|Our Samuel Clemens: Mark Twain in the Age of Personal Disclosure|
(First Published Southern Humanities Review Spring 2004)
In November 1903, the 59-year-old Olivia Clemens, already diagnosed with hyperthyroid heart disease, had been suffering badly from nervous exhaustion and shortness of breath. Her New York doctors recommended to her husband, Samuel, that a return to Florence, Italy, where the dry air had helped her breathe before, might aid in her recovery. So Sam and Livy, as she was called, accompanied by their grown daughters, Clara and Jean, a nurse, a maid, and a secretary, sailed for Italy. At a rented villa near Florence, the family bivouacked, hoping Livy would rally. But the winter proved unseasonably foggy and rainy, and she worsened. The frail woman was in bed day and night, receiving oxygen; she slept sitting up, terrified of choking to death.
That winter, Sam Clemens, known everywhere as Mark Twain, was nearing 70. He and Livy had married 33 years earlier and the pair had been unshakably in love ever since. Her pet name was "Gravity," in part, because she edited most everything Sam wrote; his pet name was "Youth," in part, because he needed editing. While grieving Livy’s setbacks, Sam wrote little of consequence, rarely indulging fiction or romance as Mark Twain used to and penning philosophical abstractions as Sam Clemens that went nowhere. Only when Livy was succumbing to heart disease did Clemens begin writing in the confessional mode, which, like the fictional mode he had mastered, would require its own apprenticeship. And yet, despite his ability to foal any literary form, the longer he lived, the worse things were for his family—his wife’s illness persisted; his daughter Jean suffered from such violent epilepsy that she tried twice to kill the family maid; and Susy, his eldest daughter, had died, after contracting spinal meningitis, in 1896 while Livy and Clara went with Sam on a world-wide lecture tour, organized to get the Clemenses out of debt.
Things were not going well at the villa for Clara either. At 29, she had finally settled on a singing career, after being trained as a pianist by the legendary teacher, Theodore Leschetisky, who had told her that after years of lessons her hands were too small to play the concert repertoire. Clara bore the news with embarrassment and dignity, vowing instead to scale the vocal heights. Bossy and beautiful, she was, of the three sisters, most like her father. And yet, before or after Susy’s death, Clara had to prove her ability to her father to earn his love. Sam and Livy often thwarted Clara’s ambitions; they frowned on her singing career because she made herself sick with worry. Never secure about her talent, Clara scheduled artistically challenging concerts then canceled them as they drew near. Infections would develop: among them, carbuncles on her throat wasted her. Her insecurity may have manifested such physical ills. Twain scholar Hamlin Hill has written that "her ‘career,’ we can surmise, was to Clara a symbol of her independence from her family, and it developed an importance to her out of proportion to her success or her capabilities."
Caring for Livy in Florence fell to a maid, a secretary, and Clara; Jean’s epilepsy made her the family’s other invalid. Doctors told Sam not to bother Livy; the excitement of seeing him would make her wheeze. Stay away, and visit five minutes a day at most. Called on to sit with Livy, Clara became annoyed, worried about a series of singing recitals she had scheduled. And yet she wanted to show her parents that she could make good on her many private tutors. Clara also hoped to stop her father from micro-managing her life, especially when it came to the few marriageable men she met. One of them was special—Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a promising Russian pianist who was also studying in Vienna. But Clemens insisted that Clara be chaperoned whenever she went out with him.
One outlet that winter Clara had was to correspond with Dorothea Gilder, to whom she confided details about her family’s life at the villa. (Dorothea’s father was Richard Gilder, editor of Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, in which Clemens’s work often appeared.) In a letter postmarked February 5, 1904, Clara wrote to her friend that a day or two earlier she had thrown a fit. "I was seized by something & began to scream & curse & knocked down the furniture. . . till everyone of course came running & in my father’s presence I said I hated him, hated my mother, hoped they would all die & if they didn’t succeed soon I would kill them." Livy, from her sick bed, heard Clara’s explosion and "got a heart attack." The outburst, along with arteriosclerosis and her on-going nervous prostration, put Livy even closer to death’s door.
Clara’s letter (its script, florid and dramatic) reveals her self-absorption. She lists the pressures she is under—concert schedule, mother’s illness, problems with the villa’s landlady. Clara is trying to keep it together, "controlling, controlling, controlling oneself, till one just bursts at last in despair." Her self-esteem, tied to the waist of propriety, is also wounded: "The shame on me today is indescribable. It seems I don’t belong in good society anymore." She even asserts that her outburst has, apparently in her mind, affected her mother’s health less than it has affected hers. Her remorse is palpable; but it’s also countered with a defiant "I won’t be harmed by what I’ve done." What’s more, Clara tries to enlist Dorothea to justify her action: Clara asks Dorothea to write and tell her that she (Dorothea) has probably blown up, too, and hoped to kill her parents (the Gilders) just as Clara hoped to kill hers (the Clemenses). By the end of the letter, she has decided that her eruption cannot have been as bad as she has made it out to be in the earlier letter.
And yet her parricidal rage is reported in pure tones. "I was seized," she writes; she began to "scream and curse"; "everyone came running"; she "hoped they would all die" and "I would kill them." Could it be that in this moment, as inappropriate and fearful as it was, as understandable in terms of the strain her and her family had been under with Susy’s death and Jean’s epilepsy and Livy’s ailment, Clara’s uttering perhaps the greatest blasphemy in American literary history—to have the beloved Mark Twain disappear—made her, for the only time in her life, truly independent and alive?
Most American readers know that Samuel Clemens and family lived, during the 1870s and 1880s, in a 19-room mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, which Clemens called "the loveliest home that ever was." Clara spent her childhood and adolescence there with her older sister Susy and younger sister Jean. (The Clemens’s first child was a son, Langdon; born in late 1870, he died of diphtheria 18 months later.) The menagerie of the Hartford estate consisted of magical Christmases overseen by Clemens as Santa; seven full-time servants; newly penned novels and stories from which Clemens read aloud in the evenings; theatrical performances that Clara and her sisters put on of their father’s historical romances; a German governess, private tutors, piano lessons.As a girl, Clara wrote to her father of his largess: that is "the most beautiful locket I have ever seen," signed, "I am your loving daughter." Another epistle ends, "Do you realize you are as great as Shakespeare?"
But such sweet remembrances belie difficult childhoods. Susy was Clemens’s favorite, and Clara and Jean lived in her shadow. At 13, Susy penned a biography of Papa; its sentimental portrayal (which Clemens included in his autobiography) typified how later generations believed he acted at home—solicitous and benevolent, playful and fair. And yet, despite Clemens’ open preference of his firstborn, Suzy, the three sisters experienced the frequently tyrannical side of their father. Caroline Harnsberger, Clara’s biographer, has written that Clemens’s daughters were afraid to be alone with him: "His fits of irritation, with their accompanying fireworks, terrified the impressionable young girls and made them wonder how a person could be sweet one minute and a demon the next." Even Clemens, in a December 1886 letter to William Dean Howells, wrote, "I found that all their lives my children have been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp tongue and uncertain temper. . . . All the concentrated griefs of fifty years seemed colorless by the side of that pathetic revelation."
Despite his claim to valuing family, Clemens was away from home more than half the time, earning and spending, via profligate business ventures, the money the house needed to stay afloat. He kept tabs on the daughters as each one neared 18, and, with Livy, checked the girls’s independence or their desire for romance. (Susy went to Bryn Mawr but was homesick; Clemens showed up one day and gave a speech that embarrassed her terribly; she returned home soon thereafter.) In his way, Clemens tried to keep his adult daughters infantalized, binding them to their childhoods by often questioning their artistic aspirations. He expected that the adoration they gave him while young would never end. With good reason says Twain scholar Leland Krauth: The family "was the stabilizing center without which Clemens was less and less able to control his personal disorders . . . and without which Mark Twain was less and less likely to write."
Clara’s desire to kill her parents in 1904 was certainly stress-related. It was also the symbolic act of a budding artist—exactly what his father feared—who, to be free of one’s teachers, must defy them. Again, Clara’s letter provides proof. In it she discusses the importance of her concerts because she will at last show her surrogate Daddy, Leschetisky, that she can perform. (She also wants to demonstrate to Ossip that she has talent, to stoke his interest in courting her.) Clara was under the spell of her mentors and what she later called her "[a]ugust parent," and she wanted to break free. Her outburst may have helped her performances. Reviews of her March 21, April 8, and April 15, concerts in Florence were some of the best she would ever receive; even her stingy father begrudged a note of praise. Perhaps Clara found the passion to voice, for example, Schubert’s "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel," one number in her contralto repertoire. The lied’s reeling drama required the singer to anguish over her absent lover until, so enthralled by desire for him, she would "in his kisses / pass away!"
Following the April 8 concert, Livy was pleased with her daughter’s triumph and asked to see her. But when Clara came in, Livy again had an "awful attack," struggling to breathe for an hour. It seemed Clara was doomed. Whether she told her mother she wanted to kill her or was ready to glow over her artistic success, Clara could only over-excite, further sicken, and eventually do her mother in. What good was art, if its effect on others were that capricious or deadly?
In June Livy died and Clara became unglued. Kate Leary, the Clemens’s Irish maid and nanny, had cradled Susy and Livy when they died and would discover Jean who, in an epileptic fit, drowned in the bathtub in 1909. Having dressed Susy, Livy, and Jean for burial, Leary told Mary Lawton, for a book of Twain family reminiscences, that Clara "was lying under the casket in a little heap, sobbing." Leary also reported that on the voyage back to America, Clara was "so broken-hearted she didn’t want to live." Harnsberger noted that at the funeral Clara "gave a cry which stabbed everyone’s heart, and tried to jump into the grave with her mother." Two weeks after the funeral Clara entered a New York City sanatarium where she recuperated from nervous prostration for nearly a year. Her father was forbidden to see her.
Once recovered, Clara began a pattern of dominating and fleeing the Clemens household. She would stand up to her father, quarreling frequently with his incessant talk of the "incorrigible human race" and his disapproval of her singing career. She’d leave in a huff and stay away for months, at times, flaunting his requests for propriety. Despite her ego, she would come home because her father not only financed her music lessons in Europe but, eventually, paid all her expenses, including manager and accompanist. Over the next five years, Clemens typically got Clara to return by reminding her that a daughter was duty-bound to nurse Jean and to take care of him.
When Jean died in late 1909, Clemens was prostrate with depression. Clara, now married to Ossip and pregnant, returned from Europe, hoping he’d be well enough to hear about his grandchild. But she withheld the news from him, either out of spite or fear of over-exciting him: She had seen how recklessly her life impinged on her parents’ health. Her father died in April 1910. When his affairs were in order and a daughter was born in August, Clara, Ossip, and the baby Nina sailed for Germany.
At the time the Clemens-Gilder letter was published in 2000, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of the Oxford Mark Twain, said that Clara’s "regret for having been out of control herself may have helped prompt her to maintain the rigid control that she tried to retain over her father’s posthumous image." Such "intense guilt," wrote Margalit Fox of The New York Times, "may have laid the foundation for Clara’s public mythologizing" of her father. Was Clara guilt-ridden after her mother died? No doubt she felt buffeted about as she escaped her father’s control, only to return and take charge of the home, nursing her family’s good name and wealth. But when Clemens died, she was thrilled. In July Clara wrote a friend that "at last if nothing happens to my husband I have really landed in a beautiful harbor & soon enough [can] worship every ripple in the delicious blue sunflecked water. Even father’s & Jean’s deaths can not take from me this longed for happiness which is actually mine."
Brimming with confidence in her new life, Clara began fashioning, with a mix of denial, self-delusion, and righteousness, her father’s legacy. She understood his dialectical persona—the man and the image, the writer and the showman, the tragic Samuel Clemens and the comic Mark Twain. From the dichotomies, it was easy to downplay the coarse father in favor of ranconteur, showman, and comedian, the reliable character Twain enthusiasts loved. This character was one her father himself had ordained.
In 1908, Clemens trademarked his pseudonym, which allowed him to protect and license his pen name as private property. Ironically, the name had been unprotected since 1863, when he first signed an article as Mark Twain. Of course, at home he was Papa, among friends, Sam. During those periods in which he traveled and lectured, he became Mark Twain. But, after he lost Susy and Livy, Clemens took refuge in the role of the corn-pone humorist who gave dinner party guests, reporters, and audiences golden nuggets of story and wisdom made up as the White Peacock: an elegant cream-colored suit; a head topped with bushy white hair, which he washed daily with laundry soap; a walrus moustache that hid the play of his jokes; and eyes matted with avuncular solemnity, always ready to twinkle.
In shepherding his image after death, Clara nurtured the White Peacock everywhere. Much evidence exists to show how she excluded her father’s emotional volatility from the public mask. One example. Clara sent a letter to a woman who had written an intimate account of Clemens’s death, having witnessed his final week. (In it, she mentions Albert Bigelow Paine, Clemens’s hand-picked biographer.) "I have looked at [the article]," Clara wrote, "as nearly as possible with Father’s mental eyes and I can not feel that he would be pleased. His advice, I am sure, would be: ‘Give the facts to Paine, who is writing my biography and has practice in literary expression, and let him tell the story.’ Of one thing I am absolutely sure . . . he would never want those insignificant and purely personal letters to be published. . . . These facts Mr Paine is of course acquainted with and he will be able thereby to save the public from an unnecessarily tormenting impression of his end."
Paine was as committed to charting the public Twain as Clara was. Not only did he and Clara have sole access to the author’s huge trove of unpublished works, but he had a contractual job—to publish the three-volume Mark Twain: A Biography, soon, which he did in 1912. He also edited, from 450,000 words Clemens dictated during his final years, Mark Twain’s Autobiography. But, as a censor, Paine was less inhibited than Clara. In fact, in the biography, intriguing pieces of the unregenerate Clemens slip out: stuff about Satan getting the better of God; stuff about the strain in his family between him and his daughters; stuff not always benign. Scholars began asking whether the public shouldn’t be allowed to see these other works as well as know more about Clemens’s private life. Paine said no. He believed the canon was set, as he wrote in 1908, in a letter to Clemens’s secretary: "I have no desire to parade the things he would wish forgotten." Paine thought his job was to "build a personality so impregnable" to criticism that "the man we know . . . will remain known as we know him, loved and honored through all time."
In constructing Mark Twain—whitewashing the whitewash—Clara knew she would have to censor her father’s personal disorders as well as his diatribes against Christianity. Why? Sleuthing academics. One of them, Bernard DeVoto, was put in charge of Clemens’s papers in 1937, following Paine’s death. DeVoto discovered a host of virulent anti-Christian tracts that had lain unpublished for decades. He suggested Clara bring out a volume of her father’s musings and attacks on religion, which DeVoto called "extraordinary." He couldn’t understand why Clara and Paine had hidden these works: "Mark Twain is a great writer, a great man. A great man is not injured by the truth about him—he is injured by its suppression."
When Clara read DeVoto’s proposal for Letters From the Earth in 1940, she was appalled. She had "insurmountable objections" to its publication. Readers would be "drowned in an avalanche of critical poisons that give false testimony to the character of Mark Twain." For 25 years she censored Letters and an essay, "Reflections on Religion," pieces that offended her sensibilities as a late-in-life devotee of Christian Science. The ban lasted until she agreed, in a death-bed conversion at 88, to release all of her father’s works for publication.
What Clara did to her father was all, and more, of what her father had done to her: moral management. Clemens managed Clara’s adulthood by having her watched and guarded, by disapproving of her aspirations and boyfriends, by not listening to her special and different heart. Clara did the same for Papa. She dictated whom he could and could not hang out with, when to come home, when to return to the family fold after someone had asked one too many intimate questions about his life and had strayed too far from the literary persona she had forged. The father who didn’t listen to his daughter was the father the daughter protected from ever appearing in public the rest of her life.
Through careful selection and emphasis, Clara built the "character" of Mark Twain into an impregnable icon. Under her baton, he became the aphorist who sprouted, "Be good and you’ll be lonesome," then quickly appended, "like me." He became a set of old-man images and salty quotations who is endlessly recycled from Mark Twain impersonators at corporate picnics to fence-painting contests in Hannibal, Missouri, that honor the good bad boy, Tom Sawyer. Clemens wrote many fabulous "Mark Twain" novels, and anyone who’s read them (which includes most Americans who were first assigned Huck Finn in high school English) knows that his depth and invention as a fiction writer is phenomenal. But those great novels are still subordinate to the figurehead—the king of nineteenth century stand-up, a crotchety deliverer of one-liners, a Gilded Age David Letterman. He was a star, the first media sensation, the first celebrity, as famous in the world in his time as Muhammad Ali is today.
However, since Clara’s death, the legendary Mark Twain is undergoing radical revision; he is beginning to disappear and her father Samuel Clemens is taking his place. Once regarded solely for his novelistic portrayals of the sin of slavery and the enthusiasms of boyhood, Twain is being remade out of the deconstructed persona and turned back to the flawed fellow he was, an artist whose family tragedies are undetachable from his character. Such revision reflects not the values of his age but the values of ours, the 2000s—the age of personal disclosure. To unravel family secrets is the main purpose Americans are writing nonfiction narratives, whether memoir or biography. Indeed, to our sniff-snooping sensibilities, the image of a literary king is only half as interesting as the means by which that image was erected and may, by us, be disassembled.
The disinterment of Samuel Clemens began in 1966 with the publication of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain by Justin Kaplan. The biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize, revealed what John Kenneth Galbraith called, "Twain the genius and Clemens the flop." The flop broadly included his business failures, his family’s invalidism, his mercurial personality and his self-loathing. Kaplan’s book was a watershed in Twain studies: he set the standard not only for mining Clemens’s personal letters and family documents in search of the psychoanalytic lodestone but also for balancing a figure who, until Kaplan, had been far more legend than fact. As Kaplan has defiantly declared about his book, "In the end the man is more imposing than the sum of his work."
In 1975 Mark Twain: God’s Fool by Hamlin Hill went further than Kaplan, elucidating in painful detail Clemens’s travails during his final decade. (The three book sections give some idea of his tack: "Indian Summer," "Götterdämmerung," and "The Derelict." In the 1970s, Hill did not have access to the Clemens-Gilder letters.) Hill’s achievement was to debunk the accepted end-of-life story of several generations of Twain critics who ignored how cruel the elder Clemens behaved, how subject he was to Clara’s control, and how poorly written much of his autobiographical writing and tirades were.
These first two volleys of Clemens' rehab revealed the man's ineptitude as an investor; his frequent absence from his wife’s bed; his fixation in later life with a dozen adolescent girls whom he called his Angelfish; his mendacious firing of his secretary Isabel Lyon and business advisor Ralph Ashcroft on phony embezzlement charges (trumped up by Clara, who feared that Lyons would marry her father and take away her inheritance); and his alienated relationships with Clara and Jean. It may be too much to know about any one literary figure, but it is a counterweight to the fawning scholarship that has endured about Twain, a scourge far worse.
Hamlin Hill attacked those fawns in 1975, in an article, "Who Killed Mark Twain?" Hill wrote that "laborers in the Mark Twain industry" were killing him with niggling scholarship; such "humorless, dull pedants" wrote zestless prose and lacked "the courage to offer untraditional perspectives on his life and works." Hill saw signs that Twain studies might survive if the discipline took on "the most compelling necessity for Mark Twain biography at the present time: the separation of the man from the legend." The academic field was wide open, as was the field of criticism, and Hill mentioned paths to follow, one of which was to unravel the "artistic creation" of Mark Twain by Clemens and those who, excited by and faithful to that creation like Clara, kept it going.
Louis Budd followed Hill’s lead in 1983 with the fascinating Our Mark Twain. In it, he charts how Clemens made himself into a culture hero; his public lecturing and after-dinner speeches were designed to posture for publicity, which, in turn, sold books. Whenever he spoke, Clemens was such a good actor that his audience, in Budd’s words, was convinced "it was staring into his private self and finding a spontaneous, smoked-ham individualist." Clemens set in motion our response to him: namely, a "readership" "intent on empathy rather than analysis" of his work. Budd writes that the elder, white-suited Clemens knew what he was doing—stoking his persona by schmoozing reporters and the public. Audiences were drawn to him because he kept his family’s affairs, which they knew about, to himself. "The tragedies of his disintegrating household," Budd writes, "aroused sympathy for another parent unable to cope with older children and respect for his gloom as validated more by experience than amateurish determinism." In an earlier age, readers could detect in his pessimistic late works the un-enumerated howls of the wounded father; in our age, we prefer those howls bared.
In 1991 The Man Who Was Mark Twain by Guy Cardwell also tried to de-mythologize him. One British reviewer contended that Cardwell went too far in depicting Clemens as "a megalomaniac, a narcissist, an exhibitionist, a paedophile . . . a guilt-ridden masturbator . . . prematurely impotent, anal-obsessive . . . even a rupophobe," one afraid of dirt. Another critic said Cardwell was guilty of "posthumous character assassination." Indeed Cardwell sunk his charges to the hilt but he also substantiated those charges. Regardless of his biographical slant, Cardwell, professor of English emeritus at Washington University, accelerated the personal undressing of Clemens considerably.
Though the books undressing Twain during the 1990s have grown to be many, one deserves mention here. Laura Skandera-Trombley’s Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) argues that Clemens fell apart in the early 1900s. Because of the deaths of his "prodigy" Susy and of his "editor" Livy, he lost the safe hub of his female-centered home. Based on letters Clemens wrote to his wife (found in a Los Angeles hobby shop in 1986) as well as on Livy’s strong personality and moral certitude, Skandera-Trombley puts Livy’s influence at the center of Clemens’s greatest work, written during the 1870s and 1880s. She discounts much of what has been written about Twain being a "man’s man," calling it "questionable whether critics have been responding to the man or to an invention of past biographers." "My intention is to dynamite this hollow creation and reveal Twain as he really was, an author so dependent upon female interaction and influence that without it the sublimity of his novels would have been lost."
In 2001, Skandera-Trombley and Gary Scharnhorst essayed on the result, if any, of Hamlin Hill’s bleak assessment of the Twain industry. In "'Who Killed Mark Twain?' Long Live Samuel Clemens!" the authors praise Hill for having the courage to "mess with the folk savior" by "clearly dar[ing] critics to examine areas previously overlooked or ignored either for personal or political reasons," one of which was "dealing with Clara Clemens’s legacy." Skandera-Trombley complains (perhaps unfairly, considering what material was available to him) that Hill "should have more strongly outlined Clara’s utterly pivotal role in establishing the icon Mark Twain that the scholarly community accepted and venerated." Skandera-Trombley and Scharnhorst end their essay by suggesting that some of the good new scholarship being done on Twain will result "in radically different ways than Clara, Paine, . . . or DeVoto would have approved."
These revisionists coupled with a new confessional ethos for biography are, by concentrating on the intimacies of Clemens’s life, deepening his character. In the process, Twain the demigod is being changed. After all, Clemens’s family experienced him more Huck than Tom. And maybe that’s what a new generation of readers want: To know him as well as his daughters knew him. Wisdom, warts, and all. Part of what is driving this desire for intimacy with celebrity is technology. The Internet and the sharing of archival material is opening aspects of our private lives so fast that we have little choice but to accept their intrusions. Mark Twain is bound up in a pre-media world where a letter had a long life locked in a box and an artist’s reputation was made and guarded by the income-receiving family. Clemens is being freed from the puppeted Twain because the man’s "imposing" self, his guises, his stature as our national grandfather, have found a new stage and audience via our all-disclosing media. This new man is indeed fodder for the "reality" media that balances how much an author is read and appreciated with how much his personality and disposition are exposed.
The re-commissioned Samuel Clemens set sail in 2002 with Ken Burns’s production, Mark Twain. Written by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey G. Ward and directed by Burns, the four-hour film stamps his subject in nostalgic and near-sacred personal glow. Mark Twain, called Clemens during most of the voice-over narration, is hallowed at home in his marriage and in the birth of his children, and haunted by the loss of all but one of those he loved. And because of that focus, the profile achieves, at times, an aria-like intensity, as its edits moves flawlessly. Its romantic, sensuous depictions of the family rooms and writing studios of Clemens’s life is enhanced by folk music ("Sweet Betsy From Pike") and made soothing by the sour-mash recitation of Twainisms, culled from public lectures and private letters.
Burns reuses his trademark style in making what he calls "American Stories," a style impossible to resist. For me, it possessed greater power in certain episodes of The Civil War, when the letters of soon-to-die soldiers formed a simulacrum to the national conflict. In Mark Twain, Burns positions his subject as a national icon and yet keeps the biographical force of the man central to the icon’s development. For Burns, the twain do not meet: The scale tips in favor of the man.
The main theme of the program, according to Burns, was to have been Clemens’s humor and social criticism. (Coming on the heel of 9/11, the movie carried patriotic import.) "The overwhelming thing for me," Burns noted in an interview prior to the debut, "was finding out what an extraordinary writer he was. In Twain’s example, we find inspiration, brotherhood and enormous sympathy. The pretensions, cruelties and inattentions of human behavior brought out a ferocious democratic fairness in Twain, which found beautiful, touching and elegant expression in withering criticism of police brutality, racism, anti-Semitism, religious hypocrisy, imperialism, sexism, lynchings, governmental arrogance, petty tyrants, injustice, bigotry and greed."
Yes, but consider that Burns actually undercuts his grandiloquence by emphasizing less of Clemens’s reprobation of things societal and more of the author’s confounding nature. Indeed, Burns’s closeness to his subject feels filial and worshipful, exceeding the boundaries most biographers erect. Not only does he shift the irrepressibly funny and public Twain toward the emotionally sensitive Clemens, but while doing so, he savors his discovery of that private self as the means of his delivery. There’s scant critical to say about Clemens because Burns is smitten by the author, who seems throughout to be Burns’ best friend.
The documentary medium is, of course, Ken Burns’s message. It’s not enough to have Clemens railing against injustice in the Congo or Huck Finn deciding that betraying his belief about slaves is far better than betraying Jim. Such moments, whether in sepia-tone photos or long-quoted passages from the work, are massaged in their deepest tissue. Even when Burns’s on-camera critics amplify on a point in Clemens’s life, the soothing banjo or mandolin tune rolls on jauntily behind them. Burns’s trick is to sensualize his subject via tonal orchestrations—horses neighing, stagecoach drivers shouting, typesetting machines clacking, steamboat whistles whistling—alongside the voices of Clemens, Livy, and the narrator with their sandpapery or sweet elocution. Everything crackles with authenticity and everyone speaks with sobriety in a Ken Burns film.
Gary Kamiya’s "Big-Two Hearted Mark," for Salon.com, labels such sensuousness, the "Burns moment." These moments allow "you to simultaneously grasp the arc of [Twain’s] life and imagine you’re seeing through Twain’s eyes. It’s an epiphany unique to this form, at once conceptual and visceral." One such scene accompanies a discussion of Clemens’s boyhood desire to become a steamboatman on the Mississippi. "An exquisite shot of a faraway steamboat at dusk," Kamiya writes, "fills the screen—the image at once an embodiment of metaphorical, disembodied memory." This is a "real image," one which Burns’s crew may have spent days trying to capture. It is something "such as Twain really saw, a life he really lived."
There it is! That which Clemens has written about has been lived. It matters who lived it; it matters that Clemens himself was alive and created Twain. James Baldwin’s remark to Studs Terkel that "art would not be important if life were not more important" bears a deceptively simple truth. Applied here, it does not elevate Clemens’s joys and sorrows above his book-making. Rather, it says that because this man floated and fished and fantasized on the Mississippi, an autobiographical verity inhabits his work in a way that doesn’t inhabit, say, the work of two other imaginative geniuses, Henry James and Don DeLillo. This lived quality is why Clemens remains so popular: Each generation finds itself in his novels and essays. When I was young, I was fascinated by Twain’s polemic about America’s insurgency against Filipino independence. To read his arguments about the imperial thrust of the United States into the business of other nations was to hear him condemn the Vietnam War.
The film’s pinnacle of intimacy may have been the emotional crack in Hal Holbrook’s voice. In an interview, Holbrook traces Clemens’s difficulty with finishing Huck Finn with what the author saw on a trip up the Mississippi River in 1882. "What do you think he was looking at? He was looking at the horrible failure of freeing the slave." Like an ax, Holbrook’s affection for Clemens slices through the abstraction of literary studies. And because Burns is so good at eliciting that felt connection to his subject, Mark Twain may well be the benchmark by which future generations will view the old master. No doubt the film will be a staple of junior-year English classes, during which the students’ feelings for Clemens’s satire and sorrow will be enmeshed with their feelings for Huckleberry Finn. The sensibilities of Sam and Huck will merge; the bellicose Twain will fall away. Those who read Huck Finn will be impressed by the book’s depiction of America’s racial past. But in Burns’s film they will be enraptured as they hear of the courage and the grief of the man who wrote it.
Though Ken Burns has pushed Samuel Clemens onto center stage, not everyone who’s seen the film agrees with that direction. One who found Mark Twain "terribly slow" was Hal Holbrook himself. As of 2004, the 78-year-old actor has performed his "Mark Twain Tonight!" more than 2000 times since his first full stage performance in 1954. Holbrook’s 50 years of playing Twain is longer than Clemens played Twain, who published and lectured under the name for 47 years. He’s considered not just an authority on the lecturing Clemens but also on the author’s life. He knows about the juggernaut of the Clemens family tragedy. In fact, Holbrook told me recently by phone that during filming he "warned" Burns about getting "too personal" with Twain. His reasoning surprised me.
"Mark Twain, or America’s Voltaire, as George Bernard Shaw called him, has been dismissed for a century or more as a humorist writer of books for children. Which he is not. If you had to come up with the name of the most powerful, the best-known social critic in our literary history—best-known is important—who would you come up with? There’s no contest. To call him anything less than ‘America’s Voltarie’ is just erroneous.
"I was afraid [of Burns’s portrayal] because people have found it very convenient to avoid the whiplash of his perceptions about our weaknesses, of the human race, and the weaknesses that besiege us in this country. We’ve avoided facing them. We’ve dismissed his comments as the comments of a cynical old man, who was sad because his child died and his wife died and another daughter died. That’s an easy way out for the American people. I was afraid that Ken Burns would feed into this."
Holbrook has refrained from personalizing Clemens. He’s kept his distance because Twain "was not a man who put his heart on his sleeve. He didn’t go out asking for sympathy, not overtly. He was not a man who gave the impression of feeling sorry for himself. I don’t believe the man would go out in public and bleed. He was very much a man’s man. And the other thing, in those days, it would have been undignified to talk about your wife in public. It would have been out of sync with the times. I have always tried to recreate a man who lived in the nineteenth century. I didn’t want to violate that."
Part of what Holbrook is getting at is echoed by Louis Budd. Budd writes that when Hollywood treats Clemens or his novels, the result booms with personality and is devoid of character: "Even at their finest, movie and television versions cannot do justice to Twain’s texts and the authorial presence behind them. The complexity of his most engaging personae . . . is flattened by the visual media and is hobbled by any coherent linearity of script." Translation: Clemens becomes too much Twain when merged with the movies; conversely, Twain becomes far more Clemens when he’s read. The dichotomy reflects why many literary critics want Clemens put back at the helm and why those, whose experience of the author is visual and performance-based and aliterate, believe public and private man are one.
I can’t shake the feeling that Holbrook is part of what keeps Twain from becoming Clemens, that is, becoming accepted by Americans as both an imperfect and a much deeper writer than most imagine. Holbrook’s point is, we can easily get closer to Clemens and his family’s suffering because we identify with him in that realm far more than we do in the realm of his genius. But for Holbrook the trade-off is not worth it. It’s better to keep the spokesman alive, even if he, Clemens, is too often "dismissed": in the struggle not to dismiss him, in each generation’s rediscovery of his sympathies and antipathies, lies Twain’s political relevancy. If we personalize Twain, we may lose a critic that people will listen to, who is viable, for example, in this war-bent age. And yet how do we get close to anyone anymore without going through their drawers?
The regicide of Twain has a conundrum at its center. There are untold versions and masks of Twain to play with, but there is, it would seem, only one biographical (or is it biological?) Clemens. Of course, he was neither a monster nor a saint to his children, neither a foolish nor a savvy investor: the truth lies somewhere in between. But it is that truth, or better the search for it, that occupies our study of Clemens today. Similarly, the time may come when we can say of Anne Frank or Elvis Presley, for example, here is the actual person and here is the doll boys and girls who need unsullied heroes can play with.
What haunts me about Clara’s 1904 letter is that she wanted one of her fathers dead—the man many today want to revive, not Mark Twain. Mark made her laugh; Sam enraged her. No wonder she preserved the myth: She could live with her father, alive or dead, as long as he was "Twain the genius." She ignored obvious traits—such as telling people that he was "innately religious" and not "anti-God." She buried her own unseemly feelings for him not only to protect his legacy but also to seal away their estrangement. Since her will was nearly unbendable, we can’t change Clara’s cementing of her father’s persona. Accordingly, in preparing ourselves for Twain’s farewell performance, know that the old cuss won’t go down without a fight. Unlike Saddam Hussein, his colossus won’t fall with a pulley and a chain. (Oh, the name as trademark will survive, representing the duality of literary authorship much like Coke represents any soft drink—to the delight of Coca-Cola.)
We need not be alarmed, however. Once the new man replaces the old one—and once the bloodletting such a transmutation brings is stanched and the patient stabilizes—Samuel Clemens, built to last out of the contradictory elements in himself and in Clara’s wish to eliminate those contradictions, will live on, in even greater disturbance and glory. Perhaps there is a statue of limitations to literary self-invention. Clemens said as much when he underscored the importance of death to our character: "I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead. And not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest, so much earlier." Perhaps Twain has been dead long enough and time for Clemens to regain his honest self.