The Hannibal Lecture: Twain Museum Tells All

By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Hannibal, Missouri.

Since I was a boy those words have conjured an idyllic image of the essence and texture of America. Of paddle-wheelers and flatboats plying the Mississippi River as it drains the heart of our continent. Of humble Midwestern folklore. A place where, geographically, the East ends and the West begins. Where, culturally, Northern mores meld clumsily with Southern sensibilities. A place of riverboat gamblers and whiskey runners. Of plain-spoken people whose maxim is Show me, don't tell me. Of rough-and-tumble merchants transporting and trading corn, wheat and other staples cultivated in our nation's breadbasket. A place, especially, of the literature of Mark Twain.

So, I went to Hannibal in search of a slice of Middle Americana, of the sort that those of us who live inside the Beltway are too rarely afforded. I wanted to connect tangibly with the provenance of Twain. To walk the streets that he did from 1839 to 1857. To sit right next to the muddy river at the foot of Hill Street as he must have. To take in the same bluff-top vistas far into the Illinois flatlands.

Those vistas are still glorious and breathtaking; the river is as forceful and as majestic as ever. But Hannibal itself, it turns out, is not so idyllic. It's Nondescript with a capital N. It's . . .

Let's let the man himself describe it.

"Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect," Twain once wrote. "First, it had me as a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place."

* * *

Twain didn't hurt the place, of course. He made it. With words. And his words, not surprisingly, turn out to be the best way to get a handle on how the ideal of Hannibal survives within bricks-and-mortar Hannibal. Fortunately, that's something the people who run the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum fully understand.

Hannibal is a settlement of not quite 18,000 people in the northeast corner of Missouri, a state that geographically, politically and demographically is as Middle American as a state can be. Hannibal, 115 miles upriver from St. Louis, was the model village for Twain's settings in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

The museum, which is in a small, nicely preserved downtown district just west of a levee that keeps the Mississippi at bay, is essentially a walking tour consisting of eight buildings -- starting at a modern interpretive center and ending a few blocks away at an ornate gallery housed in a beautifully restored department store building that dates to the 1850s.

The museum attracts roughly 65,000 visitors annually and is amid a multiphase, decade-long $8 million facelift scheduled to be completed in two or three years. It is reaching out to a more national audience -- and a more diverse one, as evidenced by a temporary exhibit, "African Americans in Hannibal: Stories of Our Lives," that runs through May.

The museum traces its origin to 1912, when the author's boyhood home was saved from demolition, refurbished, donated to the city and opened to the public. For much of its existence, the museum accentuated the imaginary realm of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, Huck Finn, Jim and other Twain characters at the expense of a historically accurate portrayal of the gritty world from which Twain and those characters evolved: pre-Civil War, 19th-century America.

Now, said the museum's executive director, Regina Faden, "we're trying to create a balance where we're talking about the fictional but really looking at the factual."

Artifacts are sprinkled throughout the museum -- such as an engaging, undated portrait of Twain by obscure New York state artist Andrew Zylinski, 15 original Twain-related Norman Rockwell paintings and several Twain personal effects, including a pipe and a top hat. But to a great degree the curators simply let the words of Twain speak for themselves. The displays are interspersed with poignant and playful quotations from Twain's "Chapters From My Autobiography," which originally was published in 25 installments in North American Review a few years before the author died in 1910.

"I would never dream that I could see things or say things better than he could himself," Faden said. "So, we use his own words."

Listen to the author -- born Samuel Langhorne Clemens -- tell of how his financially strapped parents fled Tennessee and headed northwest in the 1830s with his five older siblings in tow: "My father's fortunes were wrecked. . . . He gathered together his household and . . . at last pitched his tent in the little town of Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. He 'kept store' there for several years but had no luck, except that I was born to him" there on Nov. 30, 1835.

And of how Samuel, as the sixth of seven children, "was postponed -- postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown state and needed new attractions."

And of how, when he and his slave-owning family moved to Hannibal when he was 3, it was an unsanitary, disease-ridden, racially stressed town in which "everybody was poor and didn't know it."

In the boyhood home itself, the rooms are behind glass. In toto, the house does not effectively transport a visitor back to antebellum Hannibal, but a displayed Twain quotation says it all: "When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood, it has always shrunk: There is no instance of such a house being as big as the picture in memory and imagination call for."

* * *

"The way they have it set up is really cool -- with all those words just coming at you -- it's sort of classic Mark Twain," said Minnesotan Joe Palmquist, relaxing at the Java Jive coffeehouse across the street after touring the museum. Java Jive bills itself as "The First Coffee Shop West of the Mississippi." It's a not-Starbucks cafe nestled among a bevy of art studios and mostly kitschy Twain-this-and-Twain-that shops along Main Street. Java Jive is an ideal place to catch your breath and gather your thoughts after visiting the museum.

Palmquist, 26, and his 23-year-old brother, Ben, were canoeing down the Mississippi from their home state "to salt water" past New Orleans. They had stopped overnight in Hannibal "to do the Twain thing."

"Being river rats ourselves, Mark Twain kind of symbolizes the Mississippi," Joe Palmquist said. "The spirit of the river is really alive in this town."

Sitting not far from Palmquist at the coffeehouse was Jennifer Halpin, a junior at Hannibal High School who said she rarely gets tired of all Twain, all the time in her home town: "It's kind of cool. You can read something in one of his books and then go look at the house where it happened."

That works in reverse, too. Seeing the houses of Hannibal firsthand makes a visitor want to reread the Twain classics. And that is no small feat, given Twain's definition of a classic: "Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Bill O'Brian last wrote for Travel about the Upper Mississippi.

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