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Ken Burns' documentary takes traditional path of considering Mark Twain as two personalties

Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Considering Samuel Clemens as two people -- himself and Mark Twain -- is a tried-and-true way of explaining the man and the author.

It's the successful approach biographer Justin Kaplan took in his 1966 "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain," which perhaps has set the standard for discussing the writer's life and work ever since.

And tried-and-true is the Ken Burns' approach to his video histories of America. Backing the skillful visual production are conventional commentaries, the middle-of-the-road take on America's past, whether it's Bobby Thomson's home run or Benny Goodman's boyhood.

Now, Twain gets the Burns' treatment, complete with the split-personality view. It's four hours of sepia-tones and talking heads spread over two days beginning tomorrow.

The first installment, which takes Twain from birth to 50, is a fully realized and often moving portrait of his formative years.

The second part, although covering half as much time (Twain died at 75), struggles and strains to deal with the dark years of desperation, hopelessness and death.

It's far harder to deal with unpleasantness and despair, it seems, and they don't play well with banjo music.

As Sam Clemens, our subject was a greedy, foolish businessman who squandered his hard-earned success by living like the ostentatious millionaires he parodied in "The Gilded Age."

One year, his household expenses were $30,000.

He needed seven servants to maintain his mansion in Hartford, Conn., with its third-story billiard room. Burns presents us with many loving shots of the house on Farmington Avenue, perhaps more than we need, until we learn that the Connecticut Office of Tourism helped to finance the show.

As Mark Twain, the Mississippi River rogue, he felt free to challenge the country's values on behavior, religion and, most critically, race. A massive dose of Twainian humor helped to get that message down, and even today few writers are as cleverly funny as Twain.

This persona, clearly more appealing than the Clemens one, dominates Part I, which ends with a fine history of the writing of "Huckleberry Finn" and its impact on American literature.

Novelist Russell Banks, who wrote a monumental fictionalized biography of John Brown, "Cloud Splitter," provides incisive and telling commentary, both on the social and literary importance of the novel, which, of course, was not as big a seller as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Important comments also come from an unlikely corner -- playwright Arthur Miller, who brings trenchant insight on the role of the artist in America's commercial culture.

Part I is also heavy on beautiful Mississippi River views, with steamboats chugging along, and period photos of San Francisco and New York, where Twain spent his formative years.

Another Burns trademark -- American folk music -- is heard constantly throughout, from such hymns as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to Scott Joplin rags. Of course, there's the companion CD -- all 29 tracks -- available from Columbia/Legacy.

Life after 50 was not kind to either Clemens or Twain. Bankruptcy forced both of them to take their act on the road in 1891 for an international lecture tour. Joined by his wife and daughters, Clemens counted his pennies in hotel rooms while Twain amused thousands in opera houses from India to England.

The writing continued, but without the big successes of his youth, although Twain did produce another telling novel of race, "Pudd'nhead Wilson," which proved as serious as "Huckleberry Finn" but more complex.

The deaths of his youngest daughter, Suzy, and his devoted wife, Olivia, drew the writer home in 1900 and also plunged him into an atheistic despair. His mood produced his darkest book ever, "The Mysterious Stranger," while sharpening his attack on American society and politics.

Twain criticized President Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policies as imperialist, and the Burns program claims that Roosevelt spurned Twain at a Yale University ceremony. Yet, Roosevelt's biographer, Edmund Wilson, writing in "Theodore Rex," said Roosevelt, rather than ignoring the writer, consulted Twain on his treatment of Booker T. Washington at the same ceremony.

How ever that day at Yale played out is perhaps not that important in the overall importance of Twain in American history, but it raises the question of ambiguity in biography.

Ambiguity is not something Burns and his collaborators Geoffrey Ward and Dayton Duncan like to deal with. Twain's later years are rife with it. He proved to be a far more complex fellow than four-hour documentaries can handle.

"Mark Twain" is a pleasant and almost painless way to introduce beginners to this American original, but it must not be accepted as the last word.

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