The Magazine

Burning Twain

Ken Burns gives us a Mark Twain for our times--unfortunately.

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"WE ARE LOOKING for subjects," Ken Burns recently said of his documentaries, "that hold up a mirror to who we are." Mark Twain is the subject of the director's latest film, a two-part special that PBS will air on January 14 and 15. And what Burns sees reflected back at him by Mark Twain bears considerable resemblance to who Burns seems to think we Americans are: high-minded, forward-thinking baby boomers--not unlike, as it happens, Ken Burns himself.

So, for example, the documentary mentions that Twain's move to San Francisco in 1864 accidentally brought him into a "great, proto-psychedelic counter-culture newspaper society." Yes, in the baby-boomer version of American history, even Mark Twain was in the psychedelic San Francisco of the Sixties. So, too, Twain wouldn't be much of a mirror of who we are if he weren't a bit depressed. Fortunately, the famously depressed novelist William Styron appears in the film to confirm that Twain did indeed have a "dark, depressive streak, which is not uncommon among writers."

Like the children of the 1960s, Twain fought racial injustice long before everybody else. And like them he was a withering critic, writes Burns in "Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography," the book that accompanies his documentary, "of police brutality, racism, anti-Semitism, religious hypocrisy, governmental arrogance, petty tyrants, and safe bourgeois life." Twain was "biting" about the "greed and get-rich-quick-fever" of his era. And yet, despite himself, "no one loved money and the comfort and luxury it bought more than he did." So, so like the children of the 1960s. It's tempting to say that Ken Burns has finally found an answer to the most pressing need of today's left: a funny left-wing social critic.

But "Mark Twain" is not actually that bad, not worth another letter-writing campaign on PBS bias. Enough politics has seeped in to give the film a detectably correct tint, but it is not enough to saturate what is mostly a pretty conventional "Great Man" portrait of a literary giant.

The problem with Burns's Twain isn't so much that he fits too conveniently into the political context of our time. The problem is more that Burns and his collaborators (Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward) have made little effort to fit Twain into the appropriate contexts of his own day. Burns's admiration and fondness for Twain seem to be unlimited and unconditional. Whether as artist or social observer, his Twain is unique and without precedent. He is always the first this, the greatest that, and the only something else. How are we to gain even a general notion of where Mark Twain fits into the traditions of American literature, humor, and social criticism when Burns asks us to take it for granted that Twain transcended these traditions?

Whether considering Twain as stylistic innovator or social critic, to take just two examples, Burns fails to provide adequate historical perspective. Burns claims, for example, that Twain "understood that art could be created out of the American language before anyone else." It is not clear from this whether he refers to Twain's frequent use of vernacular dialogue and narration or to the unpretentious simplicity and directness of Twain's prose style. But either way, Burns exaggerates.

It is beyond question, if not exactly hot news, that Twain enjoyed command of an impressive range of dialects, like the backwoods Missouri and slave dialects of his boyhood that anchor the fabulous narrative of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in a wholly believable setting. But before Twain, Whitman and maybe even Thoreau had begun to sense the artistic possibilities of spoken, everyday American English. Both relished rural slang. Thoreau scattered fragments of conversation with local farmers throughout his journals. And Whitman urged that American literature be revitalized by words from factory and farm, from "around the markets, among the fish-smacks, along the wharves."

Of course, Twain went much further with vernacular language. It likely had something to do with the fact that he was less isolated than his predecessors. As a child of the Mississippi and later a riverboat pilot on the great commercial and passenger transportation route, he heard a wider variety of native dialects. And Twain went West during the Civil War (after a very brief stint in a Confederate militia, the Marion Rangers, mustered by childhood friends from Hannibal), where he was exposed to still more dialects and, indeed, a new western patois, as diverse regional dialects merged in the mining centers. Twain lived and wrote in the Mississippi valley, Rocky Mountain West, San Francisco, and finally New York and New England.