Burns' biography of Twain follows a trio of documentaries -- covering the Civil War, baseball and jazz -- on what he considers critical pieces of the American experience. The previous epic works are intrinsically longer and more complex (these series ran in the 15-18 hour range; Mark Twain is four hours), but Burns believes Twain is just as relevant to the formation of present-day America.
"In a sense I've made the same film over and over again," Burns said in a recent lecture. "In all of them I've asked, 'Who are we as Americans?'" Burns added that he felt especially compelled to document Twain because Twain's reputation as a writer and philosopher has historically been limited in scope because he used humor to punctuate his work.
Crucial to Burns' portrait of Clemens is New Orleans. It was here that Clemens was first published, took the name Mark Twain -- and, as a fate of time and place, set into motion a chain of events that would drastically alter his life's course.
Clemens' arrival in New Orleans came from his childhood dream of becoming a steamboat captain. "When I was a boy," Clemens wrote in Atlantic Monthly, "there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman." In 1857, at the age of 21, he became a "cub" for famed river pilot Horace Bixby, spending the next two years mastering the navigation between St. Louis and New Orleans. Clemens eventually earned a pilot's license, bringing, as Burns writes in the series' companion book Mark Twain, "a big salary, fine cigars, and kid gloves."
With his new disposable income, Twain began to drink in a town he described in Life on the Mississippi (his autobiographical account of his years as a riverboat pilot) as having "plenty of drinking, carousing, fisticuffing." He harbored affinity for the absinthe served in a saloon at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets. Mardi Gras also captivated an impressionable Clemens, who in March 1859 wrote his sister Pamela A. Moffett that "I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans."
It is at this time that Clemens began to write for publication. His first newspaper article, published in the New Orleans True Delta, satirized the pilot/writer Captain Sellers, who was then writing river reports for the New Orleans Picayune under the name Mark Twain -- a term meaning two fathoms, a safe depth for a riverboat. Clemens took Sellers' pen name as a joke, and later wrote of his debut: "There was no malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. I did not know then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in print."
The Civil War abruptly ended Clemens' time here. "I was in New Orleans when Louisiana went out of the Union, January 26, 1861, and I started north the next day," he wrote in Life on the Mississippi. He was aboard one of the last boats to make the journey from New Orleans to St. Louis. When a shell fired from a Union outpost in Missouri crashed into the pilothouse, Clemens realized the war made commercial traffic impossible. He was torn over which side to join in the conflict, with his mentor Bixby and older brother Orion joining the North. He eventually went with his boyhood friends for the Confederacy, but he did not last long as a soldier. "I resigned after two weeks, explaining that I suffered from fatigue through persistent retreating," he wrote. Or, as he also put it, he "skedaddled."
Orion, an ardent abolitionist and Lincoln supporter, received an appointment to be secretary of the new Territory of Nevada, and Clemens begged to go along. Orion agreed, and took his 25-year-old brother to Nevada, where Clemens set upon a path that would alter American literature, first working as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. He reveled in the unorthodox journalism style of the West, where he found his voice, and ultimately his calling, penning humorous hoaxes mixed in with news. From here, Burns says, the starry-eyed boy who came to New Orleans to pilot riverboats began "a lifelong success for the performer known as Mark Twain."