Stephen Keeling follows in the footsteps of Mark Twain, the American literary giant who penned such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was “raised” there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.” – Mark Twain, 1867
It was starting to get dark as I arrived on the Main Street of Hannibal, with its sleepy ensemble of nineteenth-century red-brick and clapboard and parked my car. A few steps away, the great swirling muddy waters of the Mississippi rushed past the dock, speckled with tree branches that brushed the far, wooded banks on the other side. No one was around; in the twilight it was easy to imagine that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and all their barefooted, mischievous crew would come paddling into view.
No other place had as much influence on Mark Twain as Hannibal. Born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Twain moved to Hannibal when he was four and grew up along the great river. He based his seminal novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his early life here, and today the short stretch of historic properties on Main Street is crammed with restaurants, gift shops and museums dedicated to his memory. It sounds touristy, and it can be, but avoid the busy summer months and the river and the bucolic surroundings that inspired Twain are largely unchanged.
Twain lived in Hannibal for 14 years from 1839, his time here meticulously chronicled at the illuminating Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The site includes humble Huckleberry Finn House, a reconstruction of the home of Tom Blankenship, Twain’s vey real model for Huck:
“He [Blankenship] was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us”.
The Boyhood Home itself on Hill Street is a simple, white clapboard house where Twain lived with his family, its rooms restored in period style. Further along Main Street is the Mark Twain Museum, where a hall of exhibits and videos re-create scenes from Twain’s books.
Mark Twain Cave
“It was an easy place to get lost in; anybody could do it – including the bats. I got lost in it myself, along with a lady, and our last candle burned down to almost nothing before we glimpsed the search party’s lights…”
About one mile south of Hannibal, the Mark Twain Cave is as much testimony to the influence of Twain’s fiction as the appeal of creepy caverns. In this cave system, which featured heavily in Tom Sawyer, Twain and his gang spent many happy hours terrifying one another. By the 1880s it had already become a major attraction for Twain fans: the smoke from their lanterns and their graffiti (as well as the signature of Jesse James, who hid here) are still much in evidence. The caves themselves are an intriguing warren of narrow passages, with bizarre limestone deposits piled up like pancakes.
“To us our house was not unsentient matter – it had a heart & a soul & eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”
Twain’s life itself makes for an astonishing and increasingly tragic tale: he went bankrupt in 1893, and suffered the death of three of his children and wife before he passed away in Redding, Connecticut in 1910. Some of the happiest times of his life were spent in Hartford, Connecticut, over 1000 miles east of the river where he grew up. The old hilltop community known as Nook Farm was home to Twain and his family from 1874 to 1891, and the bizarrely ornate Mark Twain House was where this giant of American literature penned many of his classic works, including Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and The Pauper.
Tours of the house offer tantalizing insights into the life of the author, as well as drawing attention to the lavish and somewhat eccentric furnishings – black-and-orange brickwork, elaborate woodwork and the only domestic Tiffany interior open to the public. Twain’s legendary wit and ground-breaking writing style are explored throughout the museum, while the engrossing Ken Burns biographical documentary about him plays in the theatre.
Elmira, New York
“…since we have perched away up here on top of the hill near heaven I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel and am more moved to help shove the clouds around, and get the stars on deck promptly…”
Twain’s funeral was held in New York in 1910, but his body was transported to Elmira, in upstate New York, hometown of his wife and where his sister-in-law maintained a summer home; Twain came here to write every summer for over twenty years beginning in 1870. His tiny writing room – a comfy octagonal shed – was moved from Quarry Farm (still a private home) to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952, where you can still see it today.
Twain’s relatively simple grave, in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, is marked by a stone monument near a shady grove, along with the resting places of his wife, his children and his only grandchild.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”