HD: Documentary credits Nevada as birthplace of humorist
Samuel Clemens was born in Hannibal, Mo., but Mark Twain was born in Nevada. Or so say the producers of the new two-part, four-hour documentary, “Mark Twain,” set to air on PBS stations Jan. 14-15.
Co-producers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan see Mark Twain as the first person to write true American literature, books that appealed to all people and not just an educated elite.
Twain was not afraid to tackle universal themes, and he was the first writer to write in the American vernacular, using words the common person could understand.
Twain was born in 1835 and came to Nevada in 1861. He had been a printer’s apprentice and done some writing, but he sharpened his humorous style while working as a $25-a-week reporter in Carson City and Virginia City.
“It’s in Nevada that he falls into the circle of a raucous group of reporters and cuts his teeth,” Duncan said. “Here’s this guy who went west in a stagecoach and came to the brand-new territory of Nevada. It’s in Nevada that he’s seeing the world far beyond where he grew up, and it’s in Nevada that he’s infected with the get-rich-quick fever that plays out for the rest of his life.”
In February 1863, Samuel Clemens signed a dispatch from Carson City to the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City with his pen name, Mark Twain.
Writer Ron Powers, who is a featured speaker in the film, says the phrase is full of subtle ambiguities. The words mean two fathoms, the point at which dangerous water becomes safe water — or the point at which safe water becomes dangerous water.
The segment on Twain’s two-year Nevada stay is named “Roughing It,” the title of the book Twain wrote describing his journey to Nevada and his adventures in the silver camps, San Francisco and Hawaii. Archival photos from the 1860s were obtained from the Nevada Historical Society for the Nevada portion of the film. Quotes from Twain’s books are used to tell his story.
Twain is best known as a humorist, but he offers more than just funny tales.
“He’s running on all cylinders,” said Burns. “He is able to give us a look into the American identity and creativity. He’s willing to tackle big problems like race. He’s funny, and people can take his ideas because it’s given with a dose of sugar. He’s universal, and the truths he tells are universal.”
Burns said “Huckleberry Finn,” Twain’s masterpiece, is the first novel to put a human face on an African American and make that person a central character. Because Twain comes from the pre-Civil War south, he can understand slavery from the inside.
“It changes the American view of race,” Burns said.
Tragic events in Twain’s life cast a shadow over the story. He loses thousands of dollars in get-rich-quick schemes and must tour the world, giving lectures to support his family. His two daughters die, his son dies, and his wife dies. The film looks at two men: The humorist Mark Twain and the tragic Samuel Clemens, who believes that he is to blame for the deaths of his loved ones.
“Mark Twain” is presented in what has become a well-known Burns style through the use of archival images, words from the author and his contemporaries and interviews with modern-day scholars and historians. In addition, the film features Hal Holbrook, who has presented his “Mark Twain Tonight” series at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City and other Nevada cities as well as on television for the past 40 years.
The General Motors-sponsored documentary joins others in Burns’ series on exceptional Americans, among them Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and Susan B. Anthony. Burns and Duncan are also known for their award-winning films “Civil War,” “Baseball” and the 2001 PBS hit, “Jazz.”
Editor’s note: Joyce Hollister is associate editor for Nevada Magazine.
QUOTES FROM MARK TWAIN INCLUDED IN THE DOCUMENTARY:
“It’s not that the world is filled with fools, it’s just that lightning isn’t distributed right.” Ken Burns’ favorite Twain quote
“I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling very well myself.”
“I never tried to cultivate the cultivated masses. I always went for bigger game — the masses.”
“My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everybody drinks water.”
“I am silent on the subject (the afterlife) because of necessity. I have friends in both places.”
“I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.”
“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”