Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight" reminds me of some of his wry observations about 1861 Wyoming

I finally got around to seeing Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight. I've been trying to it most of my adult life. Coincidentally, Holbrook has been performing it most of his adult life, nigh on 60 years. He was 29 when he first assumed the guise of the famous author. Now he's 88, looking a lot closer to what Twain looked like on the lecture circuit in 1905, when he was 70.

Holbrook resurrected Twain Saturday night before a capacity crowd at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Buell Theatre. Twenty-two Democrats, most of us from Cheyenne along with a few from Denver and Colorado Springs, thought that Mark Twain Tonight would be the perfect venture. In the show, Twain lambastes Democrats and Republicans, professing to a more independent nature than allowed by the two-party system. As he aged, though, he grew more radical, blasting organized religion, disorganized politicians and life's assorted vagaries.    

Mark Twain traveled by coach through Wyoming in 1861 on his way from Missouri to California. He wrote in his 1872 book Roughing It about Laramie Peak:  
"We passed Fort Laramie in the night, and on the seventh morning out we found ourselves in the Black Hills, with Laramie Peak at our elbow (apparently) looming vast and solitary -- a deep, dark, rich indigo blue in hue, so portentously did the old colossus frown under his beetling brows of storm-cloud. He was thirty or forty miles away, in reality, but he only seemed removed a little beyond the low ridge at our right."
Later, Twain described his passage through Wyoming's South Pass City:
Toward dawn we got under way again, and presently as we sat with raised curtains enjoying our early-morning smoke and contemplating the first splendor of the rising sun as it swept down the long array of mountain peaks, flushing and gilding crag after crag and summit after summit, as if the invisible Creator reviewed his gray veterans and they saluted with a smile, we hove in sight of South Pass City. The hotel-keeper, the postmaster, the blacksmith, the mayor, the constable, the city marshal and the principal citizen and property holder, all came out and greeted us cheerily, and we gave him good day. He gave us a little Indian news, and a little Rocky Mountain news, and we gave him some Plains information in return. He then retired to his lonely grandeur and we climbed on up among the bristling peaks and the ragged clouds. South Pass City consisted of four log cabins, one if which was unfinished, and the gentleman with all those offices and titles was the chiefest of the ten citizens of the place. Think of hotel-keeper, postmaster, blacksmith, mayor, constable, city marshal and principal citizen all condensed into one person and crammed into one skin.
Thus Twain became one of the many chroniclers of Wyoming. Many, like Twain, were just passing through, noting for posterity the rugged landscapes and quirky characters. Others stayed, noting the quirky landscapes and rugged characters. 

I am one of them. I love Twain's humor and attempt to honor it by imitation. Laramie's Bill Nye was another humorist from Wyoming, spending time as a newspaperman in Laramie. He founded the Laramie Boomerang, naming it after his mule. Contemporary Wyoming writers such as Tim Sandlin follow in Nye's footsteps. 

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