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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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.