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University of North Texas Resource Magazine online

Research, Scholarship & the Arts at the University of North Texas




Masters of the stage

English professor studies 19th-century platform humorists

by Nancy Kolsti

While growing up in Springfield, Mo., David Kesterson, Ph.D., often noticed businesses and schools named after one of the state's most famous sons — Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So it's not surprising that the University of North Texas professor of English and former provost and vice president for academic affairs was introduced to Clemens' books at a young age.

English professor David Kesterson researches literary comedians — "the 19th-century equivalents of Will Rogers, Garrison Keillor and Bill Cosby."

"I especially enjoyed reading Tom Sawyer when I was a little boy," Kesterson says.

His interest in the author increased when he attended Southwest Missouri State University during the mid 1950s. During a college assembly, Kesterson watched a young, unknown actor named Hal Holbrook deliver a one-man performance of "Mark Twain Tonight." Holbrook portrayed the author during one of his public lectures.


TV of the day

Kesterson says Clemens was one of dozens of platform humorists, also known as "literary comedians" because they wrote comic newspaper columns and nonfiction books. These men and women gave public lectures during the last half of the 19th century. Kesterson calls the lectures "the TV, radio and movies of their day."

"The platform humorists were the 19th-century equivalents of Will Rogers, Garrison Keillor and Bill Cosby," he says. "Moreover, their pen names provided each with an alter ego, a disguise that freed them to assume a different personality."

From left, platform humorists Josh Billings, Mark Twain and Petroleum V. Nasby. Courtesy of the Mark Twain Project, Bancroft Library

During his first teaching job at North Carolina State University, Kesterson became interested in the history of American humor, which he says was a somewhat neglected field in American studies.

He researched one of the most popular platform humorists — Josh Billings, the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw. Shaw met Clemens in 1869 when both were on a speaking tour sponsored by Boston's Redpath Lyceum Bureau.

Kesterson published a book about Billings in 1973 after joining the UNT English faculty. Eight years later, he wrote a book on another popular platform lecturer and literary comedian, Edgar Wilson Nye, who appeared on stage as Bill Nye.

During his research, Kesterson became interested in how the literary comedians influenced one another's writings and alter egos.

"Turning my attention to Mark Twain as a lecturer, then, was a natural," he says. "Twain was definitely the humorist — the court jester who delighted audiences with his droll wit and charmed readers with his humorous tales."


Lecturer Twain

Clemens' first speaking tour was in 1865, three years before he joined the Redpath Lyceum Bureau tour. Known to friends as an entertaining speaker, Clemens toured California and Nevada as Mark Twain, discussing his travels to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii).

Audiences knew Twain as the man in a white suit holding a cigar, Kesterson says.

"In everyday life, Samuel Clemens didn't regularly wear a white suit — it was a gimmick like the cigars," he says.

"Part of the lecture routine Twain used was lighting and relighting a cigar just before a story's punch line to keep the audience in suspense."

Twain, he says, also used a rambling structure for his lectures to make audiences assume he was disorganized.

"In actuality, much work and hours of memorization went into these comic stage appearances," Kesterson says.

He says Twain adopted and personalized many eccentricities and tricks of his fellow lecturers, particularly those on the Redpath Lyceum Bureau tour.

"Josh Billings, for example, wore his dark hair in a heavy mane, refused to wear a tie, entered the stage without introduction, sat down to lecture and often had an untouched and unmentioned pitcher of milk on a table in front of him, although the title of his lecture was 'Josh Billings on Milk,'" he says.

Twain began a close friendship with Billings and another lecturer, Petroleum V. Nasby (whose real name was David Ross Locke). These men not only influenced Twain's stage persona, but also his writing career, Kesterson says.

He says Twain, who became a lecturer before writing his most famous novels, was influenced by his fellow lecturers' egalitarian and democratic principles and included them in his books.

The circuit

Samuel Clemens toured the literary circuit as Mark Twain. Audiences knew him as the man in a white suit holding a cigar, which he lit and relit before punch lines.

Kesterson points out, however, that Twain's humor differed from that of many lecturers. Many were identified with one region of America, such as New England, but the scope of Twain's humor was universal, Kesterson says.

"Twain lived all over the United States and frequently sojourned abroad. He used the exaggerated humor of the Old Southwest but also picked up on Yankee humor, which is droller. He was the nation's 'humorist-in-residence,' transcending any specific locale," he says.

After one year with the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, Twain participated in a speaking tour of the Midwest in 1884-85. By then he was known as the author of Tom Sawyer and seven other books, but he followed the pattern of others on the tour and didn't use it for book promotion.

Exhausted from the travel, Twain vowed in 1885 never to appear before an audience again. By the 1890s, however, he was bankrupt after several unsuccessful investments.

"He was an extravagant spender, and he knew he would either have to write another book or go on a lecture tour to make up the deficit," Kesterson says.

Twain chose the lecture circuit. He moved his family to Europe and began a worldwide speaking tour — his last — in July1895.

Kesterson says that although financial difficulties forced Twain back into the lecture circuit, the author enjoyed meeting people and seeing new places on the tours.

"Of all those on the circuit, he was the lecturer who mingled the most with the audience," he says.


World famous

At the end of the last tour, Clemens' stage persona was his most visible identity. When he died in 1910, he had been Twain for 47 years — more than half of his life.

Twain as the lecturer in the white suit is an image many Americans attach to the author today, thanks to Holbrook's now-famous show.

Most of the other literary comedians and platform humorists, however, faded out by the 20th century. Their names are virtually unknown today because, unlike Twain, they did not write popular novels, Kesterson says.

"They left us no major characters other than their own pseudonyms," he says.

For that reason, Kesterson plans to continue exploring the relationships between them and Twain as well as the differences in their approaches on the stage and in their writings.

He also wants to study Twain's appeal to European audiences, particularly in Germany. Kesterson notes that while visiting Germany in 1985 as a Fulbright lecturer, he saw an old hotel in Heidelberg called the Mark Twain.

"You would expect things to be named after Twain in Missouri. Even Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco has vestiges of Twain. But you don't think about his popularity in Germany and other countries," Kesterson says.

"No other American writer captured the public's attention and admiration the way he did."

For more information, e-mail Kesterson at kesterson@unt.edu.