He wrote as though there had been no literature before him… as though he had discovered the art of telling a story about these folks that inhabit this continent… And that there was no other continent – it’s like something that rose up out of the sea and had no history. And he was just telling what he ran into… – Arthur Miller, playwright, on Mark Twain
Of all the figures in our nation’s history, one of the most colorful and beloved has been Mark Twain. What probably isn’t as well known is the tragedy behind the figure. The renowned documentarian Ken Burns manages to capture both sides of the man with a great sense of balance between humor, poignancy, social commentary, and sadness. Three years in the making, this is the definitive portrait of a man who was such an integral part of the American fabric.
“Mark Twain” was born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri. When his father died when Sam was 14, Sam went to work as a printer’s apprentice for his brother Orion. Although Sam didn’t receive an actual payment from his brother during his time, he had the world of literature opened up to him, such as Shakespeare, the Bible, newspapers, etc. He began his writing career as well, under a pseudonym. Photographs of him as a young man show a very handsome man with sparkling eyes. Those eyes seem to long for adventure.
“Mark Twain” was a term used by riverboat navigators meaning safe water or two fathoms deep. While Sam was an apprentice riverboat pilot, he lost his brother Henry as the result of a tragic accident. This affected him greatly and he blamed himself for luring Henry to the river. This pattern would continue as whenever tragedy struck the family, Sam would turn the blame inward. It’s a sharp contrast to the wisecracking social philosopher he’s often been portrayed as. Clemens was a “noticer”, storing up the images of people. This would fuel his stories later on in life.
When the Civil War began and all traffic on the Mississippi was stopped, Samuel needed to find something else to do and joined the Marion Rangers, a Confederate militia company. Hey disbanded after two weeks, and Sam never enlisted. He also found his family divided. Brother Orion was a confirmed Republican while his mother hated the Yankees with a passion. Orion was named secretary of Nevada and Sam followed him west. It was in Virginia City, working for the newspaper there, that he first used the name “Mark Twain”. Following a trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), he gave a lecture at the Opera House which was a mixture of storytelling and deadpan comedy to a packed audience that was mesmerized.
Innocents Abroad, based on a trip Twain took with a group to The Holy Land, sold 100,000 copies – an astounding number in its day. Around the time it was published, he proposed to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York. Her father made him a partner in the Buffalo Express newspaper and presented him with a home in the city of the same name. When his son, Langdon, was born, the child was sickly. Clemens decided to move his family from Buffalo to Hartford, Connecticut. There Langdon died after a bout of Diptheria. However, three daughters were later born to the family.
Throughout the rest of his life, Clemens found himself caught between two worlds. He wanted the wealth while at the same time poking fun at those who possessed it. His lavish lifestyle forced him back to the lecture circuit. He had a temper and was prone to moodiness.
The literary side that he became known for was the result of his observations of life throughout the years. The origin of the story Aunt Rachel was the life story of the black cook at the summer country house in Elmira, NY of Clemens’ sister-in-law. Huckleberry Finn was begun as a sequel to Tom Sawyer. He wasn’t happy with the book after four hundred pages (in longhand). He put it down for five years. At that time, he went on a trip down the Mississippi River to write a book Life on the Mississippi. After a trip to New Orleans and back north to Minnesota, he went back to Hannibal, Missouri. When he returned, he picked up the Huckleberry Finn manuscript.
The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated…
However, the family did suffer some tremendous hardships, including bankruptcy from Clemens’ speculation and unwise investments. To pay off his creditors, he embarked on a massive around the world tour, with his wife and oldest daughter. While they were away, his youngest – and favorite – daughter Suzie, died of spinal meningitis. In 1904, his wife Livie died in Florence Italy. Clemens lost his partner and soulmate. His daughter Jean would die sometime later. She had epilepsy and died the same way a friend of mine did – had a seizure while in the tub and drowned.
Burns uses his trademark black and white photographs, photographed in such a way that he gives them action by panning from side to side, up and down, or zooming in. There is also some black and white video footage of the man himself. I was surprised at just how handsome he was as a young man, as most of the pictures and depictions I’d seen of him are as the white-haired older man.
To these dramatic videos, Burns adds a soundtrack that sets a good tone for the story of Mark Twain – lots of banjos. The narration is handled well using different voices to recite lines from various people. Comments from well-known writers, historians, and actors are also added in to form a comprehensive portrait of the man. Hal Holbrook, who has portrayed Twain throughout the years, is interviewed here and has some insights into what he has learned about the man. It was interesting that Burns chose Kevin Conway for the voice of Twain. He explains later on that Holbrook was far more valuable for his observations and commentary on Twain’s life than in the role of Twain himself.
The narration is taken from letters Clemens wrote to his wife while on the lecture circuit as well as any journals he might have kept. The script was put together by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey Ward. It may drag at some points, but not for very long. The story of Mark Twain is such an American story – filled with hope and success, as well as sorrow and disappointment. Burns manages to make the man appeal to generations who have only known the man through his novels, as well as showing how he evolved from the son of a slave owner to writing one of the most controversial books about the races in our society.
I learned so much more about “Mark Twain” in this documentary. There was so much more to the man than anything I’d heard about before during my studies of English in high school and college.
• The Making of Mark Twain with Ken Burns
• The Making of Mark Twain with Dayton Duncan
• A Conversation with Ken Burns
• Mark Twain Quotes and Photographs
• Ken Burns: Making History
• Interview Outtakes