By Molly Miller
Mark Twain Studios
I have a strong appreciation for people who fail often before becoming successful. This appreciation stems from not only an admiration of the ability of individuals to pull themselves back up after getting knocked down, but also from a desire to know that even if I fail, I am not necessarily a failure.
I don’t consider Samuel Clemens to be a failure, and I have a feeling that most other people don’t as well, so in the Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain, it was very refreshing to see him fail and constantly try new things before becoming an established author and personality.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder what Clemens would have been like had he been born a girl. There’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a newspaper reporter, miner, or steamboat captain, but he would have also probably had fewer opportunities to try and fail.
The crass wit which made him famous would have never been accepted by society.
Nonetheless, I allowed myself to be inspired by his story. Clemens’ personal path allowed him to become personally acquainted with all types of human nature, and he turned the characters he met in his travels into characters in books.
I appreciate that Clemens was aware of the hypocrisy that came with maintaining two identities, although I don’t condone the hypocrisy itself.
He wanted to be rustic and take down the mighty, yet he also wanted to be the mighty; he criticized those who were obsessed with material goods and get-rich-quick schemes, and yet he spent $30,000 a year on his home while the average American brought home $500 in a yearly salary.
There is no doubt that Clemens was imperfect, but the fact that he seemed well-aware of his imperfections and dealt with a great deal of self-loathing makes him seem much more human.
Before watching the documentary, I never knew how much he hated giving comedic lectures. I never knew that he sat alone in the dark for hours before going on stage to perform, or that he tried to kill himself. These flaws make him all the more interesting and relatable as a personality, and I feel that his self-awareness opens him up to more sympathy from others.
Clemens was obviously well aware of racial divides by the time he became an established writer, and has been celebrated for his frank expositions of slavery and poor interracial relations. However, it seems bizarre that the man who would write so openly about race, as well as the diversity of life and human experiences in America, would call himself “The American.”
I understand that he represented a variety of human experiences within his own set of alter-egos, but at the same time, he can’t claim that he knows what it means to be a poor black woman, or a Native American, or a European immigrant, so it seems overly rash and uncharacteristic for him to claim there is one American.
With that said, the documentary gave me a stronger appreciation and awareness of the importance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I read the book in ninth grade English class, I wrote a research paper on censorship, and I loved it. But I didn’t realize how revolutionary the representations of racial relations in the novel were.
It’s been a while since I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but I think the existence of “Huck Finn” makes “Tom Sawyer” so frustrating.
“Huck Finn” might be to “Tom Sawyer” what the crash was to the roaring ‘20s. It was the “bye, bye” to the American pie.
It kicks ignorant innocence in the face, and I love that. It’s strange to think that the man who wrote “Huck Finn” also wrote “Tom Sawyer” with wavering intentions of writing a sequel. Without “Huck Finn,” Mark Twain might be seen nowadays as a liar, or as a “whitewasher,” if you will, of southern history.
Typically, I loathe being instructed by “literary experts” with regards to how I should feel about novels which I am perfectly capable of reading myself, but I have a much greater respect for the approach Twain took to writing “Huck Finn,” as well as for the voices he gave his characters, after I watched the documentary.
While the documentary may have been long, and some of the literary experts interviewed liked the sound of their own voices a bit too much, it was definitely worthwhile for the nuggets of enlightenment they provided.