What comes after baseball, the Civil War, and jazz? Mark Twain, of course.
Burns and Company are back with a four-hour PBS television series on America’s favorite riverboat captain and author. The companion volume, assuredly an attempt to cash in further on all that research, is nonetheless an enticing edition in its own right. It offers a sumptuous collection of photographs, reproductions of original documents, and illustrations that capture the rough-and-tumble of Twain’s life and career. Scholars in the audience might turn their noses up at the crisply informal bits of biography—some recreated so vividly that they seem ready for the stage—but even the most curmudgeonly will be enraptured by the scores of photos. General audiences will be beguiled by yet another heaping dose of Burns et al.’s sprawling yet intimate portraiture. The arc of Twain’s life is captured with sweeping flourishes of fact supplemented by intimate details of his home and family life. The letter he wrote to his children as Santa Claus, his grief over his son’s death from diphtheria, and his joy when the public library of Concord, Massachusetts, banned Huckleberry Finn illuminate the private life of 19th-century America’s most public figure. Twain’s trademark wanderlust kept the adventures coming during his life, and they make for fascinating reading today. Russell Banks, John Boyer, Jocelyn Chadwick, Hal Holbrook, and Ron Powers also contribute to the volume; the best of this bunch is Chadwick’s meditation on Twain’s use of the word “nigger” as she ponders the intersections of yesterday’s racial politics, their present-day afterlife, and the ways they affect Twain’s writing. Pick this cornucopia up for the pictures and you’ll probably end up reading the whole thing.
A coffee-table volume that someone might actually read—and enjoy. The wonders of Burns and Company never cease. (110 b&w and 40 color illustrations)