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Mistakes and Misrepresentations in
Ken Burns' film MARK TWAIN
PBS Broadcast - January 14 and 15, 2002

The following is a list of mistakes and misrepresentations in the documentary MARK TWAIN by Ken Burns. In many cases, accuracy has been sacrificed to artistic license. Other errors were made at a point in the production when corrections were impossible to make.

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  1. The quote, "I am not an American. I am the American." is not something Twain wrote about himself.
    In an interview with Jim Zwick, co-producer Dayton Duncan revealed the quote had been obtained from Shelley Fisher Fishkin's book Lighting Out for the Territory (1996). Backtracking the error was akin to watching a row of dominos fall. Fishkin obtained the quote from Louis J. Budd who used the quote in an essay titled "Mark Twain as an American Icon," which appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain (1995). Budd referenced John Lauber who first published it in The Inventions of Mark Twain (1990) quoting from an unpublished notebook located in the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California in Berkeley. Without properly citing it or obtaining permission to quote previously unpublished material, Lauber used the quote as something Clemens had written about himself. In a November 2001 interview with newspaper reporter Ron Brown of the Quincy Herald-Whig, Professor Budd--after examining photocopies of the actual notebook pages--acknowledged the error.

    The notebook containing the quote in question is one that Clemens kept while he was living and traveling in Europe in the summer of 1897. Throughout the notebook, there are several descriptions of incidents and scraps of dialogue attributed to Frank Fuller immediately preceding the "I am the American" quote.

  2. The documentary perpetuates the notion that Halley's comet "blazed in the sky" at Clemens's birth and again at his death.
    Halley's comet was not visible in the sky either in late November 1835 at the time of Clemens' birth nor in mid April 1910 when Clemens died. Read Louis J. Budd's essay "Overbooking Halley's Comet."

  3. A photo of a person on a front porch of Clemens's birthplace in Florida, Missouri is implied to be that of Clemens's father -- John Marshall Clemens.
    There are no known photos of John Marshall Clemens.

  4. Narration about the death of John Marshall Clemens is accompanied by a photo of Clemens's boyhood home.
    John Marshall Clemens died upstairs in the Pilaster House which is down on the corner across Hill Street from the boyhood home.

  5. The film reports that Twain served as a Confederate soldier.
    For the full story about Twain's claims that he served in the Confederacy, see Terrell Dempsey's "Why Sam Clemens was never a Confederate… and a few other things you should know about Hannibal in 1860 and 1861."

  6. Photos of 1865 Richmond, VA are used when discussing 1850 St. Louis, MO.

  7. The steamboat Paul Jones (1855) is represented by photo of the little steamboat El Capitan (built 1903) forty-eight years out of date, from an early King Vidor talkie called Hallelujah! (1929).

  8. For the Clemens steamboat City of Memphis (1857) a photo of the sternwheel City of Memphis (1898) is used-- only forty-one years off base.

  9. The photo of Henry Clemens (shown during the narration of the Pennsylvania disaster) is one of him taken as an immature boy rather than the less beguiling portrait of him as the adolescent, a month shy of his twentieth birthday, at the time of his death from injuries sustained during the explosion of the steamboat

  10. Clemens runs up to Memphis aboard a photo of the J.M. White (1878) to see Henry after the Pennsylvania disaster (1858). Twenty years off base.

  11. For the sequence on the death of Henry Clemens in 1858, the picture is of an interior of a hospital in Virginia, in 1864. The photo of the hospital is from: William C. Davis [Editor] FIGHTING FOR TIME; VOLUME FOUR OF THE IMAGE OF WAR 1861-1865, New York Doubleday & Co. (1983). Page 211. It is identified as a group of Union soldiers wounded at Petersburg, in July, 1864.
    It was populated with wounded Union soldiers, not Henry Clemens.

  12. There are a number of other post-Civil War boat photos used in the river pilot sequence outnumbering the ones that are actually ante-bellum.

  13. The documentary persistently uses the word "riverboat."
    Clemens apparently never used this word in reference to what he always called "steamboats."

  14. The list of items on the stagecoach going to Nevada omits the most important item -- the Dictionary.

  15. A photo of actor John T. Raymond in his role of Col. Sellers is used for narration regarding the publication of ROUGHING IT.
    John T. Raymond's photo is from his role which was based on the book THE GILDED AGE. The narration implies he was Clemens's publisher.

  16. The segment on "A True Story" has the voice over narration for former slave Mary Ann Cord reading the name of the story's writer as "Mister Clemens." A few moments later, a page from the original ATLANTIC MONTHLY publication appears on the screen, with the name clearly readable as "Misto C-----." There is no explanation that Clemens may have been disguising his identity in the manuscript or why the narrator read it differently.

  17. In "A True Story" the narrator of the film says Clemens wrote down Mary Ann Cord's words, exactly as she spoke them.
    This is not true. Clemens made substantial changes in the original manuscript. See John Bird's discussion in a post to the Mark Twain Forum on January 24, 2002.

  18. Norman Rockwell's painting of Aunt Sally and the garter snake is used for the segment on THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER.
    Rockwell's picture of Aunt Sally and the garter snake was used in ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, not THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. Neither Aunt Sally nor snakes appear in TOM SAWYER.

  19. Narration for the "Old Voices" segment is tied to the writing of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER.
    The text is from a letter to Will Bowen written in1870--four years earlier than depicted.

  20. Hal Holbrook states that in 1882 Clemens went all the way up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, Minnesota and at the "tag end" of that trip doubled back to Hannibal for a return visit.
    Clemens visited Hannibal enroute to St. Paul. See his 1882 itinerary. Also see his comments on the river tour.

  21. Dick Gregory gives the impression that, in HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Clemens referred to the slave Jim as "Nigger Jim."
    Clemens did not use the word as a part of Jim's proper name. This misconception was popularized by Clemens's biographer Albert Bigelow Paine who routinely referred to Jim as "Nigger Jim."

  22. The narrator states that Clemens's publishing firm, after the success of General Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography in 1885, was "busily signing up" other celebrated figures to write their autobiographies including William Tecumsah Sherman.
    William T. Sherman's memoirs were first written in 1875 and published by D. Appleton & Co., New York. Clemens's publishing firm turned down a travel book submitted by Sherman. The firm did republish Sherman's autobiography in 1890.

  23. Two references are made to Clemens writing left-handed when his right hand got tired.
    The fact that Clemens could write with his left hand is "an exaggeration." Robert Pack Browning offered one explanation of how that misconception may have start in a post to the Mark Twain Forum on December 7, 1998.

  24. Cartoonist Chuck Jones says that Clemens described Wagner's music as being "better than it sounds."
    Clemens did say that but he was quoting another humorist named Bill Nye.

  25. On the soundtrack "The Sidewalks of New York" is played in a late 1860s-early 1870s reference.
    The song was originally written in the 1890's, and was used as a Presidential campaign theme in the 1920s.

  26. A photo of Clemens at Dollis Hill in 1900 is used for the narration of Susy's death.
    Susy had died four years earlier in 1896.

  27. A photo of Clemens in London in 1907 is used to discuss one of his homecomings to America.
    The particular homecoming to America was in 1900. The photo is of the wrong continent and the wrong year.

  28. A photo of Clemens lying in bed and giving an interview is used during the narration regarding giving interviews from his home in New York after his trip around the world and life abroad.
    The photo was from an interview in Vancouver in August 1895, prior to his trip around the world.

  29. Countless other photos were used out of context -- wrong place, wrong time for narrative to which they were tied.

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