Ken Burns' two-part documentary reminds us why Mark Twain is one of America's most important writers. 

Twain Explained

People have tried to say it better, more flowery — and some have succeeded. But nobody has ever said it more accurately than Ernest Hemingway did in 1935.

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Twain himself put his writing in what he thought was the proper perspective when he was about 50 years old, just a couple of years after "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was published: "My books are water, those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."

Twain's been dead since 1910 (he was born in 1835), but his reputation is palpably alive today. Some would say it's because he's so quotable. That may well be. A Google search of the Web turns up nearly a half-million sites related to Twain, all riddled with witticisms and epigrams. In addition to having written the American Homeric epic, he was renowned during his lifetime as a splendid lecturer. He was a media pundit before TV debased the species. He pioneered print bites.

He could be witty in his observations of the human condition: "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man." And he could be arch: "She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person who keeps a parrot."

The toast of his age, Twain grew fabulously wealthy, but his moral compass was calibrated on the Mississippi — on riverboats (he earned his pilot's certificate in 1859). "Always do right - this will gratify some and astonish the rest," Twain said in 1901, and Harry Truman had the quotation hanging on the wall behind his desk in the White House 50 years later. Twain was not a softie. In 1907, he said, "Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles."

Twain spoke with the sensibility of the South, as defined by Reconstruction, but he considered blind racial prejudice to be vile. He was at times practical: "Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it." At times he was brittle: "A crime persevered in a thousand centuries ceases to be a crime, and becomes a virtue. This is the law of custom, and custom supercedes all other forms of law." But his humor was never far from the surface: "In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it."

Twain had fun with words for a lifetime: "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him until he merges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth," he said in 1889. And in 1884 he observed, "If man could be crossed with a cat, it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat."

There's a lot more to be learned about Twain. Ken Burns' two-part, four-hour PBS documentary is an excellent way to start. (Another reading of "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" would round out a quick education.) Twain's work remains, as Hemingway noted, seminal in American literature. Burns' well-made documentary, with its 600 still photos and interviews with William Styron, Arthur Miller, Hal Holbrook and others, explains why, deftly and with charm.

Airs Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. on PBS-TV.

You can find the complete text of "Huckleberry Finn" and other Twain works online at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/twain/huckfinn.html


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