From the Chronicle of Higher Education, issue dated January 11, 2002
Mark Twain lived an enormous, fractious life and was determined to defy categorization. In 1879 he commented to an audience, “I don’t mind what [the critics] say of me so long as they don’t tell the truth about me. But when they descend to telling the truth about me, I consider that this is taking an unfair advantage.” Over the past 70 years, biographers have published their various “truths” about Twain: the damaged son of a castrating mother, a split personality, a womanizer, an impotent man, a child molester, a hypochondriac, a gold digger, an abusive spouse, a neglectful father, a racist, a misogynist, and an alcoholic. With such a richly dysfunctional pedigree, if only Twain had sung in a rock group, he’d be a ripe subject for one of VH1’s Behind the Music exposés.
Ken Burns’s film Mark Twain will be broadcast on PBS January 14 and 15, and my interpretation of Twain is included in the production — that he intentionally surrounded himself with women, and that his capacity to produce extended fictions had almost as much to do with the environment shaped by his female family as with the talent and genius of the writer himself.
This is a documentary designed for a general audience, and its high profile promises to make the film, as well as the version of Mark Twain presented in it, a standard reference point for years to come. A canonization is likely to occur, which conference panels, journal articles, and Internet discussion groups will dedicate themselves to deconstructing. For Twain scholars who have lifelong investments in the figure they have researched and created, any deviation from what they consider to be their “truth” will be vehemently denounced. For biographers, at issue will be the question: Which Mark Twain has Ken Burns chosen to portray?
Four years ago, I learned that Burns was planning to make a documentary about Twain the way I usually gather information in Twain studies: namely, through conference gossip. I was sitting with my good friend Michael Kiskis, a professor of American literature at Elmira College, in Elmira’s auditorium at the Third International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies when we heard from a fellow audience member that people would soon be contacted by the Burns crew, and we wondered out loud who they might be.
Certain individuals in Twain studies appear regularly in the media, and I assumed they would be the ones selected. Yet, to my surprise, I was called in addition to some, but not all, of the regulars. Dayton Duncan, the film’s co-producer, and writer of the script with Geoffrey C. Ward, phoned and told me that Ward had read my biography, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, and had urged Duncan to contact me. We spoke for quite a while that day and made arrangements to meet near Burns’s headquarters, in Walpole, N.H., to continue our conversation. On a sunny July day one year after the Elmira conference, we met in the town’s heavenly scented chocolate shop, and by the end of our conversation, I had agreed to be a project consultant.
Scholars as well as the public feel an extraordinary sense of ownership concerning Twain, and I commented on the dangerous eddies of these emotional waters to Duncan in our various conversations. These currents must be negotiated by anyone working in the area; my introduction to them came in 1986, when, as a graduate student, I discovered the largest cache of Twain correspondence to date, now known as the “Hollywood Letters.” The majority of the 100 letters were written by Twain to his three daughters, and he wrote to them as his intellectual equals, sharing anecdotes as well as financial worries. My image of Twain had been the iconic “American Adam,” a wisecracking, solitary wanderer, but the letters revealed a previously hidden side of Twain.
I was surprised to learn that he was such a family man. This aspect of Twain’s life captured my imagination, and 15 years later, I’m still intrigued. After I spent years reading through crumbling letters and water-stained journals in archives from Berkeley, Calif., to Hartford, Conn., it became evident that in both personal and literary realms, Twain was a man hugely influenced by women. Women affected Twain’s racial and political views; defined his boundaries, both personal and literary; edited his books; provided models for his fictional characters; and shaped his prose.
My thesis was controversial at the time, and I came to appreciate what the Twain scholar Hamlin Hill, now an emeritus professor of English at Texas A&M University, warned about in his incendiary essay “Who Killed Mark Twain?” — that people interested in challenging long-established constructions of Twain, “a hero, a prophet, a legend, a demigod,” present an awfully tempting target. In my conversations and filmed interview with Duncan, I spoke about the Twain so dependent upon his female circle that when those individuals who were his creative collaborators died, his fiction did too.
It is a moonless August evening last summer, and I find myself sitting once again in the same Elmira auditorium watching an audience gather for a preview of the Twain documentary. For the past two days, the Fourth International Conference has been in full swing, with panels and exhibitions occurring all over the campus. The crowd pours through the doors. Filmmakers, scholars, fans, reporters, collectors, dealers, and impersonators are all there for the same reason: to hear Ken Burns speak and to see excerpts from this accomplished documentarian’s latest film. There’s a chance I’ll be included in this cut of the project, and not knowing whether I’ll be making my screen debut this evening makes me both nervous and curious. While I never admitted this to the Burns people, I’ve seen only brief pieces of his work over the years, so I’m not sure what to expect. As I settle into my seat, Burns and Duncan graciously greet various functionaries while a half-dozen Twain impersonators scattered throughout the audience salute one another, genuflecting and ceremoniously bowing.
I tend to avoid the impersonators; they’re a bit unsettling and, taken together, chronologically disjunct. The Twains keep popping up in unexpected places, like the coffee line, at registration, and in the parking lot. There’s a young bushy-haired Twain, a few graying, middle-aged specimens, and an elderly fellow who has let himself go and really doesn’t resemble Twain anymore, but no one has the heart to tell him. By the second day, the performance aspects of academic presentations and impersonations begin to merge, and I scrutinize conference-goers, trying to determine if they might be impersonators, too. Perhaps we all are.
Over the years while researching various projects, I’ve discovered that Twain gets under admirers’ skin in ways that I believe other authors don’t. With striking frequency, simple transactions become covert operations. Only at a Twain conference would a dealer approach me, as one did at Elmira, and, after checking to make sure curious eyes couldn’t see what he was doing, remove from his blazer pocket postmortem photographs of Olivia Clemens, Twain’s wife. Rumors about the photos’ existence had circulated for years. He was showing them only to certain people, he said. Putting my squeamishness aside, I recognized he was doing me an enormous favor and profusely thanked him.
Burns and Duncan introduce the film by talking about their respect for Twain and the challenges they faced during the project. The lights dim, and on a very large screen, we see the flickering image of an elderly Twain walking the grounds of his last home, Stormfield, in Redding, Conn.
As the narrative unfolds, I’m listening to the Mark Twain catechism. Born into a poor family in Florida, Mo., on November 30, 1835, through his native genius and fearsome drive, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, by the end of his life, had transformed himself into Mark Twain, the most famous man in America. A cigar-box label succinctly conveys the good will that Twain enjoyed during his final decade: “Mark Twain: Known to Everyone — Liked by All.” The material is beautifully presented and familiar, all is well, and I particularly enjoy the Innocents Abroad section, because it’s great to hear Twain’s words read aloud. There are some photographs of him I’ve never seen before. The film skips in sequence to the section on Elmira, where he summered for 20 years with his family, and I hear my voice before my face appears. I’m just confounded, for lack of a better word, and my seatmate thoughtfully elbows me just in case my attention has wandered. When the film concludes, the audience gives it a cheering, standing ovation.
Afterward, we traipse outside, where sweet New York champagne awaits and friends come over to tease and congratulate me. I overhear people criticizing the film and realize that this is just the start. I walk over, greet Burns, and tell him that the experience of seeing myself was startling. He cheerfully responds, “Wait until 40 million people see you.” Somehow I never thought about numbers of viewers until this moment. Forty million is an unreal figure.
Since August, I have seen the entire documentary, and it is visually stunning, informative, moving, and — dare I say it? — scholarly. The documentary’s running time is four hours, two hours per episode. The first episode follows Twain through his boyhood, his first book-length success, Innocents Abroad, and his composition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The second episode explores the private Clemens, surviving bankruptcy and family tragedies, and the worldwide fame, riches, and legacy of Mark Twain.
The perfect moment comes at the beginning of the second episode, when the author Russell Banks speaks so eloquently about Twain and race. When working with Twain, the topic of race is a constant, and at some point, I think, it is easy to wonder whether any more can be added that hasn’t already been stated and restated. Banks, though, talks simply and purely, with enormous impact, about how Twain’s literature challenges and alters racial constructions. Banks contends that Twain’s literature affects the margins, not the center, and that, in time, the margins expand, changing the center. His remarks are accompanied by photographs of schoolchildren. I was deeply moved. My guess is that, for most viewers, the segment about the awful, untimely death of Twain’s daughter Susy from meningitis will be the emotional apex of the film. The filmmakers take their time wringing out all the pathos possible, and there’s plenty to be wrung.
When I was at Elmira, a Twain insider told me that she had seen the entire documentary and was disappointed because the last half was so sad. Yet Burns offers a version consistent with the biographical facts; he portrays the multiple tragedies in Twain’s life and how, in the end, Twain traded his family for fame and wealth.
My response to her: If the filmmakers had desired, they could have made the documentary much darker by including segments about how Twain drove Charles Webster to an early death by wrongfully charging him with mismanagement of Twain’s publishing company and forcing him out. Less than a year later, a humiliated and broken Webster died, just 39 years old. They could have gone into how Twain viciously destroyed the reputation of Isabel Lyon, his personal secretary, out of spite and loyalty to his daughters Jean and Clara. Or how he was so estranged from Clara, when she was his only surviving daughter, that she let him go to his grave without telling him that she was pregnant with his only grandchild.
But Burns didn’t, and left those of us who love spending time in quiet archives, researching and thinking, something to write about.
Section: The Chronicle Review