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Mark Twain's Hannibal, Hannibal's Mark Twain


Mark Twain is a great American puzzle. Almost every American and many others is familiar with his 'trademark' appearance—white suit, shaggy mustache, twinkling eye and more clever quotations than he ever actually penned. The puzzle is that very little of the very complex man behind all that is well-known, and most people know little of his work beyond Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.


Hannibal, Missouri, where he grew up, and which embraces every bit of Twain it can get its hands on, is not a bad place to get beyond the surface. Despite the town's penchant for hanging his name and image on everything from street signs and fried chicken, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum does quite a good job in deepening an understanding of the man and the age that shaped him.

20230814_102506Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to give him the real name he grew out of, wasn't born in Hannibal, as he explains above, but arrived with his parents on what was, essentially, a frontier on the Mississippi. His father, a serially-unsuccessful lawyer, hoped to start again there, and almost succeeded. He became a local judge, but still had little financial success.


But not so little that the household was without slaves—a fact that he was keenly aware of and which shaped his later understanding and ideas. In his autobiography he wrote that "We lived in a slaveholding community; indeed, when slavery perished my mother had been in daily touch with it for sixty years. Yet, compassionate and kind-hearted as she was, I think that she was not conscious that slavery was a bald, grotesque and unwarrantable usurpation. She had never heard it assailed in any pulpit, but had heard it defended and sanctified in a thousand."


In later writings, quoted in the images above, Twain recognized that he, too, had not fully recognized the attitudes around him as wrong; that ambivalence plays out strongly in Twain's Huckleberry Finn, in the developing relationship of Huck and the escaped slave Jim as they travel and Huck struggles with what the law says and his own recognition of Jim's humanity.


Speaking of Huckleberry Finn, the school-evading adventurous rascal who first appears in Tom Sawyer and later gets serious in his own book: he was based on Tom Blankenship, who lived in a ramshackle house now next door to the Clemens home, and who was in frequent trouble with the law. The contrast between the Clemens and Blankenship families was one of class; even when bankrupt, John Clemens, Sam's father, was "respectable."


As a lawyer and justice of the peace, he had status but not money, and an attempt to recoup his fortunes by also operating a store didn't work out either; for a couple of years after they lost the 'Boyhood Home' house, the family doubled up with a neighbor, the town druggist and physician.


Tom Blankenship/Huck Finn was not the only childhood friend of Clemens to gain fame in his books; his first 'girlfriend,' Laura Hawkins, whom he met when she was 5 and he was 7 became Becky Thatcher in his books. Her family's house is directly across from the Clemens house, and is also part of the museum.


Becky's house is one of the most fascinating parts of the museum, and the one most directed to children. All its exhibits focus on what it was like for children to grow up in Hannibal in the 1830s and 40s, and the different circumstances for children in different circumstances: middle-class Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, poor Huck Finn and the enslaved Jim.


The different outcomes, privileges and problems are made quite clear, and kids are asked important questions; it's a lot closer to the effect of actually reading Twain rather than just hearing the stories or the easy-viewing movies!


Back at the actual Clemens home and the visitor center attached to it, there are more quotations from Twain, including the wry comment below on facts, and a timeline of his and his family's life.


The house has a history of its own, and its survival over the years is a near miracle. As the old photo below shows, it was in ramshackle condition by the end of the 19th century. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration did some restoration and built the stone building that is the visitor center and a gallery to look into rooms on the second floor of the house. In 1990-91, lower photo, the house was again stabilized and renovated.


Walking in the pathway between the actual house and the stone neighbor, you can view rooms set up to represent the house as the family lived in it, although it is a bit disturbing to see the grown and famous Twain posed in replicas of rooms he lived in only as a young child.


A few blocks away, and also on the same ticket, a formal museum shows aspects of Life on the Mississippi and in Hannibal, as well as memorabilia of Twain and his creations. Among the items on offer are movie posters in several languages and illustrations by Norman Rockwell for editions of the books.


Also on display: The Mississippi River pilot's certificate that gave Samuel Langhorne Clemens his way out of Hannibal into the wider world, and the name by which we know him.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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