Tracking Twain: Finally, I Met Mark Twain

Celebrity. What makes it? I’ve thought this often since a friend’s boyfriend left college a credit or class or paper—there are many stories out there—short of graduating and went to Hollywood to become Brad Pitt. Actually, he was already Brad Pitt, but in Hollywood, he became the famous—and wealthy—actor Brad Pitt.

Our society likes celebrities so much that some of us even like to dress up as them.

We have no shortage of celebrities on Kaua‘i, some live, some visit. I met my latest on a dark night in a back room.

Finally, 150 years after first planning a visit to Kaua‘i, Mark Twain made it here. He even gave his popular comedic lecture on the people of the Islands, something he’d tried to do 121 years ago on his second visit to Hawai‘i but was turned away at Honolulu Harbor due to a cholera outbreak.

Mark Twain and MeThe Mark Twain I met possessed the famed slow drawl, the mustache, and, even more memorable, a twinkle in his eye. Mark Twain was known as a great storyteller, on the page and in person, but I’ll bet it was the spark in his eyes that drew people to him. It did me. Can you see it in this photo of the master and me?

It’s the first time I’ve thought about that part of Twain’s persona–that intangible element. I’d heard about Twain’s hawkish gaze before, but that was more a description of how observant he was and, possibly, how skilled he was in giving stink eye, as we like to say in Hawai‘i. But pre-television, pre-Internet, and in an age of lecturing that was popular in the 1800s, that twinkle—his performance eye—would have beguiled.

Of course, I’m making a big leap here.

The man I met wasn’t the Mark Twain, the one born as Samuel Clemens. This Mark Twain was born McAvoy Lane. At least, I think he was born McAvoy Lane; maybe he’s assumed a pseudonym, as well. So, let me say the man I know as McAvoy spent his adult life as a performer of one sort or another—on stage and on radio. Only it seems in recent years, he’s sort of morphed into Mark Twain. Like even going around town as the famous author. That is, he’s adopted the Mark Twain persona for himself—not just the stage—and it seems to be working for the one-time Maui deejay who was known as the “Riddle King” and “Cock on the Block,” two monikers that make it easy to understand why he gravitated to another riddler and peacock.

McAvoy sauntered into the Performing Arts Center at Kaua‘i Community College on a recent evening wearing the Twain trademark white suit, bushy mustache and eyebrows, and carrying a pipe. This wasn’t a recent gig for McAvoy. He’s spent 28 years becoming Mark Twain.

But McAvoy isn’t the only one striding around as America’s great novelist. There are dozens others, including Rick Sheideman on Maui who does a regular show in Lahaina. Hal Holbrook is undisputedly the most famous. He first assumed the drawl in 1966 and has been performing the role ever since. Holbrook’s 91. Some like to say he’s been playing Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did.

That’s the other thing I sometimes ponder about celebrities—beyond the insane amount of money we pay them to act in movies, play sports, heck, even coach sports team. And that is what makes some celebrities legends? Like Twain. How is it an auditorium full of people in 2016 is willing to shell out $20 a head to watch some guy perform as a man who has been dead for 106 years? What is it that makes Mark Twain relevant today?

I’ll admit McAvoy Lane did a magnificent job of research. He picked the best bits of Twain’s time in Hawai‘i, piecing together selections from Twain’s dispatches for the Sacramento Union, notes in his journal, and personal letters written to family and friends. Indeed, a performance by McAvoy Lane reciting Mark Twain on Hawai‘i is better entertainment than Twain’s bylined writings for the Sacramento Union. Gratefully, McAvoy left out the boring bits. And there were boring bits. Twain was just getting his Twain on when he was in Hawai‘i.

Sure, there was the twinkle. The humor. And the creation of a truly American writing style that once and for all kicked to the curb the traditional English way of writing forevermore.

There was also luck. And timing. According to Shelley Fisher Fishkin in From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America, Twain had two things going for him when he came of writing age.

“During the 1860s two opposing trends in journalism developed, both of which shaped Twain’s own career: the push toward greater accuracy and the push toward greater extravagance and fabrication.”

The Civil War drove the former.

“But alongside this demand for straight, clear factual reporting,” writes Fishkin, “The late 1860s and 1870s also saw a rise in the manufactured story: newspaper stunts and journalistic hoaxes sometimes meant to be taken straight by the readers, sometimes patently transparent and designed solely to amuse.”

Twain may have riled against what we would call traditional journalism today—objectivity and, oh, straightforward reporting—but he did it. He was even good at it. But it wasn’t his thing. Fabrication based on truth seemed to be his thing.

Twain is often credited with pointing out our society’s foibles but doing so in a way that we could somehow swallow. A little but of sugar with the medicine, perhaps. He made us think and he made us laugh. Is that why he became such a celebrity?

But still? Others have done that, too.

I realize we—as a society—make celebrities. It’s our adoration, our fangirling. But why? Why do we need celebrities in our lives? Why one person and not another? Why does one celebrity endure–like Twain–and another get forgotten? And why are there people going around impersonating Twain today?

And is any of this good?

These are a few things I think about. Do you?

3 thoughts on “Tracking Twain: Finally, I Met Mark Twain

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