Starring role
Mark Twain Project shared materials, expertise with filmmaker Ken Burns

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Robert Hirst

Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library, was an official adviser to Ken Burns’ documentary, “Mark Twain.”
Peg Skorpinski photo

31 January 2002 | The hallmark of a Ken Burns documentary is the painstaking research devoted to its subject, be it jazz, baseball or the Civil War.

So when Burns began work three years ago on a film biography of Mark Twain, he naturally turned to the Bancroft Library — home to the world’s largest collection of Twain letters, manuscripts, photos and books — for materials and expertise.

In the end, dozens of items from the Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project — such as the first letter that Samuel Clemens ever signed as “Mark Twain” — were used in the documentary and in the companion book. The documentary premiered earlier this month on PBS.

“The Mark Twain Project has been essential and incredibly helpful to us,” said Dayton Duncan, the film’s co-writer, during a campus visit last spring. “We couldn’t do the documentary without it.”

The filmmakers requested a long list of items, recalled Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project and one of 13 official advisers to the film. They had “done their homework,” he said. “They knew exactly what they wanted.”

It took several weeks for library staff to gather the materials from among millions of Twain-related items in the archive, he said, and four days for a camera crew to photograph the objects with care.

Over the next year, the Mark Twain Project continued to collaborate with the documentary team, which called frequently to request materials, check facts and hunt down the owners of historical materials. During these exchanges, Hirst and his colleagues, all intimately familiar with Twain’s life and work, offered many suggestions for the film.

When “Mark Twain” finally aired, most reviewers called it a success. Hirst gave it an ‘A.’

“There were a couple minor inaccuracies,” he said. “But telling Mark Twain’s story in this way, revealing what an extraordinary person he was, is much more important than a few glitches here and there…. This was a wonderful account of Mark Twain, as good as reading two well-written biographies of the man.”

Hirst was particularly impressed with the film’s treatment of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Twain’s classic novel about a white teenage misfit who floats on a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave.

The documentary, said Hirst, “was very effective in answering claims that Mark Twain was a racist.” Never before “had an American author considered using a black person as a main character in a story. Mark Twain was one of the most progressive men of his time.”

The collaboration was fruitful not only for the filmmakers, but for the perennially cash-strapped Mark Twain Project, as Burns agreed to pay for use of archive materials and to speak for free at a fundraising event; co-writer Duncan headlined another.

The infusion of funds will help support continuing efforts to make Mark Twain Project materials available online. It will also allow the Library to compete with other collectors and museums when Mark Twain items come up for auction — which happens with surprising frequency.

“We have texts of at least 11,000 letters written by Mark Twain and we estimate that he wrote more than 50,000 during his lifetime,” said Hirst. “A new letter is discovered virtually every week.”

Sometimes they appear in larger quantities.

Several years ago, Hirst recalled, a stamp collector offered the archive first crack at a bag of letters, bought at an auction, all bearing the return address “S.L. Clemens.”

“They were a hundred letters Mark Twain had written to his wife and children. We had to pass on them because of financial constraints,” said Hirst. The collection did eventually get photocopies. With more resources, Hirst said, “when prizes like these come on the market, we can scoop them up.”


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