Our Hippest Literary Lion

I still remember the extraordinary rush of liberation I felt as a teenager after reading Mark Twain's terse "Notice" at the beginning of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn": "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Before this, I labored under the impression that a book, to be any good, had to cough up the secret of life, or something close. But here was an author telling me, or at least implying, that if a book delivers a good story, that ought to be enough. It took another 10 years before I began to suspect that maybe he was kidding about this, too.

It was inevitable that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, working his way through all things American from baseball to jazz, would sooner or later get to Twain. And anyone who's seen those earlier Burns films knows what to expect in "Mark Twain"--it airs on PBS Jan. 14 and 15 (check local listings): lots of still photographs (of the Mississippi River, Twain's house in Hartford, Conn., Twain himself, over and over--nobody ever liked having his picture made more than he did), lots of fiddles and pianos in the background while lots of smart talking heads deliver, collectively, a faceted and balanced portrait of the author. Knopf is publishing the spinoff coffee-table book, and a soundtrack CD is coming from Columbia. There's everything but an action figure.

It's all highly educational, but the most fun you'll have is watching Burns's witnesses struggle to define Twain--and falling short every time. It's not that authors like Russell Banks or Arthur Miller or scholars like Jocelyn Chadwick are ever less than knowledgeable or articulate. It's just that Twain himself was so protean, so contradictory, that anything you say about him is always only part of the truth. And way too much air time is wasted pondering the split personality of Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens, one an agnostic, almost anarchistic enemy of established everything, the other a bourgeois man who loved hobnobbing with the rich. Curiously, no one thinks to quote Twain's contemporary, Walt Whitman, the man who defined the shape of American poetry as Twain defined its prose: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself."

Watching Burns's film, I was struck by how many people Twain set straight. As Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." Hemingway was talking chiefly about language. Before Twain, no one had ever used vernacular American speech to create a work of art. He also taught us what is funny--and what stays funny. Most humor, whether written or spoken, has the shelf life of milk. Twain's contemporary humorists--Artemus Ward, Josh Billings--are just names in footnotes today. But Twain still makes us laugh. Those who rushed to say after September 11 that irony was dead clearly had forgotten his utterly American wit--dry, irreverent and, yes, ironic, and as timely today as it was a century ago. He may not have invented American humor, but he was the first to get it on paper. Every native comic genius since--from Will Rogers to Flannery O'Connor to Richard Pryor--stands in his debt. Twainian wit is and always has been our greatest defense shield.

Burns ably catalogs the many masks that Twain put on for his public: quipster, raconteur, feckless investor, inventor (he personally owned four patents). Sadly, the one mask that Burns never gets behind is the one Twain wore when he looked in the mirror: the writer's mask. Here was a man who literally wrote to live, all the time, mountains of prose. It was his one successful endeavor (an artist's work is always his best foot forward). Everything he thought or did came back to language, to words, playing with them, arranging them and rearranging them. It was how he made sense of what was, to him, an otherwise senseless universe. "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter," he once said. "It's the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."

The best thing about Burns's documentary is its timing. It appears precisely when we most need wisdom about who we are and what we stand for, and nobody gave us a better going over than Twain. Railing against imperialism, against racism, against conformity, he also celebrated the better angels of our nature: our orneriness, our independence, our "Huckness," if you will.

To get some inkling of his enormous breadth browse through the latest additions to the Twain shelf. Be sure to begin with Michael Patrick Hearn's invaluable "Annotated Huckleberry Finn" (Norton). If you thought you knew this novel inside out, Hearn will set you straight in a hurry. Also just out from Norton: the brief "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage," a previously unpublished novella whose chief virtue seems to be that it is previously unpublished. Twain wasn't perfect. In fact he was downright uneven--make that consistently uneven. Next month the Library of America publishes the sixth and final volume of its Twain collection, a grab-bag book that contains the late masterpiece "The Mysterious Stranger," a couple of lesser Tom Sawyer novels, "The Gilded Age" and "The American Claimant." This late novel is not forgotten for no reason, but its flaws are the flaws of a genius, starting with one of those hilarious author's notes with which he was forever punctuating his narratives, and which qualify him as the first postmodern novelist: "No weather will be found in this book... Weather is a literary specialty, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it. The present author can do only a few trifling ordinary kinds of weather."

For all his fulminating, Twain is the most companionable writer imaginable--a friendly voice in the darkness--pessimistic, yes, but always funny and often wise. Recently, back to back, I read "Tom Sawyer," the ultimate boy's idyll, and "Pudd'nhead Wilson," another Mississippi novel, but this one fueled purely by rage. It begins with the premise that a woman who is one sixteenth Negro is, in pre-Civil War America, considered a slave. OK, says Twain, let's take that as a given, and see what happens. The result, ultimately, is tragedy, but it is told in the form of a detective story involving twins switched at birth, a fingerprint expert and a murder case. The result reads like an episode of "Matlock" written by Jonathan Swift, and in it Twain somehow manages to be heartbreaking, entertaining and viciously funny all at once.

As I get older, and at 50 I am roughly the same age as Twain when he published "Huck," I agree more and more with my adolescent self (OK, OK, how ironic; so sue me). I think we should expect wisdom from writers. Art may stop short of Biblical revelation, but it ought to tell us more than we knew already. Twain's books do this. They clarify the world. In the Burns film, Russell Banks calls Twain "a wise guy who was wise." That's hard to top, unless you're Twain himself, who said, "I am not an American. I am the American. I am the human race compacted and crammed into a single suit of clothes, but quite able to represent all its massed moods and inspiration. I am only human, though I regret it." No one else should.