2010 Person of the Year in Nonfiction: Mark Twain
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Paste: How much material do you use in a typical show?
Holbrook: I have, I don’t know, 16-18 hours that I’ve used. I keep about 6-7 hours at a time in my head. And I pick and choose what I want from that. And I was running over a line today while I was swimming that has to do with the tremendous anger between the various factions in our country who have an opinion about the way things should be. The left and the right, basically. And it’s amazing what the man has to say about that.
Paste: It’s fascinating, when you think about the issues from the Fifties, compared to the Sixties and the Seventies, and every decade right up to today, the issues are in some ways similar but in other ways vastly different. And it’s such a testament to Twain’s work and thought that he’s so relevant no matter what time we go through. That must be a pretty fascinating process for you, to tailor the show to each time you’ve gone through with it.
Holbrook: Yeah, it is. I can honestly say that I’m constantly astonished by what this man has to say. I mean, I’ve been doing him for — Christ, for 56 years — and I’m still astonished by what this man comes up with. He nails us to the wall. It’s full of things relevant to what’s been happening on the political scene in this country in the last year or two. He has some great material on that. It takes awhile to say it, I mean it’s not just a bunch of one-liners. But it’s extraordinary. He says (quoting from memory) "Beware the patriots. The fellows who shout the loudest without knowing what they’re shouting about. The patriots who claim the flag as their own. Whose battle cry “My country right or wrong” does not allow us to question the country’s actions so long as it’s being run by one of their own tribe. The patriots to whom membership in the anointed party is patriotism enough. Who believe that all white men are born free and equal. There are patriots who cannot love God because he is a foreigner." See? That’s just an idea of what I’m talking about, the kind of thing that people just don’t say out loud anymore. He goes on and says, “This form of patriotism is taken from the public trough and can be stirred up to a frenzy at election time. And the press knows this. Newsmakers know that the country can be thrown into earthquakes and convulsions when citizens full of strong drink and patriotism are shouting for their anointed party, and death to other opinions. The people who make the news know that if they can stir up hatred among the people and keep the country divided, the news will sell.” I mean, man! You can’t nail it much closer than that.
Paste: I was just reading a great piece by Mickey Kaus the other day about the even further breakdown of cable news. It pointed out that at least up until a couple of years ago they pretended they were having a debate, even if they were just yelling at each other. Now it’s all “We Agree With You TV”, " in his phrase. That’s every channel.
Holbrook: Yes. I have to say, I think television has descended to the point that it might be the most destructive influence on the political scene. People are being made to forget that we live in a democracy. And a democracy requires people to listen to each other. And then they have to compromise, because since there are at least two sides in a democracy, it can’t be all one way. That’s the whole point of a democracy, is to compromise. Well, we haven’t seen much compromise int he last two years. It’s been pretty shocking. And it’s very dangerous. But the people who fan this fire, this fury between people who think one way and people who think the other, are the people on cable television and radio.
I have to say, I don’t listen to the radio much at all anymore. But when I travel, I take a clock radio. They don’t make alarm clocks for old people anymore. They don’t wake me up! They’re very sweet and quiet and they aren’t worth a God damn for waking people up. So I have to get a clock radio and carry it in my suitcase. So when I set it at night in various towns, I have to tune it to a station so it will wake me up, and the only thing I can get is talk radio. And most of the people on talk radio appear to be all of one way of thinking. This is unhealthy, terribly unhealthy. And we have to do anything we can do to shake them up, and challenge them, and nail them with truth, truth, truth, to deflate some of the lies that are being told. I watch Fox News for awhile until I can’t stand it anymore, then I watch MSNBC for awhile and they’re just as bad on the other side. So then I go to CNN and hope to God I can get some information, but they’ve got three or four talking heads yelling over each other so you can’t understand what anyone’s saying. People have got to learn how to shut up and listen. It’s a dangerous thing that’s going on, and it’s grist for my mill. It keeps me going. I mean, it’s one thing to be able to go out and do this show and earn a living. But to be able to do so with the fervor of not being able to wait to get out and the stage and say something to people about what is going on, that is a gift. A gift for which I am eternally grateful, at this age especially.
Paste: I can imagine that would be a pretty powerful driving force, especially given some current events.
Holbrook: You know, the Wall Street thing, I do a section about that. Oddly enough, I put it together about 2000. It’s called “Money is God,” and it’s about our love affair with money, and the corruption that goes with it. And one of the passages in it is: “The limitless rottenness of our financial institutions, where theft has been practiced as a profession by our most influential commercial men.” Talking about Wall Street. Isn’t that amazing? That’s a quote from Mark Twain.
Paste: Ripped from today’s headlines, even though it was written a hundred years ago.
Holbrook: Yeah! 1907. Amazing.
Paste: Have you been able to fully digest much of the first volume of the autobiography? I know it’s an awful lot of material.
Holbrook: Well, I’m familiar with so much of it, because no matter what they say there have been some wonderful edited versions of his autobiography. Bernard Devoto and Dixon Wecter put out great versions like Mark Twain’s America and Mark Twain Interrupted. Not to mention the early releases he gave to the North American Review about 1899. That’s one of the books I found in the Old Argosy bookstore. You can even found some stuff in Albert Bigelow Paine’s official biography, which came out in 1912. A lot of this stuff has been published here and there by editors selecting. What you have in the autobiography that’s just been given to us, the first volume, is the whole nine yards. And it’s more like nine thousand yards. You have to do some exercises at a gym to be able to pick up the book, it’s so heavy. It’s not something you can carry in your suitcase, so that’s out for me. I have it on the stool next to my bed, and I try to look at it once in awhile. I’m going to speak about it at UCLA in a few weeks with the executor of Twain’s papers. But it’s a fascinating thing. I have a thing that happens with Mark Twain a lot; it’s happened so often I don’t hardly even like to say it. If I’m looking for some material, if I want to write something about the political scene today or whatever, I can take a Twain book and open it, and there it is! Right in front of my eyes. I have opened this enormous autobiography several times that way, and thought “Oh my God, I’m looking at something I already do in my show.” So it’s very interesting to me, to go through it that way.