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
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"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.

DOES THIS coast-to-coast scope qualify him as America's first truly national writer? And if so, does his emergence as a national writer just as the nation was trying to repair itself after the fractures of the Civil War have something to do with his vast and enduring popularity and perhaps provide some background to Twain's boast, quoted in the program, "I am not an American; I am the American." ("Innocents Abroad," which propelled him to wealth and fame, was published in 1869 and sold an astonishing 100,000 copies in two years. And in recording there his travels among the la-di-da Europeans, he accentuated what was most recognizably American in himself.)

Popular humorists before Twain also worked, often, in dialect, whether on the lecture stage or the printed page. Journalist George Washington Harris's satirical Sut Lovingood stories of the 1850s and 1860s were narrated by an uncouth Tennessee hillbilly in a dialect that Harris tried so hard to faithfully represent on the page by phonetic transcriptions and intentional misspellings that the sketches are hardly readable today. Perhaps tellingly, Twain reviewed a collection of these stories that appeared in 1867. Why did Twain succeed where Harris failed? He seems to have learned from at least one of Harris's mistakes: Sut misspelled words even though he was supposed to be illiterate, while Twain would give Huck enough schooling to justify his misspellings.

Twain's penchant for tall tales, literary hoaxes, bruising physical humor, and comic contrasts between house-grown, book-learned Yankee tenderfoots and the ill-bred hell-raisers of the western frontier were all derived from a Southwestern tradition. How Twain emerged from this uncooked and unwashed style of frontier comedy, if he did, to become a sophisticated social satirist is a topic left untouched by Burns.

Indeed, a number of important critics and cultural historians have argued that Twain never did manage to transcend this tradition. He "was never the conscious artist, always the improviser," wrote Constance Rourke, in her landmark "American Humor." "He had the garrulity and the inconsequence of the earlier comic story-tellers of the stage and tavern; and his comic sense was theirs, almost without alteration." One of Burns's "contributors," author Ron Powers, does discuss Twain's exposure in early boyhood to the local slave dialect on his uncle's farm in explanation of his later exploitation of vernacular speech. That's true as far as it goes, but it leaves unanswered the question why southern writers were actually slower than their northern peers to render speech naturalistically.

Twain's streamlined, uncluttered prose style was part of a broader movement among northern writers after the Civil War away from the lacy, over-decorated prose that southern writers continued after the war to confect in imitation of European models. In a famous chapter in "Life on the Mississippi," Twain himself blamed the postwar persistence in the South of "wordy, windy, flowery 'eloquence'" on the lingering influence of Sir Walter Scott. (Indeed, Twain blames the Civil War, only half-jokingly, on the South's wholesale appropriation of Scott's gauzy romanticism, bogus ideals of chivalry, and attachment to rank, caste, lost causes, and the past.)

IF INSTEAD of chalking Twain's clear style up to individual genius or virtuous lack of pretension, Burns had broadened his perspective, he might have placed it in the context of some relevant social currents of the day. In "Patriotic Gore," Edmund Wilson notices this "rapid transition from the complex, the flowery, the self-consciously learned, to the direct and the economical"--and he links it to the increasing mechanization of American society after the Civil War and to the literary legacy of the Civil War itself, a brisk and decisive "language of responsibility" that Wilson saw as common to the styles of Lincoln and Grant. "The cultivation of brevity," he wrote, "was no doubt the result of the speeding-up of everything in American life."

It's true that Twain's language was free of baubles and ostentation, but his narratives tended to be lazily ambling (like the Mississippi itself, observes Powers in the Burns companion volume). Twain's style may have been more immediately shaped by his background as a newspaperman than by his own brief war experience, but he was not immune to the indirect effects (through other writers) of the kinds of wider changes in literary sensibility that Wilson was writing about.

IN HIS alternately impenetrable and platitudinous preface to the companion biography (I suspect that Burns personally had little to do with the main text of the book, or it too would be almost unreadable), Burns says that part of his purpose is to show how "Twain, alone among writers in the nineteenth century . . . confronted his demons and those of his countrymen and almost single-handedly invented American literature." As powerful and important as Twain's indictment of racism and slavery in "Huckleberry Finn" was, it seems downright silly to claim that he alone among the century's writers took on America's demons. Or is it naive to think that Hawthorne faced up to demons from our national past when he wrote "The House of the Seven Gables" and "The Scarlet Letter"?

In showering Twain with superlatives for his fearless social criticism, Burns simplifies a complicated question. Celebrating Twain as the representative American and living embodiment of its values, Burns hints, perhaps unintentionally, at a source of the complexity: A writer cannot very well be a critic of the same national habits of mind for which he is also the preeminent spokesman and symbol, at least not at the same time. And Twain often functioned as the spokesman rather than critic. In "Innocents Abroad," for example, he did a little tweaking of the philistinism of Americans on a jaunt to see the cultural treasures of the Old World. But he directed most of his mockery at the morally smudged decadence of Europe. He found, in Constance Rourke's judgment, "what a composite" American of his day "could be expected to find, not only that [Europe's] monuments were decayed, but that the European was a dastardly fellow for the most part, however the circumstance might arouse laughter in the genial newcomer."

Twain's "Roughing It" might be interpreted from one point of view as a devastating critique of the myth of the American frontier and its illusory promise of instant riches without effort. But at the same time, it is a ringing reaffirmation of the even older and more central American values of social Protestantism. Chiding his younger self throughout the book for laziness, lack of follow-through, and susceptibility to the lure of get-rich-quick schemes, he concludes his account of his adventures in the West with this moral: "If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are 'no account,' go away from home, and then you will have to work, whether you want to or not."

H.L. Mencken, who admired Twain as the towering literary talent of his day, nevertheless held in contempt the intellectual pusillanimity of the figure who was not just a man of letters but a popular performer and folk hero as well. Scorning Twain's simultaneous pursuit of artistic certification by the English literary elite on one end and adulation by the American mob on the other, Mencken derided him as "monkey-shining at banquets, cavorting in the newspapers, shrinking poltroonishly from his own ideas, obscenely eager to give no offense."

Burns's film does not let Twain off scot-free. It acknowledges his many "contradictions," like his denunciations of capitalist greed, despite his own unchecked acquisitiveness. (It was an expensive trait, for he played the capitalist badly, and the resulting bankruptcy disrupted the cohesion and stability of his family for many difficult years.) But Burns so reveres Twain that even his "contradictions" are treated as good things, the humanizing foibles that make him accessible and familiar to lesser mortals. One gets the sense that these same "contradictions" would be "hypocrisy" in a writer less dear to Burns.

IT DOESN'T DIMINISH Twain to raise questions about his credentials as social critic. Indeed, Twain's artistry arguably declined as he grew more polemical in his angry old age. Didactic purposes make a book like Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and artistry makes a book like Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Dwelling on the social impact of Twain (as Burns and company do) at the expense of his aesthetic charms has the unintended implication that "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is memorable, like "Uncle Tom's Cabin," chiefly as an artifact of our literary history, rather than a classic of our literature.

Ken Burns's last PBS documentary, "Jazz," suffered from a similar tendency to view the arts in America as first and foremost arenas of racial, social, and political conflict. His reluctance to discuss literature and music on their own more or less autonomous terms seems to be a habitual fault of his films on artistic subjects. His writing partner on both "Jazz" and "Mark Twain" is Geoffrey C. Ward, a fine political historian who doesn't bring the authority to artistic subjects that he did to Burns's most famous documentary, "The Civil War." Writers Arthur Miller and William Styron do appear in the film, but not to discuss Twain's writing. It's hard to understand why Burns limited himself to such a grave pair. He could have easily added writers closer in spirit to Twain, like Tom Wolfe or P.J. O'Rourke (although that would have cut into the air time of the actor and roving Twain impersonator Hal Holbrook).

Burns makes much of the distinction between the private Samuel Langhorne Clemens and the public Mark Twain. In these terms, "Mark Twain" succeeds better as an intimate emotional and psychological portrait of Clemens than a literary portrait of Twain. The saga of his wild swings of fortune--from vast riches to crushing debt, from enveloping domestic bliss to the grief and loneliness of his later years--makes for such compelling melodrama that it could be a miniseries on CBS instead of a nutritious documentary on PBS. And in hinting at deep emotional springs--his father's professional and financial failures, his own perceived social and moral inferiority to his wife's wealthy, genteel, pious, and altruistic family--Burns gets further into the mind of the man than he does into the mind of the artist.

Still, Ken Burns's "Mark Twain" is never dull. And measured strictly by his ability to translate his content into the language of documentary film, Burns is successful, although even his camera itself can be overly deferential in the way it visually mirrors Twain's words. (When, for example, actor Kevin Conway reads the passage from "Roughing It" about the approach to Carson City, the camera gradually tightens its shot of a photograph of Carson City.)

But Burns seems to invite measurement against a higher standard. He seems to have graduated from unassuming documentarian majoring in American History to "Historian" who incidentally works in a visual medium (and a historian of extravagant ambitions at that). One gets the sense from his work and his comments in the press that he has begun to think of himself as our appointed seeker of nothing less than the essence of the American spirit.

OF COURSE, by placing Twain alone on a very high pedestal, Burns actually succeeds at isolating his subject from America. We are left with an inadequate sense of what parts of American culture Twain absorbed and reshaped. Burns has left Twain's individual genius in plain view, but his Americanness is obscured--which is an especially glaring fault in one in quest of the essential spirit of America. In the end, Ken Burns's "Mark Twain" turns the American back into an American (albeit an unusually gifted one). And that's why the documentary is only a Mark Twain, not the Mark Twain.

Daniel Wattenberg is a writer living in Washington, D.C.