Meet­ing Mark Twain

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Bar­ton, VT

Af­ter spend­ing an af­ter­noon with Amer­i­can Ed Helm, who lives part of the year in Bar­ton, Ver­mont, I al­most feel like I’ve had the dis­tinct plea­sure of meet­ing that beloved Amer­i­can author and hu­morist, Mark Twain.

Dur­ing my in­ter­view with the Mark Twain im­per­son­ator, who was dressed in an au­then­tic suit from the late 1800’s which com­pli­mented his bushy white mane and mous­tache, he fre­quently lapsed into his Twain per­sona to de­liver a well-known quote or two. The trans­for­ma­tion is seam­less, per­haps be­cause the two men, the anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist, civil rights and labour move­ment sup­porter, Sa­muel Cle­mens, bet­ter known as Mark Twain, and Ed Helm, a re­tired civil rights lawyer and ac­tivist for peace, health care re­form, the en­vi­ron­ment, and other is­sues I’m sure, have much in com­mon.

Asked how he evolved from a civil rights lawyer into a Twain im­per­son­ator, Mr. Helm ex­plained: “I had seen Hal Hol­brook per­form Mark Twain and he was very en­ter­tain­ing. Dur­ing one out­door per­for­mance, a thun­der­storm started, there was a clap of thun­der and the lights went out. Hol­brook said to the au­di­ence: ‘Well, you know he’s not aim­ing at you, don’t ya?’”

Mr. Helm and his wife, Adrien, were also friends with a Mark Twain im­per­son­ator: Bill Mc Linn. “I had helped Bill get gigs, so when he died, I in­her­ited his Mark Twain wig.” Mr. Helm, who once took part in a peace march in Moscow along with his wife and four chil­dren, con­tin­ued: “Be­cause of my in­ter­est in peace and the anti-war move­ment, as I dis­cov­ered Mark Twain’s in­ter­est in the anti-war move­ment… At first Twain was an im­pe­ri­al­ist, but what tipped him was the Philip­pineAmer­i­can War. The same things he said about the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War we could say about the Iraq War. He was pre­scient in

Tom Sawyer Abroad. Tom Sawyer was on the top of the world at the end of the last book, when In­jun Joe said: ‘Maybe things will turn out in ways we don’t ex­pect’. Ge­orge Bush should have read that book. As we learn more about the Iraq War, and more is com­ing out, Twain’s The War Prayer is still a sober­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of th­ese things. Of the twenty-four agen­cies in the United States, only one agency has never been au­dited: the Depart­ment of De­fense. This is a vi­o­la­tion of our own Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Mr. Helm, af­ter de­liv­er­ing one of Mark Twain’s anti-war speeches to mem­bers of the lo­cal Civil War So­ci­ety, was told by an au­di­ence mem­ber: “That’s the strong­est anti-war speech I’ve ever heard.”

Not only can Mr. Helm turn into Mark Twain at the drop of a hat, he also seems to know ev­ery­thing there is to know about this Amer­i­can ‘hero’. “Huck­le­berry gave Twain his freedom. When he wrote Tom Sawyer, he was an im­pe­ri­al­ist. But

Huck­le­berry Finn was orig­i­nally one story, but in the ten years he took to write it, there were sub­stan­tial re­vi­sions, he had writer’s block, and in it Jim be­comes a ma­jor char­ac­ter. When he and Jim are on that boat and get stopped, and Huck is asked if Jim is a slave, how Huck­le­berry an­swers that ques­tion frees him,” Ed ex­plained, con­tin­u­ing: “Af­ter Huck­le­berry Finn was pub­lished, Louisa May Al­cott wrote Twain say­ing ‘If that’s the best chil­dren’s book that you can write…’ and had it banned in her own city.” This, of course, in­creased its sales con­sid­er­ably and Sa­muel Cle­mens, from then on, had two dozen roses de­liv­ered to Ms. Al­cott on her birth­day each year.

Un­like some Twain im­per­son­ators, Mr. Helm likes to adapt his per­for­mance to his au­di­ence; quite a chal­lenge when those au­di­ences could be in as far­away places as Latin Amer­ica, Ger­many, Rus­sia or Ja­pan. “I’ve been to two of Hal Hol­brook’s per­for­mances, but he al­ways does it for the same au­di­ence: white, mid­dle­class read­ers. I have more di­verse groups so I do many dif­fer­ent forms of Twain – for doc­tors, for Dan­ish school chil­dren, for young peo­ple…” In a re­cent per­for­mance in Hiroshima, Ja­pan, Mr. Helm high­lighted the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Mark Twain and Fuk­i­sawa, a pop­u­lar Ja­panese writer who lived dur­ing Twain’s era and who he dis­cov­ered through sheer serendip­ity shortly be­fore go­ing to Ja­pan. Last Sun­day, with Labour Day in mind, Mr. Helm’s Mark Twain read an ex­cerpt from his speech en­ti­tled The New

Dy­nasty, a speech adopted by the early Amer­i­can Labour Move­ment, at the First Par­rish Univer­sal­ist Church, in Derby Line. Its words and sen­ti­ments echo those of our mod­ern­day Oc­cupy Move­ment, which Mr. Helm has been in­volved in.

In most of Mr. Helm’s per­for­mances, once he has dealt with the ‘Twain topic’ of the evening, he likes to get more in­ter­ac­tive with the au­di­ence by play­ing two Twain-in­spired ac­tiv­i­ties: “Did I say that?” and “Ask Twain any ques­tion”. “Many peo­ple have Mark Twain

quotes in their head. In my shows, 90% of the time it’s a Twain quote; 5% of the time it’s a quote by W.C. Fields or some­one else; and 3 or 4% of the time they are test­ing Twain to see if he knows his own stuff!” said Mr. Helm.

Our Mr. Twain had a few of his own favourite quotes: “Well, in our coun­try we have those three gifts: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Con­science, and the wis­dom never to prac­tice ei­ther.” “An­other I like is: ‘What would hu­mankind be with­out women? In a word: scarce!’”

Be­sides per­form­ing, Mr. Helm is still very much an ac­tivist when it comes to the most crit­i­cal is­sues of the day, such as the en­vi­ron­ment. Lo­cally, he and Adrien have or­ga­nized com­mu­nity events to raise aware­ness about the ef­fects of cli­mate change and tar sands oil on the North­east King­dom. “They want to use the Port­land Mon­treal Pipe­line to move tar sands oil. If you have a spill with reg­u­lar oil, it floats on wa­ter. Tar sands oil sinks. In Michi­gan where there was a spill, they’ve spent one bil­lion dollars, so far, to clean it up and it’s still not done. If there’s an oil spill here, this area will go belly-up eco­nom­i­cally.”

Be­ing a civic-minded in­di­vid­ual, I wasn’t sur- prised to learn that Mr. Helm will get out his Twain suit and put on that south­ern ac­cent to help or­ga­ni­za­tions raise money. “I do fundraisers with groups and would even con­sider cross­ing the bor­der and speak­ing some­where like Stanstead Col­lege be­fore head­ing south in Oc­to­ber. It would be in­ter­est­ing to learn about Twain’s con­nec­tions with Canada!”

When asked what he ad­mired most about Mark Twain, Mr. Helm looked thoughtful for a mo­ment be­fore say­ing: “He was a good hus­band and a good fa­ther, but what I most ad­mire is that he claimed his life. He tried to un­der­stand what it is to be hu­man and I ad­mire how he ex­pressed and shared that among other hu­mans.”

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

For­merly a civil rights lawyer, Ed Helm, seen here in his Mark Twain cos­tume, rang the bell on his porch, in Bar­ton, at 3:00 pm last Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon as part of the United States National Cel­e­bra­tion of the Civil Rights March in Wash­ing­ton, DC.

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

Ed Helm, seen here at his home in Bar­ton, Ver­mont, has trav­eled around the world to bring Mark Twain to life.

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