This time of year the bare soil across much of Illinois is monochromatic because it’s been tilled uniformly by computer-controlled machines in fields that extend flatly to the horizon. But just west of the capital, Springfield, the first low hills emerge, and the plowed dirt begins to look less corporate and more varied. From there it’s little more than an hour to Hannibal, Mark Twain’s hometown, on the Mississippi River.
America’s personality was once riverine, and all roads led to the wharf. Twain writes, “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” But rivers no longer occupy the same place in our national consciousness, and towns like Hannibal, which in the mid-1800s had up to 1,000 boats landing there every year, were often cut off like oxbow meanders when first railroads and then airplanes came along.
The interstate to Hannibal begins to look like an old state road, narrowing and ribboned with tar. Trees grow along the route, the tender mist of their leaves punctuated with Redbud blooms, and marshweed and cattails grow in the ditches. None of this is allowed to exist along major highways in the east-central part of the state, where I live, and seeing it made me happy. Drainage creeks twist through the fields in tight green serpentines, miniatures of the Lower River on which Twain piloted. The sunlight changes too, so inexplicably that it’s tempting to refer to old theories about miasmal exhalations of the earth.
A sign marks 90 degrees west longitude: “1/4 way west around the world.” I’ve never heard it suggested, but could this be one of the meanings of “Midwest”—the place halfway to the opposite side of the globe, at which point you might as well have taken the eastern route? Exits lead to the hometowns of Stephen Douglas, John Hay, and John Nicolay. Lincoln was clerking at New Salem, 30 miles from the toddler Sam Clemens. Grant worked in St. Louis and upstream at Galena, and General John Logan was born three hours south. I stopped at a Dairy Queen in this cradle of American Civil War culture and bought the best char-grilled burger with cheese food and crunchy tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.
Closer to the river, road cuts expose sandstone and limestone, then the highway crosses a long floodplain surrounded by distant bluffs. I experienced a microsecond of confusion. The landscape stood before me, irreconcilable with prose and my own memories, yet irrefutable. At least crossing the bridge was no longer the terror it was when I was a kid and my mom wrestled the steering wheel of her little Toyota wagon, its tires pulling and shimmying on the deck plates, while I looked far, far down at the boiling brown god.
Now on the Missouri embankment there’s a 50-foot high portrait of Twain in the medium of colored gravel. The road twists around a hill and down past gas stations and a tanning salon into the center of Hannibal, where a trim business district includes the Mark Twain Dinette, Mark Twain Family Restaurant, Twain Tours with Twainland Express, Mark Twain Book and Gift Shop, Mrs. Clemens’ Shoppes, and Pudd’nhead’s Antiques, Collectibles and Crafts.
Twain’s boyhood home is there too, a small white clapboard house taller than it is wide, with other historic buildings clustered around it in a block’s radius: a reconstructed version of the Blankenship home (the boy was a model for Huck Finn), a period building being called the Becky Thatcher House, the drugstore building where the Clemens lived for a while, and the courtroom where Twain’s dad’s was a JP. Two blocks away on Cardiff Hill, where Twain played pirate as a boy and real bootleggers and other criminals lived, the town has installed a statue of Tom and Huck, a small butterfly garden up the slope, and a lighthouse on top, used not for navigation but to honor Twain.
The ceremony to mark the centenary of Twain’s death, my reason for visiting this time, had just begun on the grounds of the boyhood home. I’ll admit I went thinking it would be just the sort of thing Twain would have skewered, but it was respectful, very local—mostly the citizens of Hannibal gathering to honor one of their own—and sedate, despite the presence of a Mark Twain impersonator, a beauty queen, and a dozen Tom and Becky “ambassadors” dressed in hokum-wear. There was a time capsule waiting to be buried, and proclamations read aloud from the governor, the US Congresswoman for the district, and the mayor; 2010 was proclaimed the Year of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missour-uh. (It’s also the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of Huck Finn.)
The Mark Twain impersonator took the microphone and did two or three well-chosen bits as called upon, invoking the line, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry,” which took on poignancy after a reading from the Hannibal paper’s obituary of Twain the morning after his death. Then the child ambassadors described what they liked about their jobs, what they had learned, who they met, or what their ambitions were. One little girl spoke movingly about becoming president and alleviating the misery of the poor. I had only to turn my head and look up the steep incline of Hill Street to see the mix of dilapidated and well-kept houses that reflected the widening disparity in America. After the ceremony people drifted back to their workplaces and into restaurants, and I headed for the landing.
The river was utterly placid and smoothly flowing, even glassy, not at all like I remember from any of dozens of childhood visits, but then a lot has happened to me since then. Only purling hinted at the mischief it was capable of. Hannibal boomed after Twain left, then the boom days ended, and now Glascock’s Landing felt very close again to how Twain described his town:
After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the wall, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep—with shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the 'levee;' a pile of 'skids' on the slope of the stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of them; two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; 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.
To be continued....