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A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

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Sam Clemens AKA Mark Twain

By Meaghan Szilagyi

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Who was Mark Twain? A novelist? A newspaper reporter? A famous author? A popular speaker?

Mark Twain was a “persona” in the eyes of Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum. He was a mask that was worn by a man named Samuel Clemens.

Samuel Clemens was a real person: family man, father, son, husband.

Philippon said that Clemens’ daughters disliked Mark Twain. The world saw their father as the humorist he presented himself to be, when he was really so much more than that. He was caring and loving. Clemens would do anything for his family but when people saw Mark Twain, they didn’t see the family man he truly was.

Sam made mistakes. Any real person makes mistakes. A few times, before his years as a husband, Clemens spent a few nights in jail for disruptive behavior and disorderly conduct, according to a Ken Burns documentary about Twain.

Clemens grew up as a rowdy young fellow and had no trouble seeking out adventure. He had many memories of his childhood friends that he later used in his stories.

Samuel Clemens traveled the world during Mark Twain’s great lectures. Samuel Clemens fell in love with and married Olivia Langdon. And Samuel Clemens became the mastermind behind Mark Twain.

While leading a tour of the Mark Twain House, Grace Belanger, assistant manager of visitor services at the museum, said that when the Clemens’ had guests over, Mark Twain was present.

Samuel Clemens treated Mark Twain as his job, nothing more.

Mark Twain was a one-dimensional character. Sure, you could go to the theater and watch him in 3D but it wouldn’t really be him, would it?

Twain presented himself as a humorist – that much is clear.

Twain House publicist Steve Courtney even goes as far to call him a “stand-up comedian.” But was he anything more than that?

Could Samuel Clemens have had multiple personality disorder?

Philippon and Courtney think not. Since it was common for people to have pen names in the Gilded Age, they believe that Clemens was a person with a pen name and that’s it.

So who was Mark Twain, really?

Now that he is long gone, I guess we’ll never know the real story. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Mystery adds intrigue and who was Mark Twain, if not a man of mystery?

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Burns Documentary Fails To Capture Twain’s Zestful Life

By Nick Sherman

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

There is quite a difference between a bit of deadpan humor and nearly four hours of monotony.

While director Ken Burns’s works are often described in reviews as “fascinating” and “vivid,” those critics are just not critical enough when it comes to Mark Twain: A Film Directed By Ken Burns.

Certainly a subject such as America’s greatest writer can capture the audience’s attention – but if this is the case, what was it that had half the audience asleep?

The problem certainly didn’t lie in the subject matter. There has perhaps never lived a more interesting individual than Mark Twain, and a biographical documentary on Twain should certainly interest the young journalists who made up the audience.

But the execution of the video left much to be desired. Be it the repetitive musical score, the emotionless voice of narration or the unappealing photography, the many insufficient elements of production offer a wide variety of choices to blame for the film’s failure.

I may be considered too harsh, but Twain himself, ever the cynic, may even have found enjoyment in pointing out the production’s flaws.

Mark Twain Didn’t Hold Back

 By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Of all writers in America’s brief history, none stand as tall as a literary giant as Samuel Clemens, who went by the moniker of Mark Twain.

Twain, the defining author of American literature, is probably also its most prolific.

The depiction in the documentary Mark Twain: a film directed by Ken Burns, is true to what I’d heard. The level of detail to which the featurette descends makes him a bit of an inspiration.

I see in Twain the one trait all successful writers must have, an almost instinctual one. It is the characteristic of keeping it raw.

When writing a work of either fiction or nonfiction, nothing must be held back.

It is necessary that it be dark, scathing, caustic; it has to be something old done from a different perspective, or something new entirely. It mustn’t conform, and preferably should make those who are rigid and conservative loathe it, or something close.

Just far enough outside the box that someone reads it, but not too far that it doesn’t sell.

If a devout Catholic,  or an otherwise religious person, can read it and not be offended, then it’s a bit weak.

If you’re reporting a story that the government doesn’t want in the public eye, and then balk due to controversy, then you’re either a sheep, or in their employ.

If your parents can read it and wholeheartedly agree with it, then you’ve lost the spark.

Maybe the reason I believe these things to be true can be attributed to my youth, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

And I’ve a feeling that Twain would agree.

Twain’s Hypocrisies, Failures Show Author’s Humanity

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

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.

Film Reveals Twain’s Tragedies

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

The works of Mark Twain, especially Huckleberry Finn, have intrigued and impressed me throughout my education.

So I was surprised tMark Twain documentary logoo find in Ken Burns’ documentary Mark Twain that the life of this American literary and comedic giant was marred by such tragedy.

How could this man approach writing and society with such a wicked and irrepressible sense of humor after bankruptcy and the loss of a younger brother, two children, and eventually his wife?

How could he have remained such a source of entertainment and joy for family and friends and for the nation when his personal and business affairs were a shambles?

How could he have continued serving in this fashion while holding himself fully responsible for the horrors befalling him, his family, and his country?

His experiences seemed to have given him an incredibly tough skin. Twain’s idiosyncratic writing style has always struck me, but after watching the documentary, I am even more deeply moved by the extent of his personal resilience and determination.

I can just about verify that I would hardly be motivated to continue forward if I were in such a position as he found himself in his middle age.

The idea that one can extract a sense of humor, not from an optimistic outlook on the human experience, but from an understanding that people need cheer in an otherwise rather cheerless world, moves me as a writer and as a human being, particularly because I am conscious of my own daily quest for happiness.

Reflecting on what I have seen, I can claim neither happiness nor unhappiness to have been Samuel Clemens’s lot. But when Samuel Clemens grew cold and lost hope, his ability to withstand the winter by seeking solace in the eternal summer of Mark Twain – a personality which he regarded as his job – fills me with perhaps more awe than the ability of his writing to withstand the test of time.

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