America's greatest writer used to have red hair. With his piercing eyes indicating the keenest of wits and a lovably cantankerous nature, he cut an instantly recognizable figure. He held many jobs, wrote for multiple newspapers, and was spectacularly inept at business. A natural-born storyteller and genius with words, he wrote constantly: articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place.
Mark Twain, however, lost the fortune he married into on endless get-richer-quicker schemes. His wife's father made millions cornering the coal market during the Civil War. Twain had an opportunity to invest in Bell Telephone. Instead, he frittered it away on inventions such as a clamp for keeping children's bedsheets down at night.
In this fascinating documentary directed by Ken Burns, we learn that Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his pseudonym is riverboat pilot-ese marking the division between safe and unsafe water) was at various times not only a pilot but a printer's assistant, a civil servant, and a prospector who never struck gold. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army--never once fighting a battle due to beating a hasty retreat and heading out West. And, having reached Nevada, in order to avoid facing a guy in a pistol duel, continued on further into California.
His boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri, provided in later life a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of material. He and his friends enjoyed an idyllic existence smoking corncob pipes, and playing hooky down at the river and in the forests where they plotted pranks against the innocent town. One such friend, Tom Blankenship, a smart, uneducated kid envied by all who knew him, served as the inspiration for the title character in what would become Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Following the format he perfected with his breakthrough documentary The Civil War, Burns uses primarily still photos from the life of the man who was once the most famous writer in the world, beloved for his ability to make people laugh.
"I never tried to cultivate the cultivated classes," said Twain. "I always went for bigger game: the masses."
He was a writer read by everyday folks. The People's Writer, who made the way we talk something to be admired, has long since been co-opted by Ivory Tower scholars hanging onto, if not his coattails precisely, then certainly the brim of his proverbial hog's head hat. As actor Hal Holbrook observes, "The European language was supposed to be the ideal, but he idolized the American language."
Unencumbered by a college education, Twain wrote as though he invented writing, frequently announcing his acceptance of this premise, and even daring to further it: "I'm not an American, I'm the American!"
In the words of playwright Arthur Miller, "You read any page of his, and you know that there's a poet who's crafting all those lines."
Covering his bases, the poet chucked hardballs at the Palaces of the Gilded Age (a term he coined) even as he was stepping into a palace of his own. Financial worries tolerably eased subsequent to marrying the millionaire's daughter, Twain gloried in lavish luxuries for years. In his beloved Hartford House he doted on his daughters (his favorite being the one who started writing a biography about him) and spent long hours fondly recalling the unfettered independence of happy boyhood days when he could really dream of being rich.
While the array of experts on the subject could stand to be a deal wider--it's pretty much just Miller, Holbrook, Dick Gregory, a historian from The Civil War, and a handful of unknown writers--it's the most thorough documentary yet on the dude who made writin' like regular folks talk a downright liberation of literature.
Stewart Kirby, who writes articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place, also writes for
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE