Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017
I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.
Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants. Walk only a block or two south up the hill and it’s half ghost town. The economy of the historic downtown, like so many in America, appears to be driven by tourism.
I walked to the old town’s main sights earlier this evening: the great American author Mark Twain’s boyhood home, his father’s law office, and so on, and photographed their exteriors. I’ll go inside these places tomorrow.
I must go now, the mosquitoes have found me and they’re swarming, out for my blood. I’ll camp tonight near the caves, in the campground that a local man I chatted with earlier directed me to.
Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017
When I arrive in Hannibal (from New Salem via the 72 West), it’s in the soft light of early evening. It’s still pretty warm, the road food I brought with me, celery, peanut butter, apples, are softened, wilted from the heat of the day. The car’s air conditioning is good but I find I need to alternate with fresh air, even when it’s hot. The conditioned air is refreshingly dry on these muggy midwest summer days but after sitting in it for too long, I feel suddenly as if I’m desiccating. Then the windows come down.
I’m in an excited mood. There’s always a feeling of discovery in crossing a river, I think, even in these days when wide, smooth highway bridges can make you forget to notice what you’re passing over one. When you do notice, though, you get the feeling that a river crossing is significant, like an anniversary or a holiday. River crossings used to be difficult, and something deep within us remembers that. Anniversaries, holidays, rivers are all markers that remind us, with a jolt, that though we once came from someplace, sometime, we’re now somewhere else, sometime later. We humans like these markers and boundaries. They place us so that, for a moment at least, we’ve on one shore or another, no longer adrift.
And I recall that young Samuel Clemens, like young Abraham Lincoln, had once been a river craft pilot: Lincoln of flatboats, Clemens of steamboats. Both took their crafts to New Orleans, and both were amazed, delighted, and impressed by what they saw there… and sometimes dismayed. As President during the great American war over slavery, Lincoln had many occasions to recall his first sight of chained slaves on their way to market in New Orleans. While his parents hated slavery and taught him that it was wrong, it was this experience that revealed its horrific reality to him, especially upon recollection and reflection. After Samuel Clemens renamed himself Mark Twain, a riverboat pilot’s term indicating a safe depth for passage, he realized that the slavery he grew up with and took for granted was a great moral wrong. Few works of scholarship, art, or literature reveal this to the moral imagination as impactfully and durably as his magnum opus Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I pull off on the side of North St, just north of N. Main St to stretch and look around. To my right, there’s a clapboard building on little grassy slope. I approach: there’s a plaque in the window identifying it as the ‘Huck Finn House.’ A little ahead of me to my left, there’s a little park with a sculpture on a pedestal in its center. I clamber onto the low wall surrounding it for a closer look. Yes, the two figures do portray Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I return to the car, pull it into a nearby parking lot, tuck my laptop into my bag, and head towards Main Street. Before I leave the parking lot, a man and I exchange greetings. He’s organizing a town revitalization event. I can’t accept his kind invitation to attend, however, since I’ll be leaving town before it happens. But we chat awhile about Hannibal, its past and its future, and I follow his pointing finger to the main Twain sites. I visit and map them out in my mind so I can explore them tomorrow during business hours, and chat with some local ladies hanging outside of the Main Street Wine Stoppe.
Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, night of July 31st, 2017
I reach the campground. There are no lights on in the registration office; it’s clearly no longer staffed for the night. I enter the campground and choose a spot among many that lack registration cards clipped to the signs. I’ll pay in the morning. I set up my simple camp to the parking lights of the rental car. In my little niece’s cast-off backyard camping tent, I feel like Abraham Lincoln in a guesthouse. I sleep at an angle so I don’t have to double up my legs. Invariably, however, I wake up in this tent with my head pressing one corner and my feet another.
As I write, the sweat is rolling over me in big drops though this tent is lightweight and all the flaps are open, allowing the mesh panels to let in all the air that they’ll allow through. I unzip the tent’s front opening and stick my head out. It’s much cooler outside but I dare not leave the flap open given the ferocity of the mosquito attack earlier. Hope I can sleep.
Journal – Hannibal, Missouri, Tuesday morning, August 1st, 2017
I woke up rather early this morning and emerged from my tent to retrieve my little thermos of coffee and a bagel from the car. It was a beautiful morning. I felt very lazy and sat on the picnic bench for quite awhile watching my fellow campers rise, make breakfast, and walk their dogs. It’s one of the best campgrounds I’ve stayed in, spacious with roomy campsites, very well kept, lush with lots of trees. My coffee and bagel long finished, though, I finally bestirred myself and went for a jog, my stiffness and minor backache reminding me I haven’t gotten nearly enough exercise in the past week. Then I took a shower, washing some of my clothes along with myself. This is one of my road trip tactics which allows me to travel without carrying along too much clothing. I went and paid for the campsite, since I arrived too late last night to do so, but decided against visiting the caves. They’re privately run and the entrance fees are higher than I want to pay; I’ve already seen some incredible caves on this trip and I’m trying to keep a lid on what I spend. After all, right now, I’m both homeless and jobless for the first time in a very, very long time. Somehow, that state of affairs feels okay.
Right now, I’m at the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, a little white wood structure built to honor the great author in 1935. It’s reached by 244 steps, which makes me happy. I’ve been missing my California hills and this climb is a break from the nearly unrelenting flatness of the Great Plains and the Midwest. My legs welcome the gentle, pleasant burn. I’m drenched with sweat before the exercise even begins; in fact, I never really dried off after my shower. It’s very humid and already very warm at 11 am.
I’m going down to go on the tour of Mark Twain’s childhood home, the fee there is very reasonable. I’m still deciding where I’ll head just after that…
Hannibal, Missouri, August 1st, 2017
Descending from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, I stop at a sort of brick- and concrete- paved little park with a concrete railing on the southeast end. There’s a plaque on the railing that identifies it as the abutment of the first Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, built in 1935 to mark the centennial of his birth, dedicated in September 1836 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The one that crosses the Mississippi here now and which I gazed at the sunset through last night opened in 2000.
I continue my descent to Main St, then buy my tour ticket at the Mark Twain Interpretive Center on Main St between North and Hill. It costs $11.00 and gives access to the Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher houses, the John Marshall Clemens law office and eventually, when it re-opens after restoration, Grant’s Drug Store. John Marshall Clemens, Sam’s father, was in turn (and sometimes, concurrently) a lawyer, farmer, land speculator, shopkeeper, court clerk, attorney general, and justice of the peace, and failed to succeed financially at all of them. He was a stern man with a cold and upright demeanor, very different than his vivacious, emotive wife Jane Lampton. The story that Twain later repeated was that this unlikely pair married upon Jane’s whim to spite another suitor, a move she later regretted. Husband and wife were respectful to one another but never warm or demonstrative. John died in 1847, leaving his family very badly off. It was up to the children to support the family then. Like all of his brothers, Samuel went to work in the newspaper trade at age twelve as a printer’s apprentice. He earned no wages then, only his board, food, and clothing, but this at least eased the burden on the family’s finances. Sam was able to continue his studies independently, part-time, so between that and his work immersed in communication, his skills in the English language apparently didn’t suffer a bit.
In the Interpretive Center, I peruse photographs and informational placards about Samuel Clemens’ and his later alter ego Mark Twain’s life and work. I’m especially taken by a model for a planned 1935 centennial sculpture that never materialized. It features characters from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I’m a bit surprised that since the artist chose to memorialize characters from only four novels, they chose to include many from Joan of Arc. It’s probably the most overlooked of all of his works to this day.
Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc began, he reminisced, while he was still a printer’s apprentice. A loose page from a book about her blew off the sidewalk and into his face. He was intrigued by what he read, and when his bookworm older brother Henry assured him that Joan was a real person, young Sam sought out and read everything about her that he could find. She remained a lifelong fascination for him. Joan, written many, many years later between 1892-1895, was Twain’s own favorite of his own works, or among his favorites, depending on which of his statements you go by. But it was widely dismissed by critics and still baffles readers and scholars well over a century later. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic, and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint, and why did this master of American English so love this child of his pen? Parts of the explanation can be provided by Twain’s romantic notions about the delicacy and purity of feminine nature, and his relationship to his daughter Susy. It was no secret that Susy was his favorite daughter, and this daughter, who largely inspired his conception of Joan, also favored this work of her father’s.
But Joan’s story is not only one of sweet, pure womanliness: it’s also a story of rebellion and staunch individuality. After all, she defied her parents, the local authorities, and the church to take up her greater task of defying and defeating the English in the Hundred Years’ War. After she was captured in battle, she remained steadfast in her unique sense of purpose, defying her judges in the court which finally sentenced her to death for heresy when she was only nineteen years old. This story must have resonated deeply with Clemens’ rebellious nature. Since his days as a teenaged printer’s apprentice under Joseph Ament, then as assistant printer and editor for his older brother Orion’s paper, then as a cub pilot on Mississippi steamboats after he left Hannibal, young Sam chafed under authority. After less than three years at his brother’s paper, which included his first published work, Clemens left Hannibal for St Louis early in the summer of 1853.
Like Twain, I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc. I watched Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of her innumerable times with my grandmother, who also insisted I read Twain’s Joan novel, which despite its flaws, I love to this day. Joan is the subject of one of my earliest portraits, and recently, I’ve brought her into my studies here at the University of Edinburgh. Like Twain, I also identify with her rebellious nature and staunch individualism.
I leave the Interpretive Center and take the self-guided tour, first to the ‘Huck Finn’ house where Tom Blankenship lived. Tom was young Sam’s playmate and the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s character. The Blankenship family was plagued by alcoholism and poverty, but Sam envied what seemed to him to be their free and easy lifestyle. The tidy clapboard structure atop its stone half-underground basement that stands here today only resembles the original dirty, ramshackle house of the Blankenship’s time here in shape and size.
Then I cross the picket-fenced lawn by the brick-paved walkway to the Clemens family home. Unlike the ‘Huck Finn’ house, this is the original building, thoroughly restored. However, I notice, it’s missing the window shutters that it had when Twain returned to Hannibal to visit his old family home in 1902 (see above). Perhaps the shutters were added after he lived here as a child. The rooms are furnished and decorated with period-correct furniture, textiles, clothing, and other objects. Each room also features a life-size sculpture of Twain as he appeared during his later years with his trademark bushy mustache and casual white suit with bow tie. The sculptures portray Twain in attitudes of reminiscing: sitting with his hands folded while gazing into space in one room, standing with one hand behind his back while gazing out of the window in another. Twain’s novels are heavily autobiographical, his characters based on members of his family, his friends, neighbors, employers, and teachers, mostly from Hannibal. This is especially true of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I notice that the historical signs outside of the buildings included in this tour, which date to the 1930’s, present Twain’s characters as if they took part in the real-life history of the place. Here in Hannibal, as in Twain’s novels, life and artifice are presented together with no clear indication of which is fact, which is fiction.
Next, I briefly tour the ‘Becky Thatcher’ house. It was the home of Annie Laurie Hawkins, who most people called Laura. She was the neighbor and friend who Twain based the character of Becky Thatcher on in Tom Sawyer. Twain described Laura on many occasions as his first childhood love. They remained friends and kept in contact for life; Laura Hawkins, later Annie Laurie Hawkins Frazer outlived Twain by 18 years. The house has not been set up, like the Clemens house, to reflect how it may have appeared when little Laura lived here. It’s more like a gift shop – slash – museum, but according to the website, the planned decor and permanent exhibits are not installed yet.
I continue my tour next door to John Marshall Clemens’ Justice of the Peace office building. The one room open to the public is set up with some old furniture and books behind glass. If the furnishings reflect historical reality, it was a small and simple affair. Placards on the wall recount anecdotes from Clemens’ tenure there as a stern but fair man of common sense.
I continue east down Hill St towards the river, passing Grant’s Drug Store, which is under reconstruction, and turn right on Main St. Two blocks down, on my left, I enter the Mark Twain Museum at 120 N Main St.
The museum’s exhibits open with large blue-and-white gallery walls dedicated to original Norman Rockwell paintings and drawings for special editions of Tom Sawyer (1936) and Huckleberry Finn (1940). Rockwell was thrilled to be chosen to illustrate these new editions of what were already considered great American literary classics. It seems to me, as I’m sure it did then, that Rockwell was the obvious choice. His paintings were as nostalgically American as Twain’s resurrections of idyllic small-town childhood in these novels, and sure enough, he perfectly captured the tenderness and humor in Twain’s tales and characterizations. I remember my grandmother (the same one who urged me to read Twain’s Joan) sputtering with indignation when telling me of a woman who said that Rockwell was not an artist, but an illustrator. The woman not only considered these separate professions with different purposes but implied that the latter was inferior to the former. This was unforgivable to my grandmother, both in its snobbery and its slight to her favorite painter. I understand what the woman was getting at but I tend to agree with my grandmother. Rockwell has become unfashionable, to many, because of the nostalgia and sentimentality which pervade his work, but if we exclude Rockwell as an artist on those grounds, wouldn’t we be forced to exclude much of Twain? What people create who consider themselves artists, and who are considered as such by other people, has changed at least as many times over the centuries as opinions of what art really is and what it’s for. The woman seemed to have accepted a redefinition of art that excludes Rockwell, but I think any definition that succeeds in doing this is far too narrow. My grandmother did the same thing with the term music so that it excluded that wicked, sex-driven rock and roll.
Beyond the Rockwell exhibit, I find one of Mark Twain’s white suit jackets in a glass case. With a small tear at the front, it’s draped on a form in front of a photograph of a mature Twain wearing it, or one very like it. According to the museum, it’s the only one known to exist. The white suit has become iconic of Twain since he wore one off-season to deliver a speech in support of copyright laws at a 1906 congressional committee meeting. The eloquent orator with his bushy white hair, flaring white mustache and eyebrows in a glowing white suit before a room of wintry black-clad men made a quite an impression. Twain was delighted with the effect and replicated it at other occasions where dark or formal clothing was expected. He wore a white suit for portrait sessions which resulted in some of the best-known images of him, and was buried in one as well. Though he adopted this devil-may-care look only for a short while before his death, it made an indelible impression on our collective memory of this oh-so-American personality. To this day, nearly all Twain impersonators wear a similar white suit.
The museum is full of interesting objects and accompanying placards with anecdotes from the life of Twain and his family and friends. I look and read to my fill, then decide it’s time continue my journey following Twain. I return to the car and head southeast of Hannibal. Forty-five minutes or so later, I arrive in Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens.
Florida, Missouri, afternoon of August 1st, 2017
To be more precise, I visit Samuel Clemens’ two birthplaces. How can this be? Unusually for birthplaces, the building in which he was born has been moved about half a mile from its original foundation and now resides in an enormous structure built around and over it. Preserved from the elements, the faded, drooping, two-room little blue cabin is located within the Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Site, next to Mark Twain Lake, in Mark Twain State Park. Clearly, the state of Missouri loves her illustrious native son.
As with the Clemens’ home in Hannibal, the rooms are decorated with furniture and other period-correct items. The Clemenses didn’t live in the tiny village of Florida for long. The family had moved there in mid-1835 after briefly stopping in St Louis. They intended to settle there after John Marshall’s multiple failed attempts at farming and storekeeping, but the cholera epidemic raging through the city likely spurred them to move on again. They chose Florida because many members of Jane’s family had settled there. When they arrived, Jane was already pregnant with her sixth child. John Marshall earned his living here yet again by storekeeping, this time together with his brother-in-law, John Quarles, a man Mark Twain admired greatly. On November 30, 1835, Samuel was born, premature and sickly. Though many feared he wouldn’t last long, he would be among the four of the seven Clemens children that survived childhood.
Besides the cabin, I find a wealth of artifacts from the life of Mark Twain with his wife and children. The artifacts together with the exhibits, the photographs and informational placards, tell of a life of harmony and plenty followed by sorrow and financial hardship. By the late 1860’s, Twain was making a decent living as a newspaper editor and in 1870, he married progressive, wealthy Olivia Langdon. Together, they established a lavish home in Hartford, Connecticut. It was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, ornately decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany, filled with hand-carved and elaborate furnishings from all over the world, and occupied by Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens, their three daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean (their infant son Langdon died of diphtheria in 1872), and a bevy of servants. The family moved into the house with little Susy and baby Clara in the fall of 1874. While living here, Twain became a successful author and made an excellent income, he and his family enjoying the life of plenty with which they surrounded themselves. However, Twain’s enthusiasm for innovative scientific gadgets and hunger for more wealth led him to make a series of very costly and very unsuccessful financial investments, in which the family lost nearly all their money. To pay off their substantial debts and support the family, the Clemenses were forced to close down the Hartford home and move to Europe, where living expenses were generally much lower. There, Twain restored the family finances by a grueling series of speaking tours. Sadly, however, Susy contracted meningitis while she and Jean stayed behind with family in Elmira, New York. When learning of Susy’s illness, Olivia and Clara hurried back the United States to join her. However, they didn’t make it back in time. On August 18, 1896, Susy died at the Hartford home she so loved and missed. Thirteen years later, Jean also died, aged only 29, during an epileptic seizure.
Twain lost his beloved Olivia, or ‘Livy’ as he called her, in 1904. She was his constant and close companion, his main editor and critic, and the love of his life. For the six years he outlived her, Twain wandered, living sometimes in Europe, sometimes in New York City. Twain and his daughter Clara always had a fraught relationship: both were stubborn, strong-willed, and independent. But Clara had to do much of the emotional heavy work in the family. She looked after Olivia in her final illness while also helping to look after Jean, whose epilepsy rendered her both fragile and violent. She was also the go-between when her dying mother was kept separate, sometimes unsuccessfully, from her emotionally charged husband and his outbursts. Since her father’s death in 1910, Clara served as the caretaker and promoter of Twain’s legacy. Many of the artifacts I see here today are here thanks to Clara’s fundraising efforts, as are those that are preserved in the Hartford home and museum.
I leave the Birthplace museum and drive the half mile down the little county road that leads to the remnants of tiny Florida. Just off the road in a grassy field at what was once South Mill St, there’s a carved granite pedestal which marks it as the original site of Samuel Clemens’ birth. The pedestal used to support a bust of Twain, but the bust was also moved to the Birthplace museum to protect it from the elements. It’s a quiet, peaceful place here, with a few scattered homes and a church in view. It is now, as it was then, an improbable place to produce the restless, cosmopolitan iconoclast and self-created character Mark Twain.
Sources and Inspiration:
The Mark Twain House and Museum website
‘Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse,’ Hannibal Parks and Recreation website
Paludan, Phillip Shaw. ‘Lincoln and Negro Slavery: I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain‘. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 27, Issue 2, Summer 2006, pp. 1-23
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain. Ed J.R. LeMaster, James D. Wilson. London: Routledge, 2013
Twain, Mark. The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Adapted for American English, an educational resource of The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State
Twain, Mark. Autobiography, Volume 1 and Volume 2, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine. EBook produced by Don Lainson for Project Gutenberg Australia, 2002; original publication New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1924
Twain, Mark. Life On The Mississippi. EBook produced by David Widger for Project Gutenberg, 2006; original publication Boston: James Osgood & Co, 1883
Twain, M., & Paine, A. (1923). Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain ; v.34-35). New York: G. Wells.
Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952
Wecter, Dixon. ‘Lincoln, Mark Twain, and the Human Race.’ The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Jan 1, 1942, Vol.2, p.157