Mark Twain
Ken Burns Turns his Camera on America's Legendary Author

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"I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself." -- Mark Twain, 1907

Jan. 14, 2002 -- Mark Twain, Ken Burns' latest look at American history, is actually two stories in one, the documentary filmmaker says.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, 1907. Photo courtesy The Mark Twain House, Hartford, Conn.

In an interview with Morning Edition host Bob Edwards to discuss the four-hour film which airs on PBS Monday and Tuesday, Burns calls the result "a dual biography" divided between Samuel Clemens, the author's birth name, and Mark Twain, the name he wrote by.

"Sam Clemens had, at least on the surface of things, an idyllic childhood in Hannibal, Mo., populated with characters that would later populate the novels and the stories of Mark Twain," Burns says.

"And I think coming out of Hannibal are two distinct story lines. One is the Tom Sawyer hymn to childhood with boys in straw hats and bare feet swimming in the river and overseeing their own funeral and getting their neighbors to paint their fences.

"And then there is the darker one, in which Hannibal was also a place of great danger, not just drowning in the river but thugs on the river and the kind of fulcrum that Hannibal was between slavery and freedom, between East and West and North and South, and that's reflected in his great masterpiece Huck Finn."

Burns -- who became a household name with his projects The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz -- says that Twain's experiences with newspapermen out West and as a riverboat pilot played major roles in the author's education as a writer. As commentator Hamlin Hill says in the film, "That was his Harvard and Yale."

Ken Burns with camera

Ken Burns' latest documentary focuses on Mark Twain.
Photo: Pam Baucom, courtesy Florentine Films

But the filmmaker adds: "I think the most important part of this education for him was that he was a keen observer of everything he saw. He was looking at all types of people, all characters, seeing through the veneer to the... human essence of not only what it meant to be an American but universal themes, which is why Twain's writing travels so well."

Twain is "still funny" today, Burns says, because "he understood that the source of laughter was not joy but sorrow." At the same time Twain was "the funniest man on earth," Sam Clemens had "more tragedy happen to him than any human being could possibly bear," Burns says.

"This is a man who lost two of his siblings to childhood diseases. He lost a father very, very early. He lost a brother in a horrendous riverboat accident... which he took responsibility for. He lost a beloved father-in-law, and then three of his four children and his soul mate, his beloved wife Livy, and went bankrupt, all in the course of a life in which at any given moment he was expected to be outrageously funny -- and was."

Other Resources

Mark Twain, America's best humorist

"Mark Twain, America's best humorist." Illustration: J. Keppler; Mayer, Merkel & Ottman, 1885, courtesy Library of Congress

Visit the PBS Web site about Ken Burns' film Mark Twain.

Visit the Library of Congress Web site to learn more about Twain and find links to online versions of some of his books.

video Watch the only known film footage of Twain at

Read a PBS Online NewsHour special report on Twain, including a look at a "mysterious manuscript" by the author.

Read quotes and newspaper articles by Twain.

Visit the Mark Twain House national historic landmark Web site.