When the great steamboats traveled the Mississippi River in the 19th century, it was customary to measure the water's depth with a rope marked with knots a particularly important chore in a river such as the Mississippi, with its many curves, currents, and shallows. The minimum safe depth for a steamer normally was 12 feet, also known as two fathoms or the simple boatman's cry "mark twain!" Steamboat travel passed away not long after the Civil War, but it is this nautical term that stands as its most prominent historical remnant, as the pseudonym Mark Twain was adopted by one of America's most important writers perhaps the most important. And yet the name Mark Twain can be a bit puzzling. The author originally claimed he adopted the moniker because it was being used by another writer (one of Twain's many tall tales, it turns out), and its meaning for steamboats is relative: a measurement of safe passage, but simultaneously a warning call when the waters could become dangerous. Twain's intent may remain vague, but his own life often hung in the balance, as it were between North and South, wealth and poverty, success and failure, happiness and grief. Ken Burns' documentary Mark Twain concerns the life and work of this monumental American, whom the writer William Dean Howells once described as "the Lincoln of our literature." Born Samuel Clemens in Missouri, the young man grew up in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, where he spent his boyhood listening to stories from his mother and getting into mischief with friends (Twain's characters Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn were based on real-life childhood pals). A natural writer, Clemens apprenticed for newspapers and printing shops as a young man, but his attraction to the great riverboats that plied the Mississippi led him to work on one of the vessels, and eventually become a riverboat pilot himself. With a handsome salary and hundreds of miles of river to navigate, Clemens may never have left the Mississippi, had the Civil War not stopped all river traffic in 1861. Journeying west rather than fight in the war, Clemens became a newspaper reporter in Virginia City, Nev., and then San Francisco (where he first adopted the name "Mark Twain"). His early short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" earned him national attention, and subsequent works in addition to his popular lecture tours made him a celebrity. By 1885 Clemens had written Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, and settled in a vast house in Hartford, Conn., with his wife Olivia and three daughters. But literary success and international adulation could not prevent bad fortune from striking the household, and over the course of several years Clemens struggled with financial problems and familial tragedies.
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"I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me, you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man." Mark Twain made these remarks in a famous 1881 speech, and as usual he sums up his transition from Southerner to Yankee with tongue firmly in cheek. But several contradictions in Twain's life have caused many scholars to regard him as two men, and it's not unusual to hear academics refer to "Sam Clemens" in certain regards and "Mark Twain" in others in a sense, Twain was the successful, celebrated facade of a more conventional man. Writing and lecturing made Mark Twain famous, but he did not always enjoy them, and Sam Clemens held entrepreneurship and technology in much higher regard so much so that he once claimed he would stop writing and make his living as a businessman (a decision that almost caused his financial ruin). Twain will always be associated with the little river town of Hannibal, but in fact Sam Clemens was much more enamored of prosperous Hartford, where he and wife Olivia raised their children. Twain's greatest acclaim often came from his lecture tours; Clemens usually hated to travel, or be separated from his family and his spacious home. But despite these inconsistencies, Sam Clemens/Mark Twain is virtually responsible for the birth of American literature, refusing to emulate English novelists (as Hawthorne and Cooper did) and capturing the idiomatic nature of American speech in his writing. It's hard to read a Faulkner novel without recognizing Twain's gift for dialects. It's stunning to think that Huckleberry Finn, with its story about a white boy and a runaway slave, is still relevant to America today.
As with his previous documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz, and Thomas Jefferson, Ken Burns' Mark Twain addresses his topic as a fundamental part of the American tapestry the Warner/PBS DVD presents the 220-minute film in two parts with a crisp 1.33:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The feature itself is enough to warrant owning the DVD, but supplements are generous, including the 20-min. documentary "The Making of Mark Twain" with comments from Burns and co-writer/producer Dayton Duncan; an interview feature with Burns (10 min.); additional Twain quotes and photographs; the PBS behind-the-scenes short "Ken Burns: Making History" (7 min.); and interview outtakes from the film. DVD-18. Keep-case.