A visit to Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Mo.

Los Angeles Times

It was long after dark when Henry Sweets brought me to Hannibal’s Old Baptist Cemetery, “a graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind.”

No moon. Ragged weeds, crumbling gravestones. We tried to tread lightly, but it had been raining, and mud grabbed at our shoes. Down at the bottom of the hill, the Mississippi churned. I had to smile, because here I was, three decades removed from 11th grade, still slogging through American literature.

This, as Sweets explained, was the cemetery Mark Twain remembered when he imagined the midnight murder of Doc Robinson in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"— grave markers leaning every which way, Tom and Huck hiding behind a tree, and the treacherous Injun Joe burying a knife in his victim’s chest.

While I scanned the scene for signs of Muff Potter, Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, quoted “Tom Sawyer” from memory and told of the many “Twainiacs” he’s welcomed from Australia, England, Germany and Japan; the ones who wept; and the one who solemnly dipped a finger into the Mississippi, like a supplicant at a holy water font. As Sweets spoke, the wind rustled the sycamores and a train wailed in the distance.


It’s moments like this that keep Hannibal in business. And there should be plenty of business this year: It’s the centennial of Mark Twain’s death, and a new comprehensive version of his autobiography (delayed a century, as per the author’s instructions) is due for publication in November. Especially in the next three months, as tourism peaks, Hannibal will be talking more than usual about its favorite son.

“There would be no Huckleberry Finn. There would be no Tom Sawyer. None of that would ever have happened if he hadn’t lived here,” said Cindy Lovell, director of the Twain home and museum.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born about 40 miles southwest in Florida, Mo.; he was a redheaded 4-year-old when his family arrived in Hannibal, just across the river from Illinois.

That was 1839. For the next 13 years, as the town’s population grew from about 700 to near 4,000, he roamed the streets, the hills, the river, the caves. At 11, he left school, learned the printing trade, headed off to be a riverboat pilot, wrote for newspapers out West, coined the pen name Mark Twain, spun his Hannibal memories into “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and published more than two dozen other books, mostly fiction and reminiscence. Along the way, he got rich, circled the world, got Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs published, embraced a new tool known as the typewriter, declared bankruptcy, got rich again through lecture tours and never moved back to Missouri.

But he did make a few visits to Hannibal, which he called a “white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning,” and stayed more than once at the Garth mansion on the outskirts of town.

All these years later, Hannibal (which Twain renamed St. Petersburg in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn”) ranks alongside John Steinbeck’s Salinas; William Faulkner’s Oxford, Miss.; and Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, Mass., in the atlas of American literature. But it’s kitschier and kid-friendlier, a smallish town of about 17,500, of middling prosperity about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis.

The boyhood home lies in the heart of downtown, alongside gift shops, eateries and a few vacant storefronts. A grassy levee rises to shield the business district from flooding.

Between customers at the Mark Twain Ice & Coal coffee house at Broadway and Main streets, waitress and lit major Sydney Pickern told me that “the great thing about Mark Twain is that he was a revolutionary.”

“He said the hardest things to say, in a time when it wasn’t popular to say them,” Pickern said. “When you can do actually that and not be scared of the repercussions, that takes a lot of guile.”

Interrupted while tending her garden, innkeeper Julie Rolsen called the author “a crotchety old guy, I think. I don’t know if I would like him.”

By the gumball machine at the Rags to Riches pawnshop on Center Street, browser Heidi Mark offered up her favorite Twain quote: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Wherever you roam, his name is never far away. The Mark Twain Cave, a popular family attraction, lies a mile south of town on Missouri Highway 79. At the dock, the Mark Twain Mississippi Riverboat offers four cruises daily in summer months. Under the big revolving frosty mug at 3rd and Hill streets, the Mark Twain Dinette & Family Restaurant proudly pitches its homemade root beer.

Even when Hal Holbrook isn’t passing through town, as he occasionally does, there are at least two actors here who have built careers on playing Twain: Jim Waddell at the Cave Hollow Theatre and Richard Garey at the Planters Barn Theater.

Every year, the town’s seventh-graders read “Tom Sawyer,” visit the boyhood home, the caves and the cemetery, and compete for the chance to portray Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher as Chamber of Commerce ambassadors.

Some of these attractions made me uneasy the first time I visited Hannibal in the 1990s. But I didn’t mind so much this time. Twain borrowed plenty from Hannibal to win his fame, so why shouldn’t Hannibal trade on the Twain name?

In fact, the “Twaining” of Hannibal began when the author was alive and living on the East Coast. It was 1906, Sweets said, when the Mark Twain Hotel (now an apartment building for seniors) opened near the river’s edge.

Then a year after the author’s death, when somebody was about to demolish his family’s two-story wood home at 208 Hill St., a local lawyer bought the property and gave it to the city. That cottage steadily grew into the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum complex, an eight-building medley of reconstruction, preservation, history, biography and fiction that draws about 60,000 visitors a year.

Though much of Hannibal’s Twain tourism industry prefers to dwell on beloved characters from “Tom Sawyer” (in which slavery is barely mentioned), the leaders of the boyhood home and museum resolved in 2003 to, in Sweets’ words, “tell a much more complete story of the experiences that Sam Clemens had in Hannibal.” In other words, they’re focusing more on historical facts and less on fictional characters.

“Today when you come in, we talk about slavery upfront,” Sweets said. The home and museum have only five full-time staffers and get no operating funds from the state of Missouri, so change comes in small increments as fundraising allows.

Visitors typically begin with the interpretive center that puts Twain and Hannibal in context, then advance to the author’s largely reconstructed home: two stories, wood throughout, not large. It still has some of the original floorboards from 1843 or 1844. “It all seems so small to me,” Twain wrote after visiting in 1902. “I suppose if I should come back 10 years from now it would be the size of a bird-house.”

Long ago, the Twain people put up a board fence for reenactments of the famous “Tom Sawyer” whitewashing scene. More recently, they added a Huckleberry Finn House (designed to illustrate the meager living conditions of Tom Blankenship, Clemens’ boyhood friend who inspired Huck’s character). Once $500,000 can be raised for interior work, a reconstructed Becky Thatcher House will open, with exhibits describing an American childhood in the 1840s and the inspiration for Becky’s character, Clemens’ sweetheart, Laura Hawkins.

The final stop on the home-and-museum circuit is the Twain museum gallery building, a former department store that includes 15 Norman Rockwell paintings, one of Twain’s white suit jackets and a death mask of the face of Twain’s son, Langdon, who died of diphtheria at 19 months.

Yes, the death mask is jarring. But just as you can’t dismiss “Huckleberry Finn” as a story for boys, you can’t cover Twain’s life without noting a persistence of death: His father died when he was 11. Four of his six siblings were dead by the time he was 24. His wife, Olivia, 10 years his junior, died before he did, as did three of their four children.

His last visit to Hannibal was in the late spring of 1902, when Twain was 66 and his wife was too ill to travel. He came by train, handed out diplomas at Hannibal High School’s graduation, spoke at a Sunday school class, saw childhood friends for the first time in years, posed for a photograph in front of his childhood home and visited his parents’ graves. And he visited Helen Garth, whose old mansion still stands, surrounded by sloping meadows, on the outskirts of town.

Now it’s the Garth Woodside Mansion Bed & Breakfast. The building is a three-story Victorian wonder, suitable for weddings and séances, with a swooping staircase, several old Twain photos among the Victoriana on the halls, and a pair of llamas in the yard.

If you book the mansion’s Samuel Clemens room, you can sleep in the upstairs bedroom where the author may have slept a time or two and wake to more or less the same bucolic view. So I did. This makes for a fine Twain moment, cheerier than the death mask, tidier than the cemetery, more distinguished than that fence that’s forever being painted. In fact, innkeeper Julie Rolsen told me, some Twain-crazed mansion guests say it seems “sacrilegious” to use a laptop upstairs. Rolsen disagreed.

“I bet he would have done the same thing,” she said. “If he’d had a laptop, I bet he’d have been pulling it out to that second-story veranda.”