it was the records or the headphones that caught my eye first. That records could exist in library-sized collections was a marvel, but headphones signified exotic hi-fi technology, though they were more likely only an accommodation to the word-quiet of the library.

One of the LPs that was there was the 1959 “original cast recording” of Mark Twain Tonight,  a one-man Broadway show in which the young actor Hal Holbrook in aged makeup played the 70 year old Mark Twain giving one of his turn of the century stage talks.

Holbrook continued to ride that act’s horse until he was playing a man more than a decade younger than he had become.**  I was about to find out why it worked so well. I put on the record and enclosed my head in the ‘phones.

Holbrook’s script (such as it was, he always worked from a surplus of Twain material, not a fixed text) was a master of the seamless excerpt. His Twain at first seemed for a moment frail, you wondered if he was going to falter, but the dry jokes were moistened as he worked the timing with an invisible stage cigar on the recording.***  Twain may have been a historical or literary figure, but the first 20 minutes had as much funny skewering of various hypocrisies for me as a contemporary issue of Mad  magazine. But along about the middle of the record, things got quite a bit darker. I’d gotten to the second side and a withering compression of the situation of Jim, the escaped slave thrown together with the runaway Huck, each escaping exploitation, when the hour or so expired and I needed to join my father for the ride home. My head came out from between the cups of the headphones, but I’d been inside part of Twain’s book. Huck and Jim couldn’t go home. I had to, and could.

That was my mother’s and father’s doing—both that I could take this journey that could stop at this library, but also that I had a home to return to. I rode home with my father, he was wearing his checkerboard shirt woven to match the printing on the wraps around the loaves of bread.

Kendall Young Library views

Period and 21st century views of the Kendall Young Library. How could I not have seen that skylight?

 

I did two things to check against this memory today. I re-listened to what may be the same recording I heard that day in the library, this time on Spotify. I found it much as I remembered it, which compliments the impressiveness of Holbrook’s performance. And I looked online for pictures of the Kendall Young Library. Here my memory got an adjustment. I recall, yes, that it was a fancy building, but the pictures reveal a beau-arts building more exquisite than I remembered. I was most shocked to see that it has a domed stained-glass skylight, something that no doubt helped with that light I recalled, but that I’d never noticed then with my head in books and sound.

No audio piece today, but thanks for reading.

 

*The old books were likely less old that I am today. I know I enjoyed books there from the 1920s through the 40s, which seemed like centuries ago then. Perhaps a teenager today with a City Lights chapbook or a Beatles LP considers those too archaeological finds from a stratum nearer the pyramids than their weekly life.

**I wonder, how did the makeup have to change from the 34 year old portraying Twain at 70 to the 80 plus old Holbrook doing the same.

***In preparing for what would be his most durable role, Holbrook wanted to know about how Twain himself performed. He has said that he had access to a recording made by an actor-impressionist friend of Twain doing his imitation of Twain in 1934 which is the only recorded clue extant. For visual business, there was also a silent Thomas Edison film of the 70-year-old Twain. Though Twain died in 1910, it’s not far-fetched that we might have had recordings of him. He was fascinated by technology and was known to have used recording devices, as well as having known men like Edison who made them.

2 thoughts on “Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

  1. I attended a reception with Hal Holbrook the night he launched a revival of Mark Twain Tonight in Iowa City. I recall he had the audience at Hancher Auditorium waiting that night because he’d forgotten the signature cigars in his hotel room. Nice piece Frank.

    Liked by 1 person

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