Skip to main content

Mark Twain Review

TV critic David Bianculli reviews Mark Twain the new two-part documentary series by Ken Burns which airs on PBS tonight and tomorrow night.

05:27

Other segments from the episode on January 14, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 2002: Interview with Neil Baldwin; Review of Ken Burns' documentary, "Mark Twain."

Transcript

DATE January 14, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Writer Neil Baldwin discusses his new book, "Henry
Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When a person preaches extreme anti-Semitism and sees Jews as the center of an
international financial conspiracy, you might presume this person is
uneducated, unsophisticated and easily duped. So how do you explain Henry
Ford, one of America's greatest industrialists? While he was building the
Ford Motor Company, and putting America on the road with his Model T, he was
also publishing excerpts of the anti-Semitic book the "Protocols of the
Learned Elders of Zion." In fact, Hitler became one of Ford's admirers.

My guest Neil Baldwin is the author of the new book "Henry Ford and the Jews:
The Mass Production Of Hate." Baldwin is the author of earlier biographies of
Thomas Alva Edison and William Carlos Williams. He's also executive director
of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards.

Let's start with the most anti-Semitic things that Ford was responsible for.
In 1918, he bought The Dearborn Independent, which was a small paper, that he
turned into a vehicle for anti-Semitism. What did he do with the paper?

Mr. NEIL BALDWIN (Author, "Henry Ford and the Jews"): The Dearborn
Independent was a tiny little country newspaper in Dearbornville, Michigan,
and Henry Ford decided that he needed a platform for his views. And he hired
very, very top editorial talent from The Detroit News to help edit and run the
newspaper, and began to publish a weekly paper. The first six months of
Dearborn Independent were very lively, it was kind of like an all-purpose
feature-oriented publication. There were articles about women's issues and
there was poetry in the newspaper. There was articles from overseas, photo
spreads, all kinds of interesting things. But starting about six months into
the newspaper, the tenor changed, and Ford began to use it as a platform for
his anti-Semitic views. And he published, over the next two years, 1920
through 1922, he published an article every single week vilifying the Jewish
people in one way or another, so he proceeded to transform the newspaper from
an all-around weekly newssheet into an anti-Semitic screed.

GROSS: In 1920, he started publishing a series, in The Dearborn Independent,
called "The International Jew: The World's Problem." This ran for 91 weeks,
this series. What kind of information did he print in this series?

Mr. BALDWIN: What happened was he had a lieutenant who was the general
manager of the Independent whose name was E.G. Liebold, who was of
Prussian-German descent. And Mr. Liebold was a self-styled scholar of
anti-Semitism, and he began to assemble a complete library of anti-Jewish
literature going back to the 17th century. And Ford gave him a budget,
actually, to acquire these works. And at some point in the early 1920 Liebold
met a Russian emigre named Boris Brasol, who was an anti-Czarist, who had come
to this country to spread the word of anti-Bolshevism and Brasol had a
transcript of the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," which is probably
the single most harmful anti-Jewish tract ever created.

It was a forgery that had roots in turn-of-the-century Russia around the time
of the first Zionist congress, actually. And it was purportedly--the
"Protocols" is another word for minutes. It was purportedly the minutes of a
worldwide gathering of the high rabbis gathering outside Prague, at the
cemetery of Prague, to discuss their plan for world domination. And Brasol
was able to get a copy of this into the hands of Liebold. And this tract was
serialized in The Dearborn Independent, kind of like each article that
attacked the different aspects of the Jewish problem or the Jewish question
had an epigraph from the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" kind of before the
lead paragraph to set the tone for whatever criticism of the Jews was being
put forth.

GROSS: What were some of the main points that the "Protocols" made about the
Jews?

Mr. BALDWIN: Ford personally resonated so well with "The Protocols of the
Elders of Zion" because the main, kind of informing, theme of the "Protocols"
was world domination through financial means. The major theme of the
protocols is we, being the Jewish people, the Jewish race, as it was called at
that time, are going to infiltrate the banks and we are going to become the
wire-pullers of the world economy. We are going to become the government
behind the government. The way that we are going to subvert the world
rulership is through the economic system. And Ford accepted this
wholeheartedly, because he was so inherently defensive, anyway, about the
Eastern banking establishment and about Wall Street and about the
international bankers, the Rothschilds and the--you know, he had all these
generic terms for the--he even thought of J.P. Morgan as part of that group.
And he felt very, very threatened by the banking system.

This came to a head, actually, very early on. I've been able to pinpoint
1907, 1908 when Paul Rohrberg, who was a very prominent German Jewish banker,
came to this country--immigrated to this country, and he published an essay in
The New York Times in November of 1907 in which he advocated a central banking
system for America, which was actually the prototype for what became the
Federal Reserve system. And he was basing this upon a paradigm that existed
already in German and other western European banks. And Ford really did not
like this at all. This kind of segued perfectly into his paranoid belief that
the Jews were actually--this was part of the whole movement to take over the
American banking system, in a similar sense, to the way he believed they were
taking over other countries. So the root cause of Ford's anti-Semitism, I do
believe, is financial.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the conspiratorial language that was
used in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"?

Mr. BALDWIN: Well, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" were written, as
I've sort of been implying--they were written in the first person plural. The
whole premise of it is that someone was at this secret meeting of these chief
rabbis from all around the world and someone was taking notes and writing down
exactly what they were saying. And they kind of took each dimension of
society, each dimension of culture and order, so they first discussed the
banks, then they discussed another sore spot with Ford, which was the concept
of Jews as warmongers, so it would say something like `We are going to
instigate the governments of European countries to go to war against each
other, so that we can then weaken their infrastructure and take over control.'
The word `control' was a tremendous buzzword throughout the "Protocols."

Then, again, you have this sense of solidarity. There's a whole other subtext
in the "Protocols" about--which actually sort of, in Ford's view, paved the
way for the Zionist movement because there's this other section about `We are
going to establish a country especially for ourselves in Zion and we will call
this country--you know, we will call this country Zion. And we will encourage
all Jews to pay homage to this country and to gravitate there. And then we
will establish a--the seat of our world government there.' So there's all
this kind of sense of solidarity and Jews as one entity, one consistent
entity, that eventually en masse is going to rise up. And the sort of
cataclysmic, the sort of crescendo, of the "Protocols" is a harbinger of
Armageddon, is a harbinger of the ultimate battle between good and evil, which
is kind of how it trails off at the end. It ends with a note of--an almost
apocalyptic note at the end. It's like `The end of the'--you know, `We are
preparing for the end of the world as we currently know it so that the Jews
can end up in ascendency.'

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Baldwin. He's the author
of the new book "Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production Of Hate."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Neil Baldwin. He's the author of the new book "Henry Ford
and the Jews: The Mass Production Of Hate." It's about Henry Ford and
anti-Semitism. What is known about who actually wrote the "Protocols of the
Elders of Zion"?

Mr. BALDWIN: In fact, very little is known. As a matter of fact, to this
day, the actual authorship of the "Protocols" is not known. What is
known--there's two major facts that are known. One is that there's a school
of thought that believes that the earlier iteration, or roots for the
"Protocols," can be traced to the period in France known as the emancipation
of the Jews, quote, unquote, which would be the late 18th century. There was
an earlier document, a very similar document, that was published back at that
time, and the second iteration, which is the more concrete and longer-lasting
one, came at about the cusp of the turn of the last century, or two centuries
ago, 1897, to be exact. And that date happens to coincide with the first
Zionist Congress, which took place in Basel, Theodor Hertzl and so forth,
which is why many scholars believe that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"
were put forth to cast aspersions on the Zionist movement. They were put
forth as an antidote, or as an opposition, to the Zionist movement by an
anonymous group of writers, anti-Semites, in czarist Russia.

GROSS: Had the "Protocols" spread much before Henry Ford published it, and
what was the impact of his publication?

Mr. BALDWIN: What happened was the articles in The Dearborn Independent, as
I say, there were almost 100 of them, and starting in the fall of 1920, Ford
began to anthologize these articles into four separate pamphlets. Each one
had about 20, 25 articles in it. The pamphlets were called--had the overall
headline of "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem." And there
were four of these little paperbacks and they came out, you know, like, every
half a year over the ensuing couple of years that the articles were being
printed in the Independent, so that if you missed any of them or if your
subscription ran out, there were plenty of copies around. And what happened
then was that these--the earliest publication, 1920, 1921, they found their
way over to Germany and they were published by Theodore Fritsch, who was a
virulent anti-Semite in the very early '20s--translated them into German. And
they went through 21 printings in 1921 and 1922 alone. They took off like
wildfire in Germany, in Munich, especially.

GROSS: So Henry Ford, in a way, helped stir up anti-Semitism in Germany?

Mr. BALDWIN: If you were a visitor to Adolf Hitler's office in Munich, in
the waiting room of Hitler's office, on a sort of low coffee table, was a sort
of a display, like spread out, kind of fanned out across the table of The
International Jew in German versions, all the different, you know, pamphlets
in a nice display so you could read them while you were waiting to see Hitler.
And then when you were finally welcomed into the inner office, you would find
a portrait of Henry Ford on the wall behind Hitler's desk. And this is 1922.
This is 16 years before Kristallnacht, just to put that in historic
perspective. Hitler was a very strong admirer of Henry Ford's ideology.
He--in "Mein Kampf," he specifically gives credit and admiration to Henry Ford
as being the only American--he says, `There was only one great American, Ford,
who understands what we are trying to do here in Germany.'

GROSS: And while we're on the subject of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion,"
although Henry Ford started printing that as long ago as 1920, that
publication is still used by a lot of hate groups to justify their
anti-Semitism.

Mr. BALDWIN: It certainly is. The irony to me is that it was--somebody
had--I don't think Henry Ford, but somebody, probably Liebold in Henry
Ford's office, had the editorial sagacity or maybe public relations sagacity
to break it up into little digestible chunks and put one into each issue of the
newspaper so it was like your--you had--the entree into the articles against
the Jews--you had to sort of move through the "Protocols." You had to become
indoctrinated to the "Protocols" to get to the actual editorial content of the
newspaper.

GROSS: How did Jewish groups respond to Ford's anti-Semitism and the
anti-Semitic tracts that he was publishing?

Mr. BALDWIN: The dialectical nature of this problem was what first sucked me
into the exploration in the first place. I felt, as you've just implied--I
mean, I felt that if--how would the Jewish leadership go up against somebody
of this popularity and this clout, this household name, this brand, actually,
human brand, in a sense? How to deal with Ford came down to this very
essential problem: Do you go up against him in a very aggressive, public way,
i.e., petitions, boycotting the purchase of Ford automobiles, letter-writing
campaigns, telegraphing him, etc.? Do you take the public, aggressive view,
or, as Jacob Schiff???, the elder statesman of the Jewish community,
recommended at the time, do you assume that Ford is a "lunatic," quote,
unquote, and that, quote, "this will pass"? And as Jacob Schiff advised his
colleagues very strongly, `If we go up against Henry Ford, I think,' he wrote
in a letter, `this will light a fire that will never be extinguished in our
lifetime. We must allow him to essentially burn out and not dignify him with
opposition in any way.' That was the huge quandary that the American Jewish
community faced when Henry Ford started publishing those articles.

GROSS: Did either side win or were there different responses from different
groups?

Mr.BALDWIN: Well, the interesting thing there is that the inspiration came
from a non-Jew, a man named John Spargo, who was a--I guess you could
say--social activist. He was very involved in the settlement house movement
in New York City. And John Spargo was an Englishman. He wasn't even
American. He rallied hundreds of names for a petition against Ford that was
finally published in The New York Times and Herald Tribune and many other
newspapers in early 1921, calling upon Ford--`On behalf of our Jewish
brethren, we implore you, Mr. Ford, to cease this adverse, argumentative
posture and to allow our Jewish brethren to live in peace in America.' And as
soon as that effort came from the social activist movement, Jane Adams and
others, he reacted in a way that everybody feared he would. He reinvigorated
the articles' campaign. He started going after specific Jews that he felt,
quote, "needed to be educated," unquote. I mean, he began--his attack
escalated, as a result of being contradicted.

GROSS: Neil Baldwin is the author of "Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass
Production Of Hate." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Neil Baldwin, author of
"Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production Of Hate." It investigates how
one of America's greatest industrialists also became one of its most virulent
anti-Semites. While he was producing the Model T, Henry Ford was using the
newspaper he owned to publish excerpts of "The Protocols of the Learned Elders
of Zion," which purported to be the notes of a secret meetings of Jews
conspiring to take over the world. Neil Baldwin is the author of earlier
biographies of Thomas Alva Edison and William Carlos Williams. He's the
executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the
National Book Awards.

How did Ford's public display of anti-Semitism end?

Mr. BALDWIN: Finally, in the summer of 1927, there was a libel suit brought
against Ford in federal District Court in Detroit by a man named Aaron Sapiro,
who was a former rabbi and attorney from California, who had actually launched
the collective bargaining farming movement in America. He was a pioneer in
educating farmers to get together and act in solidarity and help them raise
prices and control the flow of their products and so forth. When Ford got
wind of Aaron Sapiro's activities, he ordered a series of slanderous articles
against him as a Jew daring to infiltrate farming and agriculture, which was a
complete anathema to him.

And Ford was sued by Sapiro, and the trial commenced, and Ford's lieutenants
were called to the stand. And slowly, the testimony unfurled. The
attribution of Ford being, quote, unquote, the "spark plug" of the Jewish
series. The fact that even though he hadn't written these articles himself,
he was the instigation. It was his money. It was his ideas. It was his
philosophy. And on the brink of being called to the stand himself, Ford
issued a retraction, an apology to the Jewish people, which was drafted by
Louis Marshall, the head of the American Jewish Committee, and it was
published in hundreds of newspapers through the Hearst syndicate throughout
the country, and Ford, you know, essentially settled out of court with Sapiro
rather than have to go up and actually talk himself about what he had or had
not been doing.

And the headline in the Jewish Daily Forward the next day, the banner headline
was something to the effect of: Collapse of Anti-Semitism in America,
Anti-Semitism Is No More, Ford Has Fallen, you know, Goliath Has Fallen. And
the Jewish leadership, of course, in retrospect, I think their sigh of relief
was premature, because Ford, within a couple of months, was going around
saying that he never apologized for anything, and he still was going to,
quote, unquote, "get those Jews one way or another."

GROSS: So when Henry Ford issued his retraction, a retraction that was
actually written by a leader in the Jewish community, what did the retraction
say?

Mr. BALDWIN: The narrative of the retraction is as if he's saying, `First of
all, I unwittingly cast aspersions on the general populous of Jews. I didn't
really mean to create such a furor by these unprovoked reflections.' He
admitted that the pamphlets had been distributed in other countries, and he
said that those now had his, quote, "unqualified disapproval," and that
henceforth, there will be no more writings against the Jews in The Dearborn
Independent. These are points that Louis Marshall, as an attorney, was trying
to score. And once he found out that Ford was going to allow whatever he
wrote to be published, he went ahead and covered as many bases as he could.

The historical fact of the matter is that the major premise of this apology,
which was the cessation of any further publication did nothing, of course, to
prevent the dissemination of everything that had come before. And Ford
actually promised that he would no longer allow "The Protocols" or The
International Jew to be published with his name on it. But since it was never
copyrighted by him or by Liebold or Cameron, there was no way that he could
enforce that. That's a very important point.

GROSS: So "The Protocols" continued to be published, continued to be spread
around the world, in spite of Henry Ford's repudiation.

Mr. BALDWIN: That's right.

GROSS: Why would one of America's leading Jewish lawyers write a retraction
on behalf of one America's greatest anti-Semites?

Mr. BALDWIN: Louis Marshall, after seven or eight years of agonizing and
trying many different ways of countermanding Ford--you have to realize that
Louis Marshall represented a huge constituency at the American Jewish
Committee. He tried to get a meeting with Ford. He tried to send emissaries
to meet with him on his behalf, and they were turned down. He tried
organizing a letter writing campaign that was ignored. So when intermediaries
finally came to Louis Marshall and said, `We want you to draft this on his
behalf,' he leapt at the chance; he leapt at the opportunity to put what he
thought was definitive closure on the matter. And he exercised all of his
legal rhetoric and abilities and applied himself to it and felt like he was
scoring a major victory for his people. He was very, very enthusiastic and
very optimistic, but as it turned out, falsely optimistic because I think he
wanted to put an end to this thing once and for all, and he thought that this
was the brass ring, and he just went for it.

GROSS: So 1927 is a big year for Ford. It's the year that he issues this
retraction for his anti-Semitism. It's also the year that he ends production
of the Model T.

Mr. BALDWIN: Absolutely right. And the point that I think is worth
cogitating is at the time Ford made his apology, he knew that he was going to
be ceasing the Model T, but also bringing in a new model, the Model A, at
around Christmastime. Right before he issued his apology, Ford called a
couple of his close associates to his home, and he said to them, `You know,
we're going to start that production on that new car pretty soon,' and he
implied very strongly--he didn't come right out and like connect the apology
to the economics of anti-Semitism, but it's hard to avoid thinking because of
the timing that it was very important for Ford to back off his virulence
against the Jews before he decided to phase in the new car. As it was, he was
getting tremendous competition from General Motors, and he was feeling kind of
up against the wall to begin with. So I think the apology goes hand-in-hand
with Ford's sense of running his company in a profitable way.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Baldwin. He's the author
of the new book "Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production Of Hate."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Neil Baldwin. He's the author of the new book "Henry Ford
and the Jews: The Mass Production Of Hate." And it's about the car
manufacturer who published a lot of anti-Semitic tracts and was quite
anti-Semitic.

Were there many Jews who worked for Ford at his production plant?

Mr. BALDWIN: Ford had a very paternal--on the surface, Ford's behavior as a
captain of industry I found very appealing when I first got into it. He had
a--he raised the daily wage for workers in his factory to an unprecedented $5
a day at a time when most American workers were making half than that or less.
He provided housing for his workers. He absolutely did hire immigrants and
people from other cultures to work in his factories.

However, he had a very strict and very rigorous and very invasive
Americanization program. He actually sponsored an Americanization school.
So, indeed, you could be a Jew and be hired by Henry Ford, however, you would
be forced to take classes in not only English language, but etiquette,
behavior. You would have to dress in a certain way. You would have to agree
to certain rules in the way that you lived, in the way you conducted your
life. No boarders could be taken into your home. Married men were preferred
over the unmarried because supposedly their moral fiber was stronger. And so
there's two sides to every story. And I think Ford probably decided that if
you were going to be a Jew and work for him, then you'd have to conform to his
very rigorous moral standards.

GROSS: He actually had a sociological department. You described the workers
in that department as part social workers, part detectives. What did they do?

Mr. BALDWIN: Well, that's what I'm saying. They would--let's say you were
working for Ford. You'd have to be ready to--see, one of these members of the
sociological department could end up on your doorstep at any time of the day
or night to sort of check up on you and make sure that you were sticking to
the straight and narrow path. He also had questionnaires and exams that he
would administer to his workers, asking them very basic facts of American
history, which is interesting considering that one of Ford's most famous
homilies is `history is more or less the bunk.'

However, he didn't always practiced what he preached and he had a very, very
strong jingoistic streak. I think that also fed into his Jew bias because he
had a lot of trouble associating with people who he felt were different in any
way. And it was very hard if you were associated with Ford or you socialized
with him and you would go to his home. After dinner, it was very hard to
avoid being drawn into an anti-Semitic conversation. It was really part of
his daily discourse.

GROSS: You know, although after the trial that you discussed, Ford stopped
publishing his anti-Semitic tract, his anti-Semitic influence didn't end
there. Would you talk a little bit about what Ford's influence was and what
Ford's financial interests were in Nazi, Germany.

Mr. BALDWIN: Hitler sent an emissary to America in the early years before he
had even ascended to full power of the Reich. He sent an emissary to this
country named Kirk Ludikey(ph), essentially a fund-raiser for the Reich, and
he instructed him to be sure and pay a call on Henry Ford. This was in the
early 1920s. And Ludikey came to Detroit and he was able to get a private
meeting with Henry Ford, and Ford denied subsequent to that that he ever gave
funding directly to Nazi Germany or to Adolf Hitler. I think that Ford's
support of Hitler is ideological rather than financial. In my research, I was
not able to uncover any paper trail directly leading to Hitler from Ford with
a financial edge to it.

Now that being said, Henry Ford knew very early on that Germany could be a
rich potential source for his company. In 1924 and 1925, he already had a
factory in place in Berlin and was producing cars over there. And about five
or six years later, the major Ford plant in Cologne was in operation. And
there's no question that for about a 15-year period there, Fords were a
popular brand in Germany leading up to World War II. That--and again, I must
qualify that by saying that many American companies were participating in the
economy of Germany at that time. And it's ironic because General Motors
actually had a much larger share of the market for the first decade or so that
American car companies had a presence in Germany. Starting in the earliest
years of World War II, however, Ford began to produce material and trucks and
Jeeps and vehicles of a more useful nature to the Germans.

GROSS: What has Ford done since the death of Henry Ford to make amends for
all of the anti-Semitism that Henry Ford was responsible for?

Mr. BALDWIN: As soon as Henry Ford II took over the chairmanship of the
company, which was 1945, Hank the Deuce, as he was known--as he was called by
Lee Iacocca and others--he immediately--immediately--issued various statements
and declarations, public pronouncements about the Ford Motor Company position
on Jews and its philosophy of equality for all people. And Ford as a company
was one of the most ardent supporters of the nascent and emerging state of
Israel, financially in terms of producing cars over there. And in the five or
six decades since then, there's no question that the Ford family and the Ford
Motor Company no longer--you know, has no trace of the legacy of its founder.
This was something that began with Henry Ford and ended with Henry Ford.
There's no question in my mind about that.

GROSS: Did you wonder a lot while you were writing your book, "Henry Ford and
the Jews," how it was possible for somebody to be so smart when it came to his
industry and so incredibly insane when it came to Jews?

Mr. BALDWIN: Yes. But then again, I found in all the large figures which I
tend to want--you know, I have a compulsion to approach these large figures--I
keep thinking of Whitman's phrase, you know, `Do I contradict myself? Very
well then, I contradict myself.' I really do think that large figures with
large egos have some kind of self-administered license to range widely in
whatever field they want to and say and do whatever they want. Many, many
people who were interviewed after Ford's death about his behavior used a lot
of the same language in terms of describing his tendency to barge into areas
where he didn't know anything.

`Why wouldn't he just stick with making cars?' people would say. Friends of
his and visitors and admirers of his would say, you know--and even Theodore
Roosevelt said at one point something to the effect that, `Henry Ford should
stay out there at the factory, making these cars one after another, cheap and,
you know, durable cars. As soon as he steps off that factory grounds and
starts to, you know, run for president or publish newspapers or make
pronouncements about the war, he blunders. He makes mistakes.' But no one
could go up to Henry Ford and say, `You know, just stay out there at the
factory.' I mean, he wouldn't listen to that. So, you know, he gave himself
the license to do that. He was quite delusional about his own correctness
about things.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BALDWIN: Well, thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Neil Baldwin is the author of "Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass
Production Of Hate." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews Ken Burns' new
documentary on Mark Twain. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "Mark Twain"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Tonight and tomorrow night, PBS presents the latest documentary directed by
Ken Burns, a two-night, four-hour biography called "Mark Twain." TV critic
David Bianculli has this preview.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

Ken Burns makes two kinds of documentaries. There's the epic, the giant
narratives that take years to make and weeks to watch, like "The Civil War,"
"Baseball" and "Jazz." And there are the smaller studies, biographies of such
people as Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, which can be absorbed in a
couple of sittings. "Mark Twain," shown tonight and tomorrow night by PBS, is
one of the small ones, yet in subject and execution, it's one of the biggest
of the small ones. If you're very familiar with the life of Samuel Clemens
and the works of his literary alter ego Mark Twain, you're bound to be
impressed. If you don't know all that much, especially about his life, you're
likely to be amazed.

"Mark Twain," directed by Burns, is written by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C.
Ward, and produced by Duncan and Burns. They've designed this biography as a
sort of dual biography. There's the creation and success of Mark Twain, the
stand-up comic and celebrity author, and there's the astoundingly traveled and
tragic life of Sam Clemens, who became famous by writing sarcastic travel
dispatches from Europe and the Pacific. Over his lifetime, Clemens made and
lost several fortunes and buried almost all of his loved ones while writing
some of the best and bravest works of American literature.

This happens to be a subject I'm especially passionate about, so I can't say I
learned many new facts from this documentary. I could also nitpick, if I
wanted, about a photo or two being shown years too early in the program's
chronology or complain about some of Twain's writings that were quoted too
briefly or not at all. I'm not even fully sold on Kevin Conway, who provides
the voice of Mark Twain. Yet I love what this Mark Twain study does, which is
to make the man's work and life truly come alive. If it doesn't make you want
to pick up one of his books and dive in, then you're not paying attention.

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Twain's masterpiece, is handled especially
well here. It's given the literary weight it deserves and the historical
weight and even the ethical weight. Many people comment enthusiastically
about Mark Twain and Sam Clemens in this biography. Russell Banks and Ron
Powers are major standouts. But the best expert by far is Hal Holbrook.
Holbrook, of course, has played Mark Twain in his one-man show for about half
a century now, constantly revising the program and revisiting Twain's works,
letters and biographies. Yet for this PBS program, he doesn't play Mark
Twain. He explains him with so much insight and enthusiasm, you can't help
but be as excited and impressed as Holbrook is.

When Holbrook talks about "Huckleberry Finn," for example, he talks very
specifically about why and when Twain's planned sequel to the children's book
"Tom Sawyer" became something much more serious. During a trip by Twain to
revisit his roots, to recall his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi
and a boy growing up in Missouri, Holbrooke says the author and the manuscript
were profoundly affected.

(Soundbite of "Mark Twain")

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK: Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation to try to
idealize the struggle of the North against the South, and then in 1876,
Reconstruction died, the Ku Klux Klan came out, and "Huckleberry Finn," the
book, began. Interesting. He started to write this thing and he must have
run into difficulty. Interesting. And then he stops the book. He put it
aside for five years. Then in April 1882, he decides to go down the river to
New Orleans on a steamboat and write a book called "Life on the Mississippi,"
not "Huckleberry Finn." In May, he turns around, he starts back up the river
again, all the way to Minnesota. And then at the tag end of that, he goes
back and visits Hannibal again. And the next month, what does he do? He
picks up "Huckleberry Finn."

What does that say to you? What did he see going down that river? He'd been
off that river for 20 years, since before the Civil War. What do you think he
was looking at? He was looking at the horrible failure of freeing the slave.

BIANCULLI: That sort of passion to me is impossible to resist. Tonight's
first half of "Mark Twain" ends with the publication of "Huckleberry Finn,"
and you might want to have a copy of the book by your bedside so you can dive
right in. Meanwhile, tomorrow night's conclusion offers many more master
works, many more insights and many more tragedies. Like almost every project
Burns tackles, "Mark Twain" turns out to be quite a bit about race. This
latest biography isn't a departure from the Civil War; in many ways, it's a
companion volume and a sequel.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.

42:42

Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.

08:48

Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue