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Mark Twain

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Dayton Duncan

A giant companion to the four-hour Ken Burns special on PBS, about the life and times and literature of America's beloved Mark Twain.

Author: Dayton Duncan
Genre: Literary Criticism, Language Arts & Disciplines, Biography & Autobiography
Publisher: Random House
Date Published: November 01, 2001
1 review about Mark Twain

Good biography, not good literary biography

  • Dec 11, 2006
Pros: Lyrical style, quotes the best of both Clemens and Twain

Cons: Simplistic literary biography that is only helpful if you want dates of publication

The Bottom Line: Fun biography, but if you want true literary analytical meat, then don't look to this one.

Ken Burns, whose documentary style is now the most widely used style of historical documentaries, creates paeans. He glories in the successes of his subjects; he limits the uncomfortable and makes it somber instead of sad; and he almost hides the inconsistencies in favor of an even story.

Sam L. Clemens or Mark Twain, whichever you prefer, is a complex character. The documentary is nearly 4 hours long. It covers his life from one run of Halley’s Comet to its next one (1835-1910). True to Mr. Burns’s fashion, we learn not only about the principle but about those most closely attached to him. We are given biographies of two of Clemens’s brothers, his wife, the son who didn’t live to his second birthday and his three daughters.

Since Clemens was considered the funniest man of his age, the documentary is peppered with tidbits of his dark and raucous and often totally irreverent sense of humor. A goodly portion of the documentary covers his many trips to give lectures—the lecture circuit then is similar to concert tours today.

The documentary does focus on Clemens’s many missteps with regards to money. He grew up ‘wanting’ but not exactly poor. There were times in his life when he had very little money. However, nothing in his past can really explain the desire he had to be more wealthy than he already was. This led to a series of disastrous business decisions that left him close to bankruptcy, so he was forced back on the lecture circuit. It also forced him to write for the public rather than just for himself.

For the tidbits of humor alone, the film is worth the time. However, from a literary perspective, the movie doesn’t delve into the true problems that Mark Twain (I use his pen name here because there seemed to be two distinct personalities) ran into and decided really not to face.

Russell Banks and William Styron (fiction writers themselves) are among the group that says something somewhat puzzling. They say that Mark Twain was aware of just how important race was in the US during his lifetime. This is most certainly true. The problem is that Mark Twain’s fiction doesn’t really bare this out.

As anyone would expect Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered to be Mark Twain’s masterpiece. To a general public this is probably true. The problem I have as an avid reader is that the documentary misses or outright misshapes the events by selective quotations. The authors and scholars point to a couple of differing areas of epiphany for Huck with regards to Jim. One is that Huck begins to understand that Jim is a man and not a piece of property or (more appropriately) his plaything when he hears Jim explain how he is going to work when he gets to a free state, then buy his wife and kids back because he misses them. Huck realizes that someone capable of longing like that has to be a person, despite what Huck and his kind had been taught. He also, after penning a letter explaining where Jim’s owner can find her property, decides to tear up the letter, an action he fully believes will mean he goes to Hell.

In Puddin’head Wilson, Mark Twain also takes on race. A murder is committed by a white man but a black man is on trial for it. In reality both the white and black man are half brothers (both having the same slave-owning man as father), but the black nursemaid switches the children. The one who is 31/32 white commits the crime. The one who is 31/32 black is portrayed as stereotypically black as would be in the mind of the public in 1893 when the book was published.

In both books, Mark Twain pauses a moment before he considers what he has done to his story, then the story devolves into something unrelated and silly.

The issue with Huck Finn is why do they keep going down river deeper and deeper into slave territory when Illinois—across the river from Missouri—is a free state? Let’s assume it is for the Adventure which is part of the title. Ok, fine. I think that is sloppy but we’ll accept it for now. What the authors and scholars say in the documentary is that it gives Huck a chance to mature. He writes a letter to Jim’s owner explaining where Jim can be found. Then he tears it up and claims, since this is what he was taught, that he was now on his way to Hell. Here’s the problem. If the monologue had stopped there, it would face the race issue head on in a way no book had before. But the authors, scholars, and director chose to leave out what follows. Huck says that if he is going to Hell he is going to cuss, cheat, and do all manner of evil things so as to enjoy himself before he goes there. This isn’t out of character, but it and the silly crap that happens when they run into Tom Sawyer undo the three hundred previous pages. HF is a masterpiece because it is the first to use the vernacular than standard English; it is not a masterpiece because of tackling racial issues.

Puddin’head Wilson has the same problem. Here is the question: is the majority black man lazy and silly because he is mostly black and is the white man capable murder only because of his one part in 32 that is black? Mark Twain stares at this piece of logic that he used to paint himself in a corner. Rather than take it on, he sits in the corner, tells a story about fingerprints and how each is unique, and when the paint is dry, he leaves, hoping no one will notice.

Mark Twain is a brilliant writer of beginnings and middles. He didn’t know how to end a story—it seems they all took him over and when he tried to regain control, the only thing he could do was as soft a crash landing as possible.

Samuel Clemens was a brilliant orator and hysterical man. He was a man with foibles when it came to money and was make all the more unhappy because of it—but perhaps that much more funny, which is often the case (suffering often brings out a sharper tongue).

As a biography the film is excellent. As a literary biography, it is lacking. Like I said, Mr. Burns makes paeans. It would be very difficult to take one of America’s premier authors and say: He was great, but simply never knew how to end a novel.


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