When Twain portrays Hannibal, Missouri, as sleepy (see the end of my previous post) in his nonfiction book Life on the Mississippi, it’s to set the stage for the arrival of a packet boat coming downriver, which changes everything:
The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf.
No boats were expected at Glascock’s Landing on April 21, 2010, one hundred years to the day after Twain’s death, or for the rest of eternity, near as I could tell. Even the resident Mark Twain Riverboat, a 120-foot sternwheeler built in 1964, sat idle and dark. Two policemen walked quickly through the narrow waterfront park, glancing over occasionally at someone shouting in the distance. When the police left, the man and I were the only people on the bank as far as I could see in either direction.
He was fishing in an eddy below a work barge that was tied off to some mutilated sheet-piling. He loaded up a giant hook with some kind of glop from a jar, which I took for peanut butter but might have been his secret-formula catfish bait. He swung the rod hard and fast, and the bait went flying off the hook and splashed down separately. He shouted an obscenity, reeled in, scooped up two fingers more of the glop, formed it carefully around the hook, and cast again with the same result. More savage cussing, more bait, another cast, same results. I stood next to him companionably as the obscenities rained down, their thunder rolling across the surface of the water all the way to Jackson Island. Someone else might have felt uncomfortable in the situation, but you see I’ve gone fishing, once, myself.
I walked along the decline of the wharf on cobblestones so worn that their uphill edges stuck up like stone knives. I tried hard to cast myself back to 1853 or so, when Twain left home, but it was difficult with the two modern steel trestle bridges spanning the river, the railroad tracks paralleling the wharf, the levee beyond them, the overhead wires and satellite dishes and advertising. Hannibal was still sleepy and had retained the charm of the river town, but also present were the echoes of a noisy industrial history that had piled up in layers since Twain had gone away.
He did return five times as an adult. From his notebook of April 1882:
Alas! Everything has changed in Hannibal—but when I reached Third or Fourth Street the tears burst forth, for I recognized the mud. It at least was the same—the same old mud.
Rootedness in the earth to this degree is becoming more unusual in American letters. Mud’s not readily apparent most places we live now, except my front yard. The mud of Hannibal is largely paved over but still rises to be seen in the brick of the buildings sprawled over the hills. It’s a decent metaphor for how great writers become part of the edifice of a nation, though Twain had doubts about what portion of him would remain.
“We struggle, we rise...with the adoring eyes of the nations upon us, then the lights go out...our glory fades and vanishes, a few generations drift by, and naught remains but a mystery and a name,” he writes.
“Fuck!” the man yelled over my shoulder.
For one small price ($9, I think), tourists can buy a pass to all the museums and related buildings in town. The Mark Twain Museum is modern, cheerfully-lighted, and contains a mishmash of objects and information that’s not really coherent but is interesting and even moving: The death mask of Twain’s only son, a little boy named Langdon who died at 19 months, and a photo of him sitting up in his stroller; some items of Twain’s clothing; a pipe with the stem worn away by his teeth; a couple-dozen original paintings and sketches by Norman Rockwell, for an edition of Tom Sawyer, which weren’t as kitschy or sentimental on the wall as they seem in magazines; a reproduction pilot’s wheel; statues; furniture from various households; and period newspapers.
The front page of the Hannibal Morning Journal, Friday, April 22, 1910, says Clemens was “bad in the morning at Stormfield” but “seemed in good spirits” and recognized his wife’s nephew and niece.
Unable to talk too much, he asked the nurse for his glasses. When he was given them he picked up a book which for many years had been one of his favorites, Carlyle’s French Revolution, and read several pages of it. This exertion was too much for his fast-failing strength, and he relapsed into a comatose condition, which verged into complete unconsciousness from which he never recovered.
One of the (several) dangers of confusing the writing and the life is that the author’s stuff becomes as suffused with meaning as his books. It’s fitting that a display in the museum quotes a passage from Innocents Abroad, in which Twain complains about the ubiquity of holy relics in his travels in Europe and the Middle East:
But isn’t this relic matter a little overdone? 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 would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails.
There are several other kegs of Twain’s nails on display, a few blocks away, in his boyhood home and at the Blankenship (Huck Finn) House, the Laura Hawkins (Becky Thatcher) House, the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace building, and Grant’s Drugstore (a period apothecary shop). Go, they’re worth a look, but be forewarned that visitors stand outside at most of these locations and look into rooms through doorways covered in Plexiglass, and the visitor center for the boyhood home is a riot of bad curation.
The boyhood home gift shop sells a few near-relics, should you want to take one home. In a corner I found:
Wild Huckleberry Gummi Bears, Wild Huckleberry Pancake Mix, Wild Huckleberry Cocoa, Wild Huckleberry Honey, Wild Huckleberry Syrup, Wild Huckleberry Chocolate Bar, Wild Huckleberry Jelly Beans, Wild Huckleberry Sampler, Wild Huckleberry Pinwheels, Wild Huckleberry Stix, Wild Huckleberry Taffy—and Missouri Chocolate River Rocks.
There are also books by and about Twain, steamboat models, jaw harps and pennywhistles, and all manner of other geedunk and geegaws. Has anyone done a dissertation yet on museum gift shops as anthropological sites? In response to my questioning, the two older Southern ladies who staffed the cash register patiently explained that the huckleberries used in the products were grown deep in the Ozarks, not locally. Of course I’d already seen right through them, so I was pleased with myself when I found the jam to be delicious anyway, that my boys liked their t-shirts, and the postcards I bought of Twain, cartooned by Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterston for the Mark Twain Journal, looked fine in my office. I may drive back this summer to pick up a few other things. Maybe a marble head.
What do we long for when we go looking for an author beyond his or her books? It’s not fashionable to speak of greatness of spirit, so let’s say Twain was an innocence broker and that that quality in his work hypnotizes us, fascinated, like a bird before a snake. I refer of course to the child narrators, the attention to “Innocents” staggering abroad (his best seller in his lifetime), the prose tone that has us believing he’s normal but surrounded by odd and colorful characters, the spotless white ice-cream suits, and the loving family man performing skits at home with his children.
But there’s more to it than that, since he could also be satisfyingly and viciously angry, cornpone, and hilariously filthy, some of which various individuals (his wife) and the culture have suppressed. This was a man who, lecturing at a Stomach Club dinner on the topic of masturbation, could say, “A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Too often, so-called American innocence is a fake, a forced childish simplicity, whether in politics, religion, or science. In the end it’s no different from cynicism. Twain’s great gift was to find a way to resolve knowledge and innocence, what Picasso might have meant when he said, “It takes a lifetime to become young.” Call Twain avuncular if you think so, but his prose is not only perfect in places, he also stood up against imperialism, racism, vivisection, cant, hypocrisy, sham, and injustice, and he showed us how to love our muddy experience. That is, he became a whole human being, and that's always a draw.
A rash of new books has broken out in this our Year of Mark Twain, such as the revisionist Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years, which challenges the popular notion that Twain’s last decade was miserable and misanthropic. I’m as happy to see it as I have been to surf around at The Mark Twain Project Online (in collaboration with The Bancroft Library, UC, Berkeley); Mark Twain in His Times, by Stephen Railton, Department of English, University of Virginia, and The Electronic Text Center at UVa; and the apparently unaffiliated TwainQuotes site.
All the attention this year might make us feel closer to Twain, a presumption he would have appreciated, ham that he was, and been amused by.
As Clemens prepared to leave Hannibal for the last time, Tom Nash, a childhood friend—now deaf—approached him. [Twain writes,] “He was old and white-headed, but the boy of fifteen was still visible in him. He came up to me, made a trumpet of his hands at my ear, nodded his head toward the citizens, and said, confidentially—in a yell like a fog horn—‘Same damned fools, Sam.’”
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division.