Ken Burns Classroom

Tall Tales, Part 2

Ken Burns Film: Mark Twain

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Language Arts

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period

“It is not in the least likely that any life has ever been lived which was not a failure, in the secret judgment of the person who lived it.”
– Mark Twain


Students will read about and try to relate to Twain’s private side – the darker side – of the person known to the public as the funniest man on earth, the man who once wrote: “The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no laughter in heaven.”


As well as having two names, Samuel Clemens was a man with two identities–Clemens, the wealthy New Englander who thought nothing of spending $30,000 a year–a considerable amount of money back in the 1880s–on household expenses, and Mark Twain, champion of the downtrodden. Like the nation he would come to embody, Clemens was always reinventing himself, always restless, always full of contradictions. He lived in the barren deserts of Nevada but he also loved attending private parties in cosmopolitan cities wearing full evening dress.

On February 2, 1863, at the end of a dispatch for the Territorial Enterprise, Samuel Clemens first used his new pen name or pseudonym–Mark Twain. It was a term he remembered from his riverboat days–the point at which safe water becomes dangerous water. It was a good description of a man who lived his life on the edge between safety and danger.


  1. If you were to take a pen name, what would it be? Create a pen name. Explain why you chose that name and what it says about you.
  2. Twain had an enormous hunger for success, but he also struggled with constant fears of failure. He once wrote, “Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Do you agree with Twain’s statement? Do you think everyone has a hidden dark side? Why or why not?

As he became more successful, Clemens found himself increasingly torn between the two identities he inhabited and the two worlds those identities represented. In his later years, having lost nearly everything that meant anything to him, Twain was forced to go back on the lecture circuit that he detested in order to make money. He wrote a best seller titled Following the Equator that was filled with both biting social criticism and hilarious observations. As he wrote, he questioned his own ability to be funny in the midst of so much personal tragedy and loss. Yet, while Twain struggled with doubt, his popularity grew as people turned to him for humor to enrich their ordinary lives.

National Standards

This activity fulfills the following standards established by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
  • Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

This activity fulfills the following standards established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL).

Language Arts: Writing

  • Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.

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