As a non-(modern)liberal, and someone who regularly rails against PBS and NPR (and still thinks that they should receive not a dime of taxpayers’ money), I have a guilty confession to make.
I like Ken Burns documentaries. Parts of “The Civil War” brought tears to my eyes.
Tonight I watched the first part of his two-part series on Mark Twain.
This is not a subject with which I’m unfamiliar–as a high-school and college student, I read every word of Clemens that I could lay my hands on, including several biographies and critiques, both by his colleagues, such as Howells, and contemporary. One winter afternoon, after class, I went up to the fifth floor of the graduate library in Ann Arbor, and dug out of the stacks an unpublished (and uncheckoutable) copy of the forbidden “1601.” I started to read it there, and before I got through the first several lines, realized that I would have to spend the geld to make a copy so that I could take it back home, because I would have otherwise disturbed the other, more serious students with my uncontrollable, lachrymose laughter. (Now of course, one need not dig through musty stacks of university libraries–it can be found at web sites like this.)
But I also realized that he was not just a humorist–he was a great (in the most profound sense of that overused word) writer. I realized this not in reading his greatest work, “Huckleberry Finn,” but in a more obscure passage, in “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.” And I can’t even say quite why the passage moved me, though I think that it encapsulates many of the themes of both the everyman and unhereditary nobility that made him such a universal spokesman for the American ideal. I can only offer it here, and see if it has a similar effect on others. It is from a part of the book where the Yankee is traveling with King Arthur, and they are both incognito. They have come upon a hut infected with smallpox, and despite the Yankee’s warnings, the king enters the hut to try to help his subjects.
There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was. It was the king descending. I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other. He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth-of-gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition–I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.
As I watched the program, I gained some new insights into the author and the man.
He was wholly representative of the America in which he grew up. There may have been places as good as the 1840s river town of Hannibal, Missouri to serve as a childhood home of an iconic American writer, but there were certainly none better. He matured as the country did. He was born in its adolescence, and he lost his innocence as it did, in the hellish cauldron of the war that resolved our original sin, though he spent it in the new frontier out west, avoiding the fighting itself. He lent a voice to the young nation, and with “Innocents Abroad,” almost singlehandedly transformed it from an uncertain, self-conscious adulator of old-world culture, to a brash and self-confident skeptic of the ancient verities, proud of its own virtues and ready to lead the world. He truly was the first American writer, who unlike Hawthorne or Poe or Melville, had no pretensions or desires to imitate the stale Europeans. With Huck Finn, he both invented modern American literature and provided the first real black character, while setting out, (both figuratively and literally) in black and white, the moral choices that would have to be made by our nation over the next century, even as the war over slavery remained fresh in peoples’ minds.
He represented the America of the nineteenth century–a mythical boy playing in bluffs and caves, on idyllic islands in a mighty river that both defined and divided the nation; a riverboat captain; a gold miner; an entrepreneur; a lecturer. He worked with deck hands and supped with kings.
The documentary focuses on the tragedies of his life, which were many, but that is also part of the character of our young nation. Few children today are familiar with death, which is why we have to bring in “grief counselors” at school shootings, or when, due to the wonder of television, they see Space Shuttles blow up, or skyscrapers fall down. But in Mark Twain’s day, and even in the day of many of our parents or grandparents, depending on our age, it was not unusual to attend the funerals of many childhood friends–death was a fundamental and inescapable part of life.
But he was a man for the ages. One has a sense that if he were somehow plopped down in the year 2002, he would take no longer than an hour or so to quickly become acclimated–get a car, a cell phone, a computer, get himself booked on Larry King, set up a web site, and tear into the politicians, preachers and plutocrats with the same zeal as he did a century ago. And he would retain fully the power to make us laugh. And cry.
If you didn’t see it tonight, watch the second half tomorrow, even though it’s on PBS.
[Update at 11:48 PM]
De gustibus non disputandum.
Ken Layne just did his own review, and he hated it. Actually, “he hated it” is an extreme understatement. But he also seems to hate Ken Burns in general, particularly for “Jazz,” which I didn’t see.
So, we report, you decide…