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One-man act stands the test of time

For Hal Holbrook, it's a case of never the Twain shall cease

At 77, Hal Holbrook is two years older than Mark Twain lived to be, and he's been appearing as the literary giant longer than Twain toured as himself.

'This April, I'll have been doing this 48 years,' Holbrook says. 'I had no idea it would go on this long.'

This week, Holbrook will regale a Portland audience with deadpan observations about 'My Cigar Habit,' 'The Get Rich Quick Disease' and 'My Ancestor Satan' Ñ or any of about 60 other subjects, since he decides what his program will be on the spot.

In a phone interview from the home he shares with wife, actress Dixie Carter, in McLemoresville, Tenn., Holbrook proves himself drily witty, a master of the pregnant pause. Twain fits him like a well-cut white suit.

Ken Burns' recent television documentary on Twain has brought America's best-known author back into the public eye just as Holbrook visits Portland.

'Ken asked me to narrate Twain, (and) I was a little shy about telling him how I felt,' Holbrook recalls. 'I can't have somebody telling me how to read Twain, and he (Burns) gives you a line reading on every single line. So I was interviewed as a Twain scholar, and that put me in a different relationship.'

Holbrook's scholarship comes to the fore on the subject of Twain's masterpiece, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' which is still being banned, nearly 120 years after its first publication, because some see it as racist.

'This is a book about racism. It is not a racist book,' Holbrook says.

'You might read 20 or 30 pages with your mind encased in cement, but sooner or later you'll get the point that Twain is not telling the story,' he explains. 'The brilliant conceit which turns this into satire is that an uneducated juvenile delinquent is telling the story Ñ a 15-year-old brought up by a racist father who beats him.'

In the story, Huck befriends Jim, an escaped slave. 'When this young man does something out of the goodness of his heart, he feels he's doing wrong, committing a sin,' Holbrook says. 'The entire white culture in the South had good and evil totally reversed.'

Twain's own life was incompatible with that of a racist. 'Twain married the daughter of one of the leading abolitionists in the state of New York,' Holbrook points out.

A tale delayed

'Twain wrote 200 pages of 'Huck Finn' in 1876, and then he stopped,' he says of the book, which wasn't published until 1884.

'Nobody told me why, so I thought, Let's use common sense. Two years before, he wrote 'Tom Sawyer,' a reasonable success. The next book, he picks this juvenile delinquent É (whose) father beats him, so he gets this slave and runs away. There's this wonderful pilgrimage. But Twain stopped writing the book for five years. What happened?

'I looked it up, and I found that in 1876, the Democrats made a deal to elect a Republican president if the Republicans would agree to kill Reconstruction in the South.

'Twain started this book to be like 'Tom Sawyer,' but as he traveled down the Mississippi for the first time in 20 years, he saw the failure of the whole ideal on which Lincoln based the Civil War.

'And 'Huck Finn' became a much more serious book.'

The subject takes Holbrook to a darker place, and there's a long pause while he considers the next question: What is the enduring lesson of Twain's life? Finally he answers.

'It's the ability to ask yourself: Are you sure that's really what you think?'

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