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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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.