Lighting Out for the Territory
Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture
By Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Chapter One: The Matter of Hannibal
June 20, 1995. The summer sun shot through the window in blinding flashes as my plane approached the runway for a landing. I shielded my eyes. As the Fokker 100 touched the ground, I recalled the conversation I'd had eight months earlier with Masako Notoji, an ebullient professor of American Studies from the University of Tokyo, who was studying American theme parks and historic sites. She had been regaling me with stories of the half-dozen historic sites in the United States she'd just visited, one of which was Hannibal, Missouri. I confessed I had never been there. She was incredulous. "You haven't been to Hannibal? And you work on Mark Twain?" "But you must go," she scolded. "It's that simple: you must go."
The "Matter of Hannibal," as Henry Nash Smith called the world of Twain's youth and the world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, would preoccupy Twain throughout his career as a writer. Sometimes the slavery that helped make that world what it was hovered at the periphery of Twain's awareness, while at other times it was at the center. Repeatedly Twain returned to events and scenes rooted in his Hannibal past, held them up to the light, turned them to see them from new angles, allowing them to cast fresh shadows. People and scenes that impinged on his consciousness in the present influenced what he recalled from that past, how he viewed it, and how he shaped it (consciously and unconsciously) into art.
Vivified through Mark Twain's imagination, Hannibal would become the scene of archetypal innocent idylls of childhood, the quintessential hometown. But it would also become a flash point of guilt, an emblem of bad faith and corruption, of moral rot, of barbarism--the underside of an arcadia that was innocent only in imagination.
When the well of his inspiration ran dry, as it did periodically, Twain often found that a quick detour back through the scenes of his childhood allowed it to fill again. But he could rarely predict the train of associations these returns would set in motion. Fragments of the past that had been muted or forgotten or buried would unexpectedly jump out at him. In Bombay in the 1890s, for example, the sight of a German abusing a servant vividly called up the chilling image of a slave in Hannibal being murdered by his master for some trifling offense. Daydream and nightmare would jostle one another, vying for primacy. The only constant linking all of these visions was Hannibal itself-real only as his mind chose to recall it, yet there, in some sense, in actuality, to return to in body as well as in spirit.
Twain did return physically--seven times, in fact--the last time being in 1902, when he was celebrated as a conquering hero. As a writer, however, he returned to Hannibal many more times. Hannibal would be the St. Petersburg of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the sequels, and of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (where parts of it may have made their way into Bricksville and Pikesville as well). It would appear in the shape of Dawson's Landing in Pudd'nhead Wilson and Eseldorf (literally "Assville") in The Mysterious Stranger. It would peek out in various guises from the pages of Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," and Following the Equator, as well as the autobiographical dictations and the posthumously published "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy" and "A Scrap of Curious History." Dimensions of Hannibal's complacency, pretentiousness, and bad faith would surface in "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and "My First Lie and How I Got Out of It"--a suggestive but incomplete list.
Mark Twain's Hannibal is a palimpsest that yields diverse and often contradictory meanings. It is also a microcosm of America itself--its promise and its potential, its guilt and its shame. In The Burden of Southern History, C. Vann Woodward observed that "the tragic aspects and the ironic implications" of American history have been obscured by "the national legend of success and victory and the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue." Hannibal eventually came to evoke, as no other single locale in the nation would or could evoke, both the innocence and the irony of American history.
As I pulled my rental car out of the St. Louis airport, heading northwest on Interstate 70, I recalled the view of Twain's snaking river from the plane. Meachum's river, too, I thought. Hannibal was my destination, but for the moment I was still in John Berry Meachum's town and I let my thoughts wander to this remarkable figure as St. Louis receded behind me. Born a slave in Virginia in 1789, Meachum became a skilled carpenter, cabinetmaker and barrel maker, purchasing his own freedom and that of his father before marrying and starting a family with a woman who was still a slave. When her master moved to Missouri, Meachum followed, soon purchasing his wife's and children's freedom as well and settling them in St. Louis. After establishing himself as a successful steamboat entrepreneur, Meachum bought twenty slaves, taught them a trade, employed them in his barrel-making business, and allowed them to purchase their freedom from him with the wages he paid them. He also became an important religious leader: ordained as a Baptist minister in 1825, he founded (in collaboration with New England evangelist John Mason Peck) the first black Protestant congregation west of the Mississippi. But it was his commitment to education that indelibly etched him in my memory.
In the late 1820s, in violation of a city ordinance, Meachum founded a clandestine school in the basement of his church on Third and Almond Streets, the first school for blacks in St. Louis. Under the cover of receiving religious instruction, his pupils, both slave and free, were taught to read and write and were encouraged to view education as the key to their future success. In 1847, however, unnerved by escalating fears of slave uprisings, the Missouri state legislature did away with Meachum's school (or so they thought), passing a law stipulating that no one could "keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes in reading or writing in this STATE." The punishment for those who broke the law and couldn't pay the fine was public whipping. John Berry Meachum was undeterred. In a move that deserves to be remembered in the history of American education as a masterpiece of ingenuity, Meachum outfitted a steamboat with books and anchored it in the middle of the Mississippi River, where it was subject to federal but not state laws. Students were ferried to the boat by skiff, taught reading, writing, and arithmetic all day, and ferried back to shore in the evening. Meachum's floating "Freedom School" continued until his death in the late 1850s.
As I turned off the interstate onto famous Highway 61, I thought about Meachum's creativity and courage--and about his obscurity. I had come across him by accident in my research. No monument or statue is erected to his memory, and he never makes it into American history books, Missouri histories, or histories of education. Why?
I recalled my graduate seminar on the African-American press last semester at the University of Texas at Austin. One of my students, Bruce Wilson, a black veteran whose knowledge of Texas black history is longstanding and rich, had chosen to investigate an incident that had received widespread attention in the local paper and the national black press when it first happened but somehow had not made it into standard histories of the state. John. R. Shillady, the white secretary of the NAACP, had been brutally beaten in broad daylight during his visit to Austin in 1919 in an attempt to discourage his efforts on behalf of the NAACP in Texas. One of Shillady's attackers, a well-known county judge, bragged, "I told him our Negroes would cause no trouble if left alone. Then I whipped him and ordered him to leave because I thought it was for the best interests of Austin and the state." When the NAACP national office asked the governor of Texas what was being done to punish the offenders, he replied by telegram, "Shillady was the only offender in connection with the matter." But it was the names of these powerful and visible leaders in Texas politics that sent shock waves around the classroom when Bruce Wilson spoke them: Pickle and Hobby. The county judge and the governor involved in this 1919 incident had the same last names as two highly respected contemporary elder statesmen of Texas who had firmly held the reins of power in the state until their retirement in the early 1990s, one as a U.S. congressman, the other as lieutenant governor. It was not, alas, some strange coincidence: they were, respectively, the grandfather of one and the father of the other.
I began to see why there was no monument to John Berry Meachum. One cannot honor the achievement of blacks who fought against their oppression without shining a glaring light on that oppression and on those who perpetrated it. One has to be willing to finger the first families of the state, longtime political dynasties, and good churchgoing folks like Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Huckleberry Finn as complicitous in an obscene and barbaric system. Celebrating the bravery and heroism of a Meachum required acknowledging the baseness of the good citizens of Missouri who threw those legal obstacles in his path. Small wonder that for many whites it seems simpler--and infinitely safer--just to forget the whole thing.
I checked into the Best Western Hotel Clemens in the late afternoon. When I realized I was a block from the Mark Twain Historic District, I decided to go for a walk. Shortly after I turned left onto Hill Street, I spotted a historic marker that read:
HERE STOOD THE BOARD FENCE WHICH TOM SAWYER PERSUADED HIS GANG TO PAY HIM FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF WHITEWASHING. TOM SAT BY AND SAW THAT IT WAS WELL DONE.Wait a minute, I thought. Tom Sawyer was a fictional character and was thus incapable of doing anything to an actual board fence that may or may not have existed at one time on Hill Street. And I knew that if Tom's fence allegedly "stood" on this spot some time in the past, at least ten more "Tom Sawyer's Fences" would miraculously materialize when Tom Sawyer Days took place some two weeks from today. I responded to the historical markers in Twain's hometown with the same healthy skepticism Twain himself had trained on the "facts" related by tour guides in The Innocents Abroad:
We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together.... I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails. Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one, also, in Notre Dame. And as for bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.I smiled to myself when I realized the kind of tourist I'd become: the kind Mark Twain had trained me to be.
I had only a few minutes in the Mark Twain Museum Annex before it closed, so I watched the biographical slide show and then hurriedly flipped through the rack of glass-covered boards displaying clippings and memorabilia associated with Twain and his world. Two items caught my interest. One was a 1935 poem by Edgar Guest composed for the Twain centennial.
Down in Hannibal, Missouri, they're living once againThe other was a page from the St. Louis Republican of 1849, displayed with a legend stating that this issue of the newspaper "reached Hannibal when Samuel Clemens was 14 years old." Among the ads for Perry Davis's painkiller medicine, the circus, and various theatrical productions were these:
All the countless happy memories of a boy they called Mark
Down in Hannibal, Missouri, young and old with eyes aglow
Are remembering a baby born one hundred years ago.
They are pointing out the places where that little fellow played,
And the haunts he made immortal by some boyish escapade....
NEGROES for SALE A strong, healthy woman 35-40 years of age, a first-rate cook, ironer and washer. Speaks French and English, and her two children, a boy seven years, and a girl three years old. Also, a sprightly 11 year old girl, all from the country. A first-rate woman cook, washer and ironer, for sale, not to leave the city. Apply at 104 Locust St.The museum was closing. I'd have to save the rest of the exhibits for the next day. As I made my way out into the street, I wondered how Hannibal was going to reconcile the world of "countless happy memories" of carefree boyhood with the world embodied in those chilling ads.
NEGRO GIRL FOR SALE A likely young negro girl, about 14 years old--sold for no fault. The owner having no use for her, would prefer to sell to a resident of the state. Apply on Broadway, first brick house south of Howard St.
Exiting onto Hill Street, I walked past the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, John Marshall Clemens' Law Office, the Haunted House, the Becky Thatcher House, and the Twainland Express Depot. I turned left on Third Street and found myself in what looked like the commercial district of any town of comparable size: a real estate office, a business supply store, a photography studio, a car stereo and cellular phone store, an electric heating equipment company, a radio station, a luncheonette, and a newspaper office. This had been a commercial area in Twain's day as well, I recalled. I stopped when I reached the corner of Third and Center Streets. When Sam Clemens was twelve, a businessman named John Armstrong traded hay, grain, and slaves at Melpontian Hall on this corner.
Slavery in Hannibal may not have been "the brutal plantation article," but it was slavery nonetheless, with the all too familiar mix of pain and powerlessness. Emma Knight of Hannibal was born a slave near Florida, Missouri, Mark Twain's birthplace. When she and her sisters outgrew the shoes their master gave them only once a year, they had to go barefoot. "Our feet would crack open from de cold and bleed. We would sit down and bawl and cry because it hurt so," she told an interviewer years after freedom had come. Her family had been separated, her father sold at auction--and not simply to settle an estate. "My father was took away. My mother said he was put upon a block and sold `cause de master wanted money to buy something for de house." Clay Smith, another slave from Hannibal, recalled that her aunt Harriet "was sold on de block down on Fourth Street right here in Hannibal."
The slave trading at Melpontian Hall--about four blocks from the house where the Clemens family lived--was so repugnant to the Moores, a newly arrived family in town, that they packed up and moved back to Wisconsin after a very brief stay. Yet the disdain in which the citizens of Hannibal allegedly held the slave trader was not so strong as to dissuade them from using Melpontian Hall as their voting place on election day.
All slaves were vulnerable to being sold away from friends and family. Indeed, as Twain tells us, his own father was responsible for one such sale, having exiled a slave named Charley "from his home, his mother, and his friends, and all things and creatures that make life dear." In 1842 John Marshall Clemens, who had received the slave in settlement of a long-standing debt, took Charley with him on a trip to collect $470 he was owed by a man in Mississippi. John Clemens found the financial trials of the Mississippi man so moving that he "could not have the conscience" to collect the debt (as he wrote home). But he had no qualms about selling Charley down the river for about forty dollars' worth of tar--the same amount that the king and the duke got for Jim when they sold him in the novel Twain would write some forty years later.
That the Deep South held no monopoly on cruelty as far as slaves were concerned is clear from Twain's own recollections. At age ten, in 1845, on one of Hannibal's main streets, he had watched a white master strike and kill a slave with a piece of iron, a memory that came back to him in Bombay. "I knew the man had a right to kill his slave if he wanted to, and yet it seemed a pitiful thing and somehow wrong, though why wrong I was not deep enough to explain.... Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it." On another occasion he recalled the community's response to the death of a slave at the hands of a white overseer: "Everybody seemed indifferent about it as regarded the slave--though considerable sympathy was felt for the slave's owner, who had been bereft of valuable property by a worthless person who was not able to pay for it." (The jarring intrusion of the fact that the murder of the slave left the owner "bereft of valuable property" resonates with the dry denouement of Pudd'nhead Wilson: "Everybody granted that if `Tom' were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him--it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life--that was quite another matter. As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.")
Although the white citizens of Hannibal may have persuaded themselves that their "mild domestic slavery" was more humane than "the brutal plantation article," the efforts of slaves to escape at great personal risk and the fears of their owners that they would succeed belie the view that "as a rule our slaves were convinced and content." Emma Knight recalled her mistress's efforts to intimidate the slaves: "Mistress always told us dat if we run away somebody would catch and kill us. We was always scared when somebody strange come." Clay Smith recalled that "Father run away to Illinois during the war and we ain't never saw him again." Twain recalled from his early childhood in Florida, Missouri, hearing the "loud and frequent groans" of a runaway slave brought into the town "by six men who took him to an empty cabin, where they threw him on the floor and bound him with ropes." In 1847, when Twain was eleven, a runaway slave who belonged to a man named Neriam Todd swam across the river and hid in the swampy thickets of Sny Island, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. A boy of Twain's acquaintance, Benson Blankenship, found him and brought him scraps of food instead of giving him up for a reward. (His behavior would become a model for aspects of Huck's behavior in Huckleberry Finn.) Some woodchoppers chased the slave into a part of the swamp called Bird Slough, where he disappeared; several days later, Sam Clemens and a few of his friends who had crossed the river to fish and hunt for berries found the slave's mutilated body. Yet courage persisted in the face of cruelty and danger. Indeed, slaves escaped with just enough frequency that insurance companies advertised policies to help protect slave owners from the financial loss involved.
There was something else the slaves had that pain and powerlessness and poverty didn't manage to extinguish: a rich and creative oral tradition. A young Sam Clemens who as yet knew nothing of his future calling listened to it every chance he got. The slaves didn't tell this attentive little white boy how much they suffered: stories like those Emma Knight and Clay Smith shared with interviewers years after slavery ended were not for his ears. What they did let him hear were ghost stories and satirical orations so masterfully constructed and delivered that he would remember them all his life. He was tremendously struck by the storytelling talents of Uncle Dan'l, a slave at his uncle's farm in Florida, Missouri, whose tales he was privileged to listen to every night in the summer. In a letter Twain wrote about him in 1881, he recalled the "impressive pauses and eloquent silences" of Uncle Dan'l's "impressive delivery." Twain would also recall the rhetorical performances of Jerry, "a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man--a slave, who daily preached sermons from the top of his master's woodpile, with me for sole audience. ... To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States." All his life Twain would emulate the lessons in storytelling and satire he learned from Uncle Dan'l and Jerry during his Hannibal childhood. These master talents, however, despite their consummate skill as artists, were still slaves, and as such they were just as vulnerable as Charley was to being sold and separated from the people they loved. Later in life--much later--Twain would comprehend what that meant.
As an adult Twain would remember the sight of "a dozen black men and women chained to each other...and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I ever saw." In A Connecticut Yankee he would describe another chained group of slaves: "Even the children were smileless; there was not a face among all these half a hundred people but was cast down, and bore that set expression of hopelessness which is bred of long and hard trials and old acquaintance with despair."
During his Hannibal boyhood, Sam Clemens did not challenge the social and legal norms that produced that despair. "In those old slaveholding days," he recalled,
the whole community was agreed as to one thing--the awful sacredness of slave property.... To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave...or hesitate to promptly betray him to a slave-catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, and carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. ...It seemed natural enough to me then.But the boy who found this state of affairs "natural enough" would ultimately come to hold a very different attitude.
What is a "real" civilization? Nobody can answer that conundrum. They have all tried. Then suppose we try to get at what it is not; and then subtract the what it is not from the general sum, and call the remainder "real" civilization.... Let us say, then, in broad terms, that any system which has in it any one of these things, to wit, human slavery, despotic government, inequality, numerous and brutal punishments for crimes, superstition almost universal, ignorance almost universal, and dirt and poverty almost universal--is not a real civilization, and any system which has none of them is.This child of slaveholders, this member of a ragtag band of Confederate irregulars, would write what is arguably the greatest antiracist novel by an American: a book about a young boy who is oblivious to anything amiss in the moral universe of the grown-ups around him (as Clemens himself was) but who, despite his best intentions to the contrary, allows his "sound heart" to defeat his "deformed conscience," forging, in the process, one of the most memorable interracial friendships in literature.
If you grant these terms, one may then consider this conundrum: How old is real civilization? The answer is easy and unassailable. A century ago it had not appeared anywhere in the world during a single instant since the world was made. If you grant these terms--and I don't see why it shouldn't be fair, since civilization must surely mean the humanizing of a people, not a class--there is today but one real civilization in the world, and it is not yet thirty years old. We made the trip and hoisted its flag when we disposed of our slavery.
What an incredible story Clemens' own story was: a young boy who accepts slavery as natural and right grows up to become a man who asserts that civilization began when slavery was abolished. Along the way he becomes the most famous American writer of his time--perhaps of all time. How, I wondered, would Hannibal dramatize this compelling saga?
As I made my way back along a dark North Third Street to the Best Western Hotel Clemens, I stopped at the corner of Hill to look once more at the river. A magical mile-wide ribbon of undulating liquid silver. A liminal space, once a fluid border between slave territory and free, powerful, mysterious, as fearful and unpredictable as nature itself. Twain's river. Meachum's river, too. Suddenly a twinge of doubt crossed my mind, but I banished it: Missouri could forget Meachum, but Hannibal could never forget Mark Twain. The Mark Twain Historic District stretched out in front of me, proof of the folly of the thought that had disturbed me for a moment. But then it gnawed at me again: Which Twain? Might they somehow have managed to forget the one that mattered most?
Back in my hotel room, I curled up with the small stack of books and articles I'd brought from home or acquired that afternoon and read up on local history. From Hannibal-born journalist Ron Powers' White Town Drowsing I learned that
no one knows for sure who named the site Hannibal or why. The official histories of that region--that is, the white histories--are content to point out that the settlers of the early nineteenth century had a taste for classical allusions; and it is true that many of the smaller towns near Hannibal suggest this taste.... At any rate, the official histories seldom go further than identifying Hannibal as the famous Carthaginian general. One needs to check a few independent sources to confirm that Hannibal was a black Carthaginian general.This fact, Powers observes, "has tended to legitimize a cherished but carefully guarded oral legend passed through the generations of the town's small community of black citizens." According to this legend, the earliest settlement of non-Native Americans in the area was
a campsite struck sometime after 1804 by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition of the Louisiana Territory. Among the members of this expedition was an African slave, a former explorer and ocean pilot who had been taken into slavery by Thomas Jefferson himself, then sent west with Captain William Clark.The slave, who resisted Clark's efforts to name him "York," insisted on calling himself "Hannibal."
York--or Hannibal--was assigned to guard the expedition's campsite. Members of the party who ventured inland--so the legend goes--could always find their way back to the base by fixing upon the sight, or sound, of the fierce African who waved a flag from side to side and announced into the western continent, "This is Hannibal! This is Hannibal!"Powers finds the legend "appealing--the town, at its earliest nascence, bawling out its being in a human voice."
Some two decades after Sam Clemens left Hannibal, the sleepy river town of his childhood was transformed into a bustling commercial hub, the fourth-largest lumber center in the nation. Starting in the 1870s, lumber from Minnesota and Wisconsin was floated down the river by raft to Hannibal, where it was processed in local sawmills and then shipped by freight train to Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and points west. Great fortunes were made and Hannibal's lumber barons built imposing mansions.
But in 1901 Hannibal's lumber-hauling season ended early because the river had dropped too low. In addition, the white-pine forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin had been heavily depleted, and soon newly built railroads and sawmills allowed the lumber that was left to be processed locally in the northern states and shipped directly, instead of being sent downriver to Hannibal. By 1903 the lumber industry had largely abandoned Hannibal. Shoe factories, a cement plant, cigar factories, and other manufacturing enterprises remained, but in time many of these would go the way of the lumber business.
There was one resource Hannibal had that would prove to be infinitely renewable: its status, as Hannibal historians Hurley and Roberta Hagood put it, as "the town which furnished the background for the escapades of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn." Hannibal is not "on the way to" anywhere. It is a drive from any major airport, and passenger trains don't run there. "`Mark Twain's Boyhood Home,' `America's Home Town,' and the `Best Known Little Town in the World'" nonetheless manages to attract as many as 350,000 visitors a year. In 1992 tourists pumped over thirteen million dollars into Hannibal's economy.
"Missouri claims Mark Twain for its very own.... The commonwealth writes his name upon its role of sons distinguished and watches with maternal pride his globe-girdling career," wrote Walter Williams in Five Famous Missourians in 1900. But at the time of Twain's death in 1910, the little white house he had lived in on Hill Street had fallen into disrepair, and there were plans to turn it into a butcher shop. In 1911 Mr. and Mrs. George Mahan of Hannibal intervened, purchasing the house and presenting it to the city. In the years that followed, they gave the city the statue of Huck and Tom that still stands at the foot of Cardiff Hill (the first statue in the country of purely fictional characters), and they placed historical markers at various sites. In short, they laid the groundwork for a tourist industry that would eventually be responsible for more than fifteen hundred local jobs.
The Mark Twain Museum (originally housed in a bank) was dedicated in 1935 by Twain's daughter, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch. The 1935 centennial of Twain's birth was celebrated with concerts, parades, and a massive biographical pageant presented on three nights in June on the new high school football field. The pageant--"Mark Twain's First One Hundred Years"--featured a shooting comet, a horse-drawn carriage, and a cast of eleven hundred local citizens. President Roosevelt dedicated the Mark Twain Lighthouse, illuminating it with the flip of a switch in the White House, an event that was broadcast live on radio across the nation. The Mark Twain Bridge, linking Missouri to Illinois, was completed and dedicated the following year. Over the next fifty years, 6.5 million tourists would visit the town.
At the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1985, instead of a pageant about Mark Twain's life there were Twain impersonators, an evening of readings by an actress impersonating his mother, appearances by "Tom" and "Becky," and the daily downtown antics of various citizens dressed up as "Hannibal the Frog." President Reagan proclaimed November 30 (Twain's birthday) Mark Twain Day and the postal service issued a special Mark Twain/Halley's Comet U.S. Aerogramme in December. In the slogan selected for the sesquicentennial--"Hannibal's Jumping"--there was a nod both to the frog that gave Twain his first national visibility and to the aspirations of the town that wished to capitalize on his fame. But a combination of inexperience, mismanagement, and political imbroglio prevented the "Sesqui" from making the huge profits its enthusiasts had predicted and left the city with some embarrassing debts instead.
I closed the books, opened the curtains, and looked out the window. I recalled the story about the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges that I had just read in the chapter on Hannibal in William Zinsser's American Places. When he was eighty-three, Borges agreed to lecture at Washington University in St. Louis on the condition that his hosts take him to Hannibal. Twain's work--particularly Huckleberry Finn--had captured his imagination as a child and sustained him as an adult. Frail and nearly blind, he insisted on making the two-hour trip to Twain's hometown. When he got there it became clear that there was really only one thing he wanted to do: put his hand in the Mississippi River. He reached down and did just that. The river, he said, was the essence of Twain's writing. He had to touch it.
I watched the moon throw handfuls of dancing stars--whole constellations of them--at the shimmering water. I was not convinced the river was the source of Twain's art. But like Borges I had felt the need to visit Hannibal, sure that coming here would somehow take me closer to the wellspring of Twain's imagination. Would it? I wondered, as I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up as the sun was coming out, dressed, and walked down Hill Street to the river. The silver ribbon of the night before had become an unremarkable gray-brown swath of water. But it intrigued me nonetheless: it was the same view Sam Clemens had looked out at each morning. Mark Twain's lapidary prose would make the dawn on that river in Huckleberry Finn a kind of ur-dawn that all other literary dawns would have to live up to:
Not a sound, anywheres--perfectly still--just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line--that was the woods on t'other side--you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray....I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the moist air of the Missouri summer, The rancid fishy smell nearly toppled me. Huck had warned me, but I had simply forgotten:
the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank.I walked along the river for a while. Behind me lay "the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning,... the streets empty or pretty nearly so." I took off my shoes and waded in the muddy coolness of "the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun." I gazed at "the dense forest away on the other side; the `point' above the town, and the `point' below, bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant and lonely one." At this juncture, Twain tells us in Life on the Mississippi, the stillness of the drowsing town is broken by the joyful shout of a black man, "a negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice," who spots "a film of dark smoke ... above one of those remote `points' " and instantly "lifts up the cry, `S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!' and the scene changes!...and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving."
The famous "negro drayman" was a free black from Virginia named John Hannicks, who lived in Hannibal with his wife, Ellen, and their three children. In addition to the distinction of usually being the first to spot a steamboat's approach, Hannicks was known for his helpfulness. In 1851 the Hannibal Courier praised the "exertions of good-humored `JOHN,' the Drayman, in turning out with his dray and hauling water" to the scene of a fire. Mark Twain remembered him not only for his booming voice but also for his storytelling and his ready laughter. In a notebook entry dated 1887 he referred to "John Hanicksic's laugh." In another notebook entry ten years later, he alluded to the drayman's "giving his `experience,'" but the memorable story he must have told has not been preserved. Twain commented on Hannicks again in the jottings known as "Villagers of 1840-3," composed in 1897, forty-four years after Twain left Hannibal.
John Hannicks, with the laugh. See black smoke rising beyond the point--I tried to imagine John Hannicks's laugh that morning on the river. I tried to imagine his "prodigious voice." During the slide show at the museum annex the day before, when that passage from Life on the Mississippi came up in the narration, John Hannicks's famous "Steeammmboat a-comin'" was there, but it was not attributed to anyone in particular, and the reference to the "negro drayman" had been left out.
"Steeammmboat a coming!" Laugh. Rattle his dray.
Hannicks was a free man of color, and like other free blacks in Missouri, he had to carry a license to live in the state at all times and was obligated to post bond if he wanted to travel to another county. In the "South in my own time," Hank Morgan would recall in A Connecticut Yankee, "hundreds of free men who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into life-long slavery." Hannicks ran a huge risk any time he left home without his license. He was required to register his children at the county court when they turned seven, and to have them bound out as apprentices and servants at that age, permitting the state "to enslave them by another name." What had it been like, I wondered, to be free and black in a slaveholding town like Hannibal? In addition to Hannicks and his family, more than thirty other free blacks lived in Hannibal during Twain's childhood. HOW was their history remembered and preserved?
As the morning sun played on the water, the empty streets began to show signs of life. Merchants unlocked their doors. A tour bus unloaded its passengers. I made my way back up Hill Street, arriving at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum when it opened at eight. I peered into the bedroom Sam had shared with his brother Henry, the family's kitchen, the parlor--all beautifully restored in 1990 when each room was fitted with reconditioned nineteenth-century hardware, painted with the kind of paint that was used in Hannibal when Clemens lived there, and furnished with authentic period pieces resembling those that the Clemens family was known to have owned. Although the rooms were sealed behind glass to protect them from temperature change and moisture, I experienced the full blast of the day's building heat as I walked through the house on open-air metal platforms that helped decrease wear and tear on the structure itself. Tape recordings that played over loudspeakers positioned in front of each room provided basic information about how that room was used and connected it to specific scenes in Tom Sawyer. The museum I entered after walking through the home featured, among other things, a glass case containing marbles that had been found during excavations of the site--marbles Sam Clemens himself may have played with.
The restoration was impressive, I told curator Henry Sweets III when he met me in the garden outside for our interview. He beamed. It was just the beginning, he said. All kinds of new plans were in the works for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum--particularly now that Hannibal was no longer vulnerable to the flooding that had periodically devastated the downtown area for more than a century. A measure of how seriously Hannibal takes historic preservation is the five-hundred-year flood wall built to protect the historic district in 1992. This is a town that wants the past to last. "The flood protection...kept us high and dry in the flood of 1993. Things are looking good for Hannibal in the future," Sweets said. Building designs for the new museum had recently been approved, and preliminary fund-raising efforts had succeeded to the tune of well over a quarter of a million dollars. Animated and excited, he described a museum whose first floor would feature a series of rooms or alcoves, each devoted to one of Twain's major books. At the rear a grand staircase similar to those found on steamboats would take the visitor up to a pilothouse high enough to afford a view of the river. Rotating exhibits would focus on Hannibal's railroading heritage, cigar-making heritage, and shoemaking heritage. New buildings might be added as well, such as a nineteenth-century print shop and a schoolroom. The long-term plans involved encouraging more craftsmen to relocate to the downtown area adjacent to the historic district. Some had begun to do so; a glassblower and a potter were there already. He said it would be nice to have a metalworkimg shop. "We want the whole downtown rejuvenated," transformed into "a place visitors will want to come to for trips." Close to eight million people had visited the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, 120,000 in 1994 alone, Sweets said. He hoped the expansion would lure even more.
"Is Twain's antiracism known here? Is it taught here?"
"It isn't brushed under the rug," Sweets said. "It just isn't approached. ... The tie to Mark Twain for Hannibal is Tom Sawyer. The connection people feel is really through Tom Sawyer rather than through any other of the writings."
Tom Sawyer Days was testimony to the power of that book over this town. Two weeks hence, Sweets noted, Hannibal would celebrate its fortieth Tom Sawyer Days. Each year since 1956 a seventh-grade boy had been crowned "Tom Sawyer" during the festivities, and a seventh-grade girl had been crowned "Becky Thatcher." Although there is only one "official" Tom and one "official" Becky each year, the four runners-up in each competition work pretty hard as well. "We have days when we need multiple Toms and Beckys," Sweets explained. "Suppose there are two parades in two communities and both want a Tom and a Becky. Suppose you have two businesses opening the same day. Also, you don't want to use the same ones all the time because there are so many things they use the Toms and Beckys for. Suppose there's a business opening on a Thursday, and you need to pull a Tom or Becky out of school. Well, you don't want to pull the same one all the time or you'll have problems." This year all forty of the official Toms and official Beckys since 1956 had been invited back to Hannibal for a special dinner on July 3. Were any of them in town yet? I asked. Sweets rattled off the names of eight who had never left Hannibal to begin with. Becky Thatcher of 1964, in fact, was head of the Visitors and Convention Bureau, which was next to my hotel. He was sure she'd be glad to talk to me. I wrote down her name in my notebook.
After my conversation with Henry Sweets, I walked across the street to the Mark Twain Book and Gift Shop, an establishment that had no connection other than proximity to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. What would Twain have thought of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee nestled up against the complete works of William Shakespeare--a writer Twain alternately competed with and made fun of--in a bookstore in Twain's hometown? Since he was in the bookselling business himself, not just as a writer but as a publisher, Twain would have understood the owner's impulse to carry, alongside Twain's greatest novels, a book entitled 365 Pies You Can Bake. After all, in 1893 one of the books Twain brought out as he struggled unsuccessfully to save his publishing company from bankruptcy was Alexander Filippini's One Hundred Desserts. I purchased a handful of postcards and several copies of a facsimile reprint of Harper's Weekly from April 30, 1910--nine days after Twain's death--before breaking down and buying Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking. The amiable proprietor, Martha Adrian, rang up the sale and showed me around when I told her that I was writing about Mark Twain and Hannibal, and wanted to know which souvenirs were the most popular.
We took a leisurely stroll among the densely cluttered shelves as Adrian expanded on her wares. Items for sale included a bust of Mark Twain, a framed Tom Sawyer stamp showing a famous Norman Rockwell illustration, a music-box reproduction of the Mark Twain Lighthouse on Cardiff Hill, prints of steamboats, original pages from turn-of-the-century magazines with material pertaining to Twain, cast-iron "Aunt Jemima" and "Uncle Moss" banks, and plaster figurines made in China depicting black children eating watermelon, tying their shoes, or sitting on the toilet. There were rows of collectible spoons and thimbles featuring images of Mark Twain and Tom and Huck and Becky, and magnets with Mark Twain's picture on them. "In the book section, I've tried to have all of his books," Adrian said. "The best-seller would be Tom Sawyer, after that Huck Finn." She gestured to the stacks of Confederate army caps on the shelf beneath the books. "We sell quite a few of those, but just as many Northern hats. Now on the bandannas, we sell more of the Confederate bandannas. It's a pretty popular item with kids now-they like to wear it on their heads." I asked about the "Confederate Generals" and "Union Generals" decks of cards. "Probably `Confederate Generals' sell better," Adrian answered.
"What about the bullwhips?" I pointed to a rack of whips hanging next to us.
"That's just a popular item with little boys. They just for some reason like to snap a bullwhip. The [previous] owner had `em when we bought the store. They sold real well. It's just a perennial thing."
"What are people looking for when they come here?" I asked. "What do they want to find in Hannibal? Why do they seek out Twain's boyhood home?"
It was "the small-town values that he had," Adrian said. "Most people, when they read things of his, they were either raised in a small town or they're interested in that type of thing.... A lot of people come here and say what a nice place this would be to live." Her customers include families on vacation, honeymooners, tourists from all over the United States and around the world and, of course, hundreds of groups of schoolchildren.
"What's the most popular souvenir when school groups come?"
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