How I learned to stop worrying and appreciate Mark Twain.


The only piece by Mark Twain that I can recall reading after completing high school graduation requirements is “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” evidently the last story published by Twain during his life (in 1909).

Just as far as your eye could reach, there was swarms of clerks, running and bustling around, tricking out thousands of Yanks and Mexicans and English and Arabs, and all sorts of people in their new outfits; and when they gave me my kit and I put on my halo and took a look in the glass, I could have jumped over a house for joy, I was so happy. “Now this is something like!” says I. “Now,” says I, “I’m all right—show me a cloud.”

The late Bob Youngblood may or may not have had an acerbic comment to make about this revelation, but I’ll press on and further confide that my attitude toward Twain has tended to align with Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.”

“It smells terrible in here.’

Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.”

Likewise, until two weeks ago I hadn’t viewed Ken Burns’ documentary film about the life and work of Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens; having done so, I found myself deeply and surprisingly moved.

Samuel Clemens was a country boy who yearned to be a city slicker, and largely succeeded in becoming one, but couldn’t completely evade his origins.

It’s an apt metaphor for America, and maybe even me.

Clemens created a fictional mirror image of himself called Mark Twain, a name borrowed from steamboat jargon for a navigable depth of the river. Predictably, the man and his role eventually merged and became inseparable. We see it all the time now in this hyperbolic media age, but Clemens knew all along.

The creative process is endlessly fascinating, whether pertaining to a writer like Clemens or Burns as a filmmaker. Both display immediately recognizable stylistic templates, and both have been known to bend the truth a bit in pursuit of art. My guess is that Burns would be troubled by articles like this one, but Mark Twain the master storyteller far less so.

Mistakes and Misrepresentations in Ken Burns’ film MARK TWAIN

PBS Broadcast – January 14 and 15, 2002

The following is a list of mistakes and misrepresentations in the documentary MARK TWAIN by Ken Burns. In many cases, accuracy has been sacrificed to artistic license. Other errors were made at a point in the production when corrections were impossible to make.