The Twain Doctrine: Citizen Holbrook & The Geopolitics of Colloquial Humor
In the above epigraph, Hal Holbrook alludes to the events which inspired Charles Neider’s Mark Twain & The Russians (1960). The “propaganda line” appeared first in “Mark Twain on the Bed of Procrustes,” ostensibly a review of Charles Neider’s Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959) in the Soviet periodical Literaturnaya Gazeta. The Soviet critic, Yan Bereznitsky, alleges that Americans have been inclined to “forget” Mark Twain, and further, when they do remember him, they choose to remember him only as a “simple-minded scoffer,” a mischaracterization which, Bereznitsky believes, is designed to suppress the author’s inconvenient politics. In many autobiographical writings, including some which had been included in Bernard DeVoto’s Mark Twain In Eruption (1940), Twain expresses his outrage towards turn-of-the-century US military imperialism and American Capitalism1I use this phrase here, rather than simply capitalism, with deference to a specific phase of national political economy, as named and described by John Kenneth Galbraith in American Capitalism (Houghton Mifflin, 1952), as well as his proletarian sympathies. From Bereznitsky’s perspective, such commentaries anticipate the ambivalent impact America’s rising influence would have in the decades following Twain’s death. Thus, Bereznitsky regards Neider’s decision to exclude these chapters from his Cold War-era edition as archetypal of what he dubs the “literary hairdressing” practiced by Americans towards their most renowned native author.
Bereznitky’s assumption of a doctrinal Twain which all US critics, editors, and scholars are encouraged, if not compelled, to reproduce provokes Neider to write to Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and thereafter to the editors of Literaturnaya Gazeta, breaking his self-imposed rule against responding to bad reviews of his books. Bereznitsky’s thesis “struck through me at the society of which I am a part; and it seemed to discount the possibility of free literary endeavor in my country,” Neider writes. Throughout Mark Twain & The Russians Neider maintains his indignation towards the idea that “supervision and suppression” might exist in U.S. publishing. He takes for granted that his fellow Americans will be similarly shocked by such a claim: “This notion of America’s being a monolithic structure, with control stemming from the top, natural strikes most Americans as a curious one.”
On the surface, press coverage of the Literaturnaya Gazeta exchange in November and December of 1959 suggests Neider was correct. Almost every journalist took particular umbrage to Bereznitsky’s notion of an “official line” on Mark Twain. But, as mentioned at the conclusion of the previous installment, by rallying around Neider and his forthcoming response to Bereznitsky (shared with members of the US press prior to its publication) these journalists produce the decided impression of unification and coordination, an impression that works at cross purposes with their claims to autonomy and heterodoxy. The sources marshaled in these reports – from government, publishing, and academia – fall back repeatedly on Neider’s exact counterpoints, as well as ad hominem attacks on Bereznitsky, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and Soviet Communism.
The American counterargument, widely recycled, has three primary components. First, Neider believes Americans are incapable of accepting top-down state interventions in the culture-making apparatus and, as such, there are no “political mechanisms” for influencing mass media purveyors whose participation would be necessary to create an “official line on Mark Twain” if it were desired. Second, Neider asserts that far from forgetting Mark Twain, in 1959-1960 the United States was “enjoying a fresh outburst of interest in him.” And, finally, Neider explains that he chose not to foreground what he calls “didactic Mark Twain” because he finds Twain to be “not a great maker of political utterances.” According to Neider, Twain’s social commentaries are “dated, dull, trivial, and journalese,” especially by comparison with his “more purely literary and more characteristically humorous material.”
“Mark Twain is of course primarily a humorist,” a topic sentence from Neider’s introduction to Mark Twain & The Russians, is a line which stands out. It is a statement designed to affront not only the Soviet critic with whom Neider was sparring, but numerous American academics who were concurrently committed to approaching Twain as a literary craftsman, philosopher, social critic, and political operator.2I am thinking here primarily of Louis Budd, Philip Foner, Leo Marx, and Henry Nash Smith, all of whom were breaking (sometimes tentatively) from the New Critical tradition in Twain Studies, as established especially by Van Wyck Brooks, which argued that Twain was a talented humorist who stumbled into writing one great novel, and who might’ve been capable of more if he hadn’t been saddled with a needy wife, expensive tastes, and a desperate need to please the mob. While there have been at least three generations of scholars determined to make major revisions to this foundational posthumous account of Twain’s work, it is still quite influential. The Poet Laureate and critic, Reed Whittemore, was inspired by Neider’s statement to quip, “I think somebody ought to do a PhD thesis or something someday about the ‘of courses’ of the world and how they always, of course, appear at precisely the points where an issue is in doubt. Nobody, of course, ever says that the sea of course is wet; but the Neiders of the world are always ready to say that the sea of course is a symbol of mother or eternal flux. You know, of course, what I mean.”3Reed Whittemore, The Fascination of The Abomination (Macmillan, 1963)
Maxwell Geismar went even further, writing a whole book, Mark Twain: An American Prophet (1970), premised on countering the “purely personal Mark Twain whom Charles Neider created out of Cold War fantasy and aberration.” Geismar writes, “Not only Russia but the whole late nineteenth century world had worshipped Mark Twain not merely as a humorist, but as a social and moral voice of justice and humanity whose humor made the lesson more effective.” Geismar is here, self-consciously, contradicting one of the core principles of the midcentury Twain Doctrine: to demarcate Twain’s humor (and perhaps humor generally) as apolitical. Comedy was not a vehicle through which to deliver morals, lessons, or critiques, to make them “more effective,” as Geismar hypothesizes. Rather, if something was said in a context where laughter was understood to be among the speaker’s primary objectives, there was no reason to take it literally. If “Mark Twain is of course primarily a humorist,” then his political statements are simply part of an act, an artifice, an entertainment. If our American Shakespeare expresses some sympathy with socialism, even posthumously, then, of course, he must be joking.
On the question of whether there were “political mechanisms” for manipulating US mass media during the Cold War, it is now easy for us to see that Neider was spectacularly wrong. At one point he asks Bereznitsky, “Is this goal of ‘official’ America achieved through the Library of Congress? Congressional committees? The White House? The Supreme Court? The State Department? The FBI?” Within the next decade it would become apparent that several of these institutions were actively involved, often through coordination with the CIA, in “The Cultural Cold War.”4Christopher Lasch would bring this phrase before the public in his famous expose – “The Cultural Cold War,” The Nation (September 11, 1967) – and it was further popularized by Frances Stonor Saunders – The Cultural Cold War: The CIA & The World of Arts & Letters (New Press, 1999) – but the term appears in government documents much earlier. Agents from the CIA, FBI, US Information Agency, and State Department, sometimes with Presidential or Congressional approval, launched periodicals and networks, bankrolled publishers and broadcasters, recruited artists and editors, organized committees and conferences, drafted talking points, and harassed supposed dissidents.
Sometimes journalists, performers, publishers, and scholars knowingly conspired with government agents, but often culture work that was deemed favorable to US propaganda efforts was funded and publicized with the help of dummy organizations, dark money slush funds, and lobbyists. The illusion of intellectual triumph in a free marketplace of ideas was imperative for many whose work government agents wanted to support, especially those proselytizing for American Capitalism, so federal agencies developed numerous strategies for making invisible the hand it had pressed on the scales of media enterprise.
The scope of state intervention in culture-making apparatuses in the U.S. and abroad expanded rapidly during the “Armed Thaw” period (1958-1961) when Mark Twain & The Russians was published, but not until the late 1960s would it begin to become apparent to the general public through investigations published by Ramparts, The New York Times, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and others. The ongoing reporting would provoke a series of federal inquiries, most famously the Church Commission, which would, in turn, lay the foundation for more investigative journalism, a cycle which continued for more than a decade and revolutionized the US intelligence agencies.
Among the “political mechanisms” for waging the Cultural Cold War was the American Committee For Cultural Freedom, a large CIA-funded member organization focused on the promotion of anti-communism by artists and intellectuals who could burnish “Left” credentials, whether as former “card-carrying” Communists (like Whittaker Chambers), social democrats (like Dwight Macdonald), labor activists (like John Dos Passos), or mere New Deal liberals (like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.). Among the most active members of the organization in the 1950s was Max Eastman, who fit the ACCF profile perfectly. He had been a women’s rights and antiwar activist during World War I. He helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, edited several prominent socialist periodicals, and wrote extensively about Marxism. He spent two years in the Soviet Union studying with Leon Trotsky. Observing the function of Soviet Communism under Stalin, he became increasingly skeptical of its superiority to the American system. He would later quote Twain on Socialism: “I can’t believe in it – I can’t even hope for it – I know too much about human nature.”5This potentially apocryphal quotation first appeared in a self-published pamphlet, Clemens: Some Reminiscences (1938), authored by Eastman’s childhood friend and Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. It’s vaguely reminiscent of things Twain says elsewhere.
Eastman’s politics are complex, dynamic, and unconventional, but he became staunchly anti-Stalinist and anti-Soviet. Even though he had been one of the most prominent targets of the first Red Scare (tried for sedition twice in 1918), he defended McCarthyism as the lesser of two evils.6Christoph Irmsher’s Max Eastman: A Life (Yale UP, 2017) provides a careful, accessible intro to Eastman, as do Eastman’s own memoirs, Enjoyment of Living (Harper & Bros, 1948) and Love & Revolution: My Journey Through An Epoch (Random House, 1964) Eastman was also a lifelong admirer of Mark Twain. His mother, Annis Ford Eastman, had written Twain’s eulogy. He remained close friends with the Langdon family, despite a widening political gulf between them, and had fond memories of the Clemenses from his youth in Elmira.7My characterization of “The Gospel of Revolt” which once pervaded Elmira is developed from Eastman’s memoirs.
Eastman was a close friend of Charles Neider’s and, as Neider would reveal many years later, the person who insisted he seek press coverage of his response to Literaturnaya Gazeta, going so far as to say “If you don’t phone the papers, I will” and specifically suggesting which New York papers Neider should contact. In light of what we now know, it’s hard not to be suspicious of the process by which Neider was made aware of Bereznitsky’s review and induced to reply.8Neider would reveal more details about the period preceding Mark Twain & The Russians in a foreward to the 2000 edition of his collection Life As I Find It (1961). The offending issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta was delivered to an “Advertising Director” at Neider’s publishing house, Harper & Brothers (also Eastman’s publisher), by somebody Neider identifies only as “the director of an organization that monitored Slavic journals.” Neider received an unexpected call from Eastman immediately after receiving his invitation to reply from Literaturnaya Gazeta‘s Foreign Editor, Boris Leontyev, and within hours his apartment was “crowded with journalists,” among them Theodore Shabad of The New York Times and Judith Crist of The New York Herald Tribune. In the coming years, both publications would be accused of extensive cooperation with the CIA and USIA.9See, for instance, Carl Bernsteins’s “CIA & The Media” in Rolling Stone (October 20, 1977).
It’s difficult to avoid the paranoid style when discussing the Cultural Cold War. The further we get from the events of the Armed Thaw, the more records are declassified, and accusations, both corroborated and circumstantial, accumulate against both specific media members and entire conglomerates. It is certainly ludicrous now to claim 1950s Americans were immune to domestic propaganda, or that the American media was free from state intervention. But whether or not Neider’s exchange with Literaturnaya Gazeta was orchestrated by government agents is actually only tangential to the broader questions of whether there was a Twain Revival in the U.S. contemporaneous with the Armed Thaw? Whether that revival was catalyzed by the state? And how Twain’s cultural capital was altered and appropriated during this process?
In Mark Twain & The Russians, Bereznitsky cites the circulation figures for Twain’s published works in the Soviet Union.10Bereznitsky reports 11 million copies of Twain’s works in 25 languages. A year later, M.O. Mendelson, one of the editors of Twain’s collected works in Russian, would report 12.3 million copies from a total of 272 editions. These figures were updated by Russian critics during the Armed Thaw and frequently repeated in the U.S. press, often with some contradictory explanation for why Twain was so popular with Russian readers. But no analogous effort was made to produce or publicize circulation statistics for US editions of Twain’s works. Perhaps such statistics were too difficult to compile, perhaps they did not compare favorably with the Soviet figures, or perhaps US commentators simply preferred to shift the frame of the debate. Given that this dispute ostensibly begins with the curation of a book exhibit, it is remarkable how little of what follows is based upon literary production. With the exceptions of Neider’s Autobiography, a 1960 Harvard UP collection of Twain’s correspondence with William Dean Howells, and an anthology based upon Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, books are simply not cited as evidence of Americans’ renewed interest in Twain by Neider or any of his supporters.
The mediums of the US Twain Revival are television, film, and theater. In their May 2, 1960 cover story on the “unrestrained Twainophilia” of the moment, Newsweek highlights a period of three weeks in April and May of 1960 when four programs on CBS and NBC aired episodes based on Twain’s life and work.11In “Twain: A Yearning For Yesterday” (Newsweek, May 2 1960) Leslie Hanscom cites “Mark Twain’s America,” an episode of Project Twenty on NBC (airing April 22, 1960); “The Shape Of The River,” an episode of Playhouse 90 on CBS (airing May 2, 1960); “Tennessee Ernie Ford Meets King Arthur” (an adaptation of Connecticut Yankee), an episode of Startime on NBC (airing May 10, 1960); and “Roughing It,” an episode of Sunday Showcase on NBC (airing May 13, 1960). The New York Times cited these as well as two more programs, one which aired in February 1960 on NBC and another slated for the Fall schedule on CBS.12In “Fourth TV Show On Twain Slated” (New York Times, April 14 1960), Richard F. Shepard mentions the three-episode arc based on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which would be part of the upcoming season of The Robert Herridge Theatre on CBS. Under the title “The Ballad of Huckleberry Finn” it ran from November 15-29, 1960. “Shadow of A Soldier,” an episode of Our American Heritage on NBC which dramatized the making of Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (which Twain solicited, edited, published, and allegedly ghostwrote) aired on February 21, 1960. And yet this was not even a complete survey of Twain’s appearances on U.S. television during the Armed Thaw (as we shall cover in more detail for a later installment of “The Twain Doctrine”).13You can watch many of these in the Mark Twain: Television Star archive created by David Bianculli.
But nobody was more essential to promoting the idea of a US Twain Revival than Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! is the first thing Neider mentions in Mark Twain & The Russians as evidence of “the fresh outburst of interest.” And Holbrook is involved with three of the five cultural products Neider brings to Bereznitsky’s attention. Every attempt to demonstrate a Twain Revival begins (and sometimes ends) with Holbrook. One syndicated newspaper columnist, Ward Cannel, marvels in July of 1960 that “in his wake, Holbrook has already left: A wide revival of interest in Twain’s works. A book, a record and a scholarly controversy over the psychological factors in Twain’s life. A movie which Coronet Films will show to millions of children, giving Twain a foothold in still another generation.”
In the space of a year, Holbrook and his performance as Twain would be the subject of features in Life, Newsday, Newsweek, The New York Times, This Week, and Time. There were also multiple syndicated Associated Press profiles, including one explicitly calling for Holbrook to be cast in more films14A column by Hollywood reporter, Bob Thomas, which ran in December of 1959., and hundreds of bulletins and reviews by local newspapers across North America and Europe.
Though Holbrook had been touring Mark Twain Tonight! for several years and performing intermittently as Twain since 1954, the show became a national sensation during its five-month Off-Broadway run from April to September of 1959, after which it immediately began a North American tour to support both a Columbia Records album, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!, and an Ives Washburn paperback, Mark Twain Tonight!: An Actor’s Portrait, both released in the Fall of 1959. In October of 1959, Holbrook performed for President Eisenhower at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Holbrook was also initially announced as the star of the NBC adaptation of Roughing It (he backed out before production began).15Holbrook claimed illness caused him to withdraw. He had kept an extremely taxing schedule during the preceding year. But he had also openly and repeatedly expressed his desire to pursue film roles, not television, and for the first time in his career he had reason to believe he could be selective.
During this period of ascendent celebrity Holbrook came to the attention of the US State Department. A syndicated Broadway gossip columnist from the Associated Press, Earl Wilson, reported as early as April 15 (only a couple weeks into the NYC run of Tonight!) that the State Department had extended a tentative invitation to Holbrook to “tour Europe.” In September, Wilson reported that the tour’s ambitions had expanded to “take [Holbrook’s] Mark Twain show to Moscow.” In October, the day after Holbrook’s appearance at the Correspondents Dinner and less that a week before “Twain’s Amazing Twin” was published in Life, James F. Magdanz, the Director of Cultural Presentations, drafted a memo suggesting Holbrook be considered as a cause celebre for reinvesting cultural exchange resources in theatrical performances, which had been mostly abandoned during the Eisenhower administration. This memo was signed by Secretary of State, Christian Herter, and distributed to 16 embassies and several Washington offices three days later.
The Magdanz memo, coincidently composed the same day Charles Neider mailed his appeal to Nikita Krushchev, is revealing as both documentation of an “official” position on Twain and the State Department’s evolving approach to cultural exchange in the wake of the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement, the Kitchen Debate, and Krushchev’s US Tour. As discussed in my last installment, the “cultural exchanges” enthusiastically called for at the outset of the Armed Thaw quickly became cover for more ambitious propaganda campaigns. During Eisenhower’s first term, the State Department had developed a strong preference for orchestral music, jazz ensembles, and dance companies. These were preferred for three reasons. First, they were presumed to transcend language barriers. Second, they were ostensibly apolitical. Even ballets and operas, which are obviously vehicles for ideology, were, at least, not directly embedded in or inspired by contemporary contexts. Third, these forms were associated with “high culture.” The State Department tours aimed to dispel the common European stereotype that America was a nation of rubes by demonstrating virtuosity in mediums favored by European elites (even when the tours were not going to Europe). In this respect, the tours were explicitly “competitive,” seeking U.S. artists whose skills would rival, if not exceed, those of the local performers.
Theater had come to be seen as incompatible with the Presidential Program’s aims. Many of the most acclaimed theatrical ventures in the midcentury U.S. were either genres which might be considered philistine (Broadway musicals, vaudeville comedy, etc.), subversively political (Arthur Miller, for instance), or populated with seedy characters and “self-criticism” (Tennessee Williams was the favored whipping boy on Capitol Hill). The technical evaluation of acting, playwriting, and theatrical direction was also viewed by the State Department as far more subjective than musicianship, dancing, composing, and conducting. Thus, critical reception of theater was likely to be more volatile. Finally, could foreign audiences even be relied upon to understand the dialogue, especially if it were “colloquial”?16As recently at January of 1958, just days before the Lacy-Zarubin agreement was signed, Magdanz testified before a Congressional appropriations committee about tours that had taken place during the preceding year. He answered questions about more than a dozen performing arts projects, only one of which was theatrical, but it was that one about which he was grilled at greatest length. About the week-long showing of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) in Paris, Congressman John J. Rooney wondered aloud what good could come of taxpayers paying $6,000 a night to show an English-language play to French people, except to get the associated diplomats invited to a few froufrou cocktail parties. Colloquial is a euphemism Magdanz uses which appears frequently in official documents about cultural exchange. It implies both (as is common of the term) the use of slang, dialect, and other informal speech forms, but also (peculiar to US bureaucracy) the frank discussion of risque topics (as Magdanz hints with “colloquial American concepts and mores”) like domestic violence, sexuality, racism, poverty, and organized political dissent.
The Magdanz Memo anticipates being met with what had become the common refrain: the language of US theater would only be understood so far as it made the US look bad. But Magdanz also recognizes that the heightened emphasis on cultural exchanges during the Armed Thaw, though it increases the scrutiny on tours he manages, also justifies adjustments to the stale conventions of State Department programming. Twain’s durably high approval rating amongst Europeans combined with Holbrook’s capacity to charismatically connect with the audience as a lone performer, Magdanz hypothesizes, make Mark Twain Tonight! a strikingly different proposition than O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night or Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire.
One of the people to whom the Magdanz memo went was the Deputy Director of the US Information Agency, Abbott Washburn, who enthusiastically replied, having recently been on hand for Holbrook’s White House performance,
“There is very little material in the Holbrook presentation that I would call colloquial. It is 90% universal humor.”17Quoted from David Langbart, “Mark Twain Goes Overseas in The 1950,” The Text Message: Blog of The Textual Records Division at the National Archives
Washburn’s endorsement was crucial. He was one of the leading architects of U.S. propaganda operations throughout the 1950s. Recruited from the Public Relations department at General Mills, he had been a founding Chairman for the Crusade For Freedom, one of the most powerful CIA fronts. The CCF funneled millions of dollars to publishers, broadcasters, and other media outlets under Washburn’s leadership. Christopher Simpson claims that CCF “establishes the CIA as the largest single political advertiser on the American scene during the early 1950s, rivaled only by such commercial giants as General Motors and Proctor & Gamble.”18Christopher Simpson, Blowback (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988) Washburn was hired by the Eisenhower campaign in 1952 and rapidly became one of the candidate’s most trusted communications specialists. He was appointed Deputy Director of the US Information Agency upon its founding in 1953. USIA was one of Eisenhower’s top priorities. Washburn remained in the same position for the next eight years, serving “under” three different Directors, as Acting Director for extended stretches, and, as the only USIA staff member who had consistent access to the President, the agency’s de facto leader. Washburn was also the primary strategist for Eisenhower’s signature propaganda initiative: the “people-to-people program.” The mission of the program, which distributed funds throughout government as well as to private foundations, was to deputize Americans traveling abroad for business and “public diplomacy” (another euphemism) as advocates for US interests and, as importantly, against communism.
As the Cold War entered a new phase, one which explicitly invited the comparison of US and USSR based upon the “culture” and “lifestyle” of their citizens, Washburn played an ever more central role. He was tasked with overseeing the curation and construction of the American National Exhibition in Moscow. In this capacity, he would’ve inevitably learned about the conflict over Twain’s cultural capital which began there. Both he and Magdanz recognize that Twain’s international celebrity has value for the Cultural Cold War to a degree his published works do not. Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! provided an ideal opportunity to both reevaluate the government’s ingrained prejudice against theater and combat the Soviet’s Twain propaganda by shifting the battleground. Magdanz’s preference for “a ‘living’ concept of Twain rather than an academic one depending solely on the written word” aligns perfectly with the broader Twain Revival characterized by stage and screen productions which could selectively adapt, interpret, and curate the author’s character and corpus to suit “program objectives,” as Magdanz so delicately puts it.
The very premise of Twain’s posthumously-published manuscripts, including the autobiography, was that “only dead men tell the truth.” If he was going to be of any use to American propaganda operations, it was imperative he be brought back to life. A “young American actor” who was “a highly valid personification of Mark Twain” was a far preferable agent of the state, by far.
The State Department tour of Mark Twain Tonight! wasn’t officially announced until June of 1960. It began in proper with a residency at the Edinburgh Festival in early September and continued until mid-November.
The tour was a trailblazer, integrating the principles of the People-to-People initiative into the existing cultural exchange infrastructure. Unlike most State Department tours, which tended to cover ground quickly, booking nearly every night for weeks in succession across dozens of European nations, Holbrook’s schedule was set so that public performances fell only every third day. In the interim, Holbrook’s time was offered gratis to local schools, media outlets, charitable organizations, and government agencies, where he met with students, journalists, actors, and local officials, often with minimal advance notice and without diplomatic briefing. The goal was to produce spontaneous, unscripted interactions, during which Holbrook would invite people to “ask me anything.”19This phrase has taken on fresh connotation in the age of Reddit, but Holbrook does use when describing the program to congress. Many of the questions would be about American culture and politics, including Cold War conflicts. Holbrook would answer them forthrightly and often with an element of “self-criticism.”
Holbrook rapidly became a darling of the US Information Agency and their allies across the Eisenhower government (and beyond). Upon his return, he was asked to serve on an ad hoc committee dedicated to improving the representation of American theater in the cultural exchanges, and twice he was invited to testify before congressional committees about the effectiveness of these exchanges.20I will conclude this installment of “The Twain Doctrine” by discussing Holbrook’s testimony, transcripts of which I have included in full at the bottom of this post. During these hearings, Holbrook repeatedly called attention to the circumstances surrounding Mark Twain & The Russians, even going so far as to speculate that it was the reason he had not been invited to perform in Moscow.
As established above, Holbrook was widely recognized, as early as the Summer of 1959, as the face of the Twain Revival which coincided with the Armed Thaw, and thus his perspective on (and participation in) the propaganda efforts associated with that revival is, at the very least, expert (in the DC political operative sense of the term). But, contrary to the impression given at the time, including by Holbrook himself, that Mark Twain Tonight! would soon be in the rearview mirror of the thirty-something actor, we now know that Holbrook’s relationship to the character and his influence on Twain Studies would continue for another half century, extending not just to a cottage industry of Twain impersonators, but also to contemporary artists, journalists, filmmakers, prominent politicians, and academics. As Susan K. Harris, herself one of the most decorated Twain scholars of the era, put it in 2017, “I have always thought Hal was the best Twain scholar among us.”21This totem was not merely a late invention of Holbrook’s academic admirers, but a throughline in the reception of his work on Twain. Introducing Holbrook in 1956, Ed Sullivan says, “He’s a Mark Twain scholar, actually.” That such a titanic figure in Twain Studies self-consciously participated in the propagandization of Twain must be pertinent to his lasting influence, though not, I want to emphasize, discrediting that influence.
The 1959 Off-Broadway run was just the first of several instances when Mark Twain Tonight! produced a national sensation, but as it was the first, the Armed Thaw period is a fixture in Holbrook’s account of his career, narrated repeatedly in essays, interviews, and memoirs. His concurrent association with the State Department, the US Information Agency, and Cold War cultural exchange, however, is not something discussed in these documents.
There is, famously, a lacuna in Twain’s biography around the Civil War. We know he was there, briefly, but we don’t know exactly the nature and extent of his participation. The war has evident and persistent influence upon his works, from what might be characterized as his refugee writings in the 1860s all the way to his antiwar polemics four decades later, but he rarely describes actual events from the war in any detail.
I propose that the same might be said of Hal Holbrook’s relationship to the Cultural Cold War. He was there during the Armed Thaw, on the front lines in fact.22In a particularly touching moment from his congressional testimony, Holbrook describes seeing the barbed wire fences and minefields which made up the Iron Curtain, which he “never knew was more than an expression.” But, as Holbrook chose to remain silent after 1963 about the propaganda programs he participated in, and documentation of those programs remains mired by government censors and conspiracy theories, what we do know about Holbrook’s career as a government agent (I use this term loosely) is, much like Twain’s military service, limited to a couple short, uncorroborated confessions.
Furthermore, though by all indications the State was highly satisfied by Holbrook’s performance on its behalf, it seems those collaborations with the State were not altogether satisfying for Holbrook. There is a noticeable change in his attitude between his first appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, not long after he returned from his 1960 European tour, and his second appearance, more than two years later. To quote Holbrook himself, discussing how Twain’s Civil War lacuna looms over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Interesting.”
Moreover, as Mark Twain Tonight! continued to tour throughout the 1960s, it turned out it was not the finished product Holbrook seems to have believed it to be when he published his Off-Broadway scripts in November 1959. The third act of the production was always intended to be the least funny, the most contemplative, and potentially discomfiting. Holbrook self-consciously shifted from merely “getting the laugh” to being “concerned with the thought a laugh can provoke.23He elsewhere characterizes this as a shift from broad humor to satire. In 1959, the material he chose to facilitate this shift is primarily focused on Christianity.24As in “The Creator’s Pet” selection which concludes the Columbia recording. But by the time Holbrook revives Mark Twain Tonight! on Broadway in 1966, the target of his final act had become America itself.25The 1966 production won Holbrook a Tony and was broadcast on CBS in 1967, netting him four Emmy nominations and one win. Interesting.
During the CBS broadcast of the Broadway show, Holbrook transitions out of a comic description of failed prospecting from Roughing It to say,
“Well, that California get-rich-quick disease of my youth spread like wildfire. It produced a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life, it’s poetry, it’s soft romantic dreams and visions, and replaced them with a money fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep that does not refresh. It has created a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities and satisfied nothing. It has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place.”26Mark Twain Tonight! on CBS (March 6, 1967)
Holbrook stares directly into the camera through much of this statement, a technique he does not frequently rely upon. It is as though he is confronting the television audience, forcing them to recognize he is speaking to and about them. While Twain is considerably more eloquent, the thrust of his statement, about the propensity of American Capitalism to produce unnecessary goods at the expense of consumers’ moral life, bears more than a passing resemblance to Nikita Krushchev’s diatribe about the lemon press during the Kitchen Debate at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, the event which incites Mark Twain & The Russians.
One reason why this passage was not part of Holbrook’s 1959 shows was that it had not been published yet. The selection is an excerpt from the “Papers of The Adam Family” which were published in Bernard DeVoto’s Letters From The Earth in 1962. As you may recall from the first installment of “The Twain Doctrine,” DeVoto’s Letters had been embargoed by the Mark Twain Estate. According to Neider, Clara Samossoud (née Clemens) and her husband, Jacques, “feared their publication would mar Mark Twain’s reputation around the world and would give aid and comfort to the communistic, atheistic Soviet Union.”27From Neider’s 2000 foreward to Life As I Find It. Neider claimed that the lifting of the embargo was a direct result of Mark Twain & The Russians, which showed “that the suppression of [Letters] was giving the very aid and comfort to the Russians which [Clara] and her husband had feared their publication would give them.” Henry Nash Smith, editor of the Mark Twain Papers, attributes Samossoud’s change of heart to the midcentury Twain Revival more broadly, not Neider’s specific contributions to it.
But regardless of exactly why the embargo was lifted, its lifting, ironically, provided Holbrook with prime material with which to portray Twain (accurately, I might add) as a skeptic of American Capitalism, exactly as Bereznitsky alleged. The “living concept” of Twain which had been so appealing to the propagandists of the Eisenhower administration and the evangelists of the Twain Revival came in front of his largest audience to date leaning into words which gave solace not only to Soviet Twain critics, but more directly to the antiracist and anticapitalist campus countercultures of the late 1960s.
Holbrook’s first appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs was part of the kind of comprehensive examination of the executive branch one expects in the wake of a presidential transition. With the election of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party controlled the White House and both congressional bodies, and so set about systematically evaluating the signature programs and policies of the preceding administration. Cultural exchanges had certainly been a hallmark of Eisenhower’s foreign policy during his second term. By most indications, they were popular with the public and had broad bipartisan support, but the Democrats were searching for evidence of glut or graft, while Republicans seized the opportunity to question what kinds of “culture” were really worthy of taxpayer support and government publicity.28Upon his return in 1963, Holbrook would be explicitly asked to define culture. Throughout the hearings Holbrook has to deal with insinuations that he was using the President’s Program to get free press for himself while he took a paid European vacation.29The relative scarcity of US press coverage of the European tour, especially by comparison with the publicity blitz Holbrook enjoyed throughout his Off-Broadway run a few months earlier, reveals how absurd such insinuations were.
The committee seems most interested in three questions. First and foremost, did the European audiences get the jokes? There is much parroting of the concerns about “colloquial humor” from the Magdanz memo. The Chairperson, Wayne Hays (D-OH), states this most bluntly at the outset of the hearing: “What’s the point of all this? It is a waste of money, because nobody understands it.” Others wonder aloud whether Holbrook was performing primarily for audiences of expatriates and Foreign Service employees, not the actual Fins, Poles, and Dutchmen whose respect such programs were supposedly designed to earn. Second, who was Holbrook working for? What agencies and individuals had input into both how his performances were promoted and how the tour was managed? There are several not-so-subtle suggestions that Holbrook himself might not be savvy enough to know who had really made the decision to send him abroad and what they were hoping to gain by doing so. Finally, there is a lengthy and seemingly sincere line of inquiry into the art and industry of midcentury US theater. Should more resources be committed to theatrical exchanges? What kinds of theatrical productions are most appropriate to the ethos of cultural exchange?
The latter question evidently entices Holbrook. It may have been what persuaded him to deepen his involvement with the State Department even after his European tour. As alluded to above, there was an ingrained prejudice against theater as a medium of cultural exchange. Holbrook urgently wants to dispel that prejudice, and offers numerous defenses, drawing evidence from his own performances of Mark Twain Tonight!, but also demonstrating his deep knowledge of midcentury drama, capable to pulling examples from plays by William Gibson, Ruth Gordon, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Thorton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, as well as calling attention to actors and directors who he thinks worthy of showcasing abroad. He pushes back against the allegation that contemporaneous US theater overemphasizes the “sordid” and reasons that actors are ideally suited for service in Eisenhower’s People-to-People initiative, the mission of which he enthusiastically supports.
But Holbrook also clearly understands the precondition to any advocacy for specific artist or work is convincing the congressional appropriators that European audiences can appreciate a play as much as they can a ballet or a jazz ensemble. He frames his tour as an experiment in transcending the barriers of language and culture. “I was a kind of pioneer because I think the Government wanted to find out if people over there could understand the language, especially idiomatic language,” he says, after submitting for the record a large stack of translated reviews, excerpted from periodicals across Europe. Almost all the excerpts emphasize how funny the show is, selected no doubt because Holbrook and his allies recognize that the committee (much like Magdanz and Washburn) regard laughter as a kind of tangible evidence of both comprehension and tacit approval. An audience that laughs proves not only that their English is fluent enough to handle “idiomatic language,” but also that they primed to accept, as Magdanz had put it, “colloquial American concepts and mores.”
Extending the conceit of his performances as experiments, Holbrook explains the control group and the results, even using statistical language. “I did just the same material that I would do in the States,” he assures them, “I got laughs, when I got them, in exactly the same places that I get them in America. There was no deviations on that. They only deviation was the matter of degree. They laughed less. I would say maybe they laughed about 60 percent as much as they do in this country…Sixty percent was more than enough to keep the show moving.”
This fixation on laughter, which seems to permeate the “official line” on Mark Twain, had begun to grate on Holbrook by the time he returned to Capitol Hill in 1963. He knows this is what the congressmen want to hear, and he makes it an even bigger part of his opening statement, but as the hearing proceeds, it becomes clear he is growing tired of this rudimentary method of assessment, as are some of his interlocutors. Peter Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), a committee member with both military and foreign service experience, chastises his colleagues for their obsession. “Much effort is aimed at the countries behind the Iron Curtain, so they will understand that we laugh at the same time that they laugh,” Frelinghuysen observes, “Well, is that necessary? Also, is it necessary to show our friends that we laugh at the same places, that we bleed if we are cut, and so on?” As Frelinghuysen knew, Holbrook and his fellow actors were not the only ones being evaluated by this rudimentary standard. Elsewhere in the same hearings, the universality of laughter was being offered as rational for why the government should fund foreign editions of Readers Digest and a student exchange program called “Operation Amigo.”
While Holbrook never missed an opportunity to emphasize how much laughter Mark Twain Tonight! generated – “It is supposed to by funny. People here laugh at it very much. And if I have to stand up over two hours, and try to be funny, and people don’t laugh at me, it is one of the most frightening experiences, I can tell you, that you could go through in your life.” – he also repeatedly tries to bring his testimony back to two alternative talking points: his perception that the US is losing the propaganda war with the USSR because they aren’t investing enough money in it, and that the effectiveness of cultural exchange depends as much on its adherence to People-to-People principles as on the selection of performers and productions.
One of the things which happened to Holbrook between his first appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and his second is that he went to Mississippi. Not unlike Twain, whose return to Mississippi in 1881 informs Holbrook’s interpretation of Huckleberry Finn, Holbrook saw the legacy of Reconstruction firsthand, performing on the campus at Ole Miss seven days after James Meredith became the first Black student to enroll at the university in September of 1962. In the documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014), director Scott Teems lingers long on this performance, as though it was a pivotal one in the sixty-year history of Mark Twain Tonight! Holbrook describes his hesitation about fulfilling the engagement after reading about the riots which had broken out on campus and President Kennedy’s deployment of not only the National Guard, but US Army and Navy personnel, more than 30,000 troops in total, some of whom, Holbrook soon learned, would be stationed in the venue and even in the audience during his performance, which Meredith might attend.30Meredith did not, in the end, attend the performance, though he had expressed a desire to. His nerves were not soothed when, at a party hosted in his honor by the Chair of the English Department, James Wilson Webb, a scholar of Southern Literature, nobody flinched when trucks of troops rolled by the house, made any mention of what was going on, nor laughed at Holbrook’s admittedly ill-chosen joke about bringing a KKK hood so he would fit in.
Holbrook decided to go forward with the performance, but to tread carefully with his choice of material, at least at first, fearful of “the guys with squirrel rifles in the trees” outside the chapel windows. Would he go for “the big stuff” in the third act or ad lib to “something softer”? In the documentary, Holbrook says, “I decided to trust the people, down there in the South. What I thought I heard was that they were taking it in. And thinking it over. And that there was a lot more going on down there in the mind of the people than people up North understood.”
Holbrook’s performance was widely covered by reporters on assignment from news organizations around the country. One of them, Leon Daniel, from the United Press International syndication service, reported that Holbrook received five curtain calls, that he leaned into material about the “silent lie,” the complicity of bystanders, and the delusions of conformity and gradualism. He quotes Holbrook saying after the show, “I really felt it would pay to put in the toughest stuff I had.”
In neither Daniel’s reporting, nor Holbrook’s recollection, is any mention made of the audience’s laughter.
The 1963 hearings fell under the unapologetic title, “Winning the Cold War: The US Ideological Offensive,” and the Chairperson, Dante Fascell (D-FL), opened the hearings by stating the mission with equivalent directness: “The meeting this morning…is concerned with the US effort to win the cold war on the battleground of ideas.” Fascell’s application of militaristic metaphors continues throughout the hearings and is often imitated by other committee members. “Words and ideas are as important as bread and guns,” Fascell says. He also alleges that, though there have been “a number of congressional studies and reports on the strategy of world communism, on the nature of Communist psychological warfare, on Communist ‘wordmanship,'” this is the first “inquiry which is concerned with the other side of the picture.” A memo to the CIA, declassified in 2004, characterized the hearings as part of Fascell’s personal advocacy for a more aggressive Cultural Cold War strategy.
Over the course of the hearings, Fascell reveals that he does not think the cultural exchanges have been sufficiently ideological, nor that the performers have been sufficiently propagandistic. He favors overturning two of the conventions of the Eisenhower era: the preference for ostensibly apolitical arts like instrumental music and the empowerment of unindoctrinated American performers to represent the US in unscripted People-to-People interactions. “I am not suggesting we put a cloak and dagger on every artist who goes overseas under government auspices,” he tells Holbrook, “but I am suggesting we could have better direction and coordination without the loss of freedom and spontaneity to strive for specific or general political objectives.”
Holbrook tries to use Fascell’s openness to more ideological programming to argue for greater investment in both theater and cultural exchange generally. He repeatedly alleges, sometimes with specific figures (uncorroborated), that the Soviet Union is spending much more on cultural exchanges in Europe and has a far more robust infrastructure, including standing agreements with booking agents, theater owners, and arts educators. With a glancing nod at the US military budget (not appreciated by the committee), Holbrook points out how absurd it is to debate the strategic advantages and disadvantages of dance or theater, behind the Iron Curtain or in front of it, when US financial commitment to the “ideological offensive” falls so far short of their rival. “We just do it a little bit to see if it will hurt or to see if it will work,” Holbrooks says, “There is only one way to do it. Do it in a big way. You either do it or you don’t do it.”
The committee’s questions to Holbrook get more confrontational after this ultimatum. H.R. Gross (R-IA) accuses him of portraying the US as “a wasteland of culture.” Frelinghuysen says there is “confusion as to what we are seeking to accomplish” and “that confusion isn’t going to be eliminated by making the program bigger.” Donald Fraser (D-MN) feels it necessary to say, “We need a strong nuclear deterrent. We believe this is what makes people respect us, rather than just trying to win their friendship.” Edna Kelly (D-NY) asks, pointedly, “Does Tennessee Williams reflect the culture of America today? If he does, I wonder what we are going to do about it…This is what I resent, the content of the program, just as I do the content of some of the things we are teaching our children in school.”31Counter to Kelly’s suggestion here, I have found no evidence that Tennessee Williams’s plays had been part of the “content of the program” prior to this hearing. But Williams is held up as an example of the “sordidness” of contemporary US theater by several committee members on several occasions, both in 1961 and 1963. I read this merely as evidence of how prevalent and controversial Williams was in US popular culture during the early 1960s.
Holbrook’s answer to Kelly is, I think, revealing of how his perspective on cultural exchange shifted after his appearance in 1961, how he was losing faith in the propaganda campaigns he previously championed, and how he was in the process of rejecting some of the specific tenets of the Twain Doctrine without fully rejecting the placement of Twain at the center of America’s mythic history.
To rush not only to defend Williams, but then, unprompted, throw Arthur Miller into the mix, was some combination of waving the white flag and giving the middle finger to the committee. After a decade of battling with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller had recently been embroiled in tabloid scandals surrounding his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. His latest film, The Misfits (1961), was widely perceived to have killed both Monroe and her co-star, Clark Gable. Miller had become the darling of US socialism during the 1950s, but had somewhat half-heartedly and ham-handedly renounced that minority constituency while failing to successfully ingratiate himself with any other. Meanwhile, Death of The Salesmen, like Twain’s works, had become popular in the USSR as a critique of American Capitalism and had even been adapted to film by a Soviet state studio, Lenfilm. Furthermore, Miller’s play makes a wide range of appeals to pathos, but laughter is not one of the physiological responses Holbrook describes it provoking. By referring to his tears, and the prospective tears of foreign audiences, Holbrook is refusing to continue to accept humor as the sole standard by which comprehension and appreciation of theatrical art is proven.
Holbrook shifts the “greatest gift” of American theater from “colloquial humor” to “self-criticism.” The value is no longer sharing humor across linguistic and cultural barriers, but representing the least flattering aspects of American life in order to create “a wedge” that invites candid communication, frequently overtly political. The result of theater is thus, not an empathy beyond words, but constructive verbal conflicts over values. And this is exactly what Holbrook describes in his People-to-People anecdotes, some of which are interrupted by Fascell as they become increasingly combative during the final stages of the hearing. The chairman reiterates his desire to have performers “trained” or at least briefed on US policy and political messaging in the nations they’re visiting. Holbrook, no longer in a deferential mood, calls this “a tremendous mistake.”
During the hearing, Holbrook reports serving on a newly formed ad hoc committee tasked with strategic planning for cultural exchanges under State Department oversight and specifically integrating more theater into the President’s Program. But, as yet, I have so far found no further record of Holbrook having any dealings with State, Congress, or the US Information Agency after 1963.
Nothing is more emblematic of the midcentury Twain Revival than Mark Twain Tonight! Thus, the construction of the Twain Doctrine during the Armed Thaw depended upon appropriating Holbrook’s wildly popular show. This appropriation is initially successful, so much so that Holbrook himself becomes, temporarily, a knowing agent of the Twain Doctrine and of US propaganda generally. However, after being invited to join the strategic operations of the Cultural Cold War, he becomes disenchanted rather rapidly. Concurrently, the content of Mark Twain Tonight! starts changing, moving away from presenting Twain as foremost (even exclusively) a humorist. When he created the original version of Mark Twain Tonight!, there was little indication that Holbrook had any more patience for the “didactic Twain” than Neider does. But the arc of Mark Twain Tonight! during its Emmy and Tony-winning run in 1966-67 climaxes with Twain becoming a powerful, countercultural “maker of political utterances.”
Holbrook’s defection does not erase the influence of the Twain Doctrine during the Armed Thaw nor prevent its further perpetuation. By 1963, it had reached something like saturation in government, publishing, journalism, broadcasting, and public education. The “tame Twain,” as Shelley Fisher Fiskin calls him, or the “simple-minded scoffer,” as Bereznitsky put it, was established as canonical in part by hundreds of Holbrook performances from 1954 to 1961. He spent the next five decades trying to dethrone this simulacra he had helped to create.
Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, as well as Resident Scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, and editor of MarkTwainStudies.org. He was also responsible for preparing and annotating our digital edition of Mark Twain & The Russians. The first installment of “The Twain Doctrine” series appeared alongside it.
Many thanks to Susan M. Neider for permission to republish her father’s pamphlet. Susan is also an editor, as well as an acclaimed nature photographer. Check out her collections: How We Saw Yellowstone (2020), Wild Yosemite (2015), Classic Yellowstone (2015), and more.
We would also like to thank the following scholars and friends of CMTS for their contributions to the creation of this resource:
Robert H. Hirst, General Editor of Mark Twain Project & Curator of Mark Twain Papers at The Bancroft Library, UC-Berekeley
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities at Stanford University
J. D. Iles, Host of Hidden Landmarks TV
Deanna Kreisel, Associate Professor of English, University of Mississippi
Sarah Brouillette, Professor of English, Carleton University
Andrew Hoberek, Professor of English, University of Missouri
Dan Sinykin, Assistant Professor of English, Emory University
Selina Lai-Henderson, Assistant Professor of American Literature & History at Duke Kunshan University
Benjamin Peters, Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa
Jeffrey Clapp, Associate Professor & Head of Department of Literature & Cultural Studies at The Education University of Hong Kong
Joseph Lemak, Director of Center For Mark Twain Studies
Mutual Educational & Cultural Exchange Act of 1961
(June 2, 1961)
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Winning The Cold War: The U.S. Ideological Offensive, U.S. Cultural & Artistic Exchanges
(September 9, 1963)
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