Gateway: Living

Magee: Mark Twain was a great American, and his hometown has honored him perfectly

A painting of a riverboat by Norman Rockwell hangs in a museum in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clements.
A painting of a riverboat by Norman Rockwell hangs in a museum in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clements. Courtesy

During a trip to see our son, Zach, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, we arranged to visit Hannibal, the hometown of Samuel Clemens, the author and humorist known as Mark Twain. The historic district of Hannibal sits right next to the sprawling Mississippi. A couple of main streets have old brick buildings with attractive shops, restaurants and historic landmarks.

The museum there has paintings by Norman Rockwell that depict different scenes from Twain’s most famous novels, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” My favorite painting shows Tom next to the fence he is supposed to be whitewashing. He is persuading another boy to do the work for him. Tom even persuades passersby to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing. What a rascal. The museum also has a makeshift raft that rocks gently when you step on it, imitating what Huck and Jim experienced when they rafted down the Mississippi.

We got a taste of Twain’s personality by attending a presentation by a white-haired and mustached Mark Twain impersonator. He skillfully explained in colorful terms how Twain based his fictional characters on people he knew while growing up in Hannibal. Laura Hawkins was a friend of his that became the fictional Becky Thatcher, Tom’s girlfriend. A boy who lived on the margins in Hannibal, Tom Blankenship, became Huck Finn. Twain’s mother was the model for Tom’s Aunt Polly.

Hannibal’s forward thinking citizens have preserved the homes of these real people and named them after their fictional counterparts. There is a Becky Thatcher house, a Huck Finn House and so on. In Becky’s house there were photos of Laura Hawkins and other furnishings left by her family. Huck Finn’s house was a simple shack with low ceilings, the kind of abode that the less fortunate would have lived in. Mark Twain’s home is the highlight, and in each room they presented quotes from Twain, words of wisdom and witticisms. I’m a procrastinator so I like his quote, “Never put off until tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

We toured the famous cave that Twain introduces us to in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The cave is over 3 miles in length with high ceilings and lots of stalactites and stalagmites. We wound our way through a portion of it, led by a knowledgeable guide. Some places are as narrow as 14 inches, and others are as large as a spacious living room.

The Twain impersonator had told us of a real adventure Mark Twain had with his boyhood schoolmates. Several of them skipped school and went to explore the cave. Their candles burned out and they got lost. This experience lent authenticity to his description of Tom and Becky getting lost in the cave. Now the cave interior is lit with electrical lighting, but our guide turned off the lights so we could have the experience of total darkness. For those brief moments it was quite eerie in that damp, cavernous place.

A riverboat dinner cruise capped off the day. It was balmy, in the 80s, and the river shone like black velvet. A tornado warning had been issued, so the captain headed back to the dock a bit early. As we churned upriver, we saw lightening flash in the distance. Luckily, we made it to shore before the deluge hit, then sheltered for the night — not in the cave — but a motel in Hannibal.

It’s heartening to learn more about Samuel Clemens, a human being with a great mind who contributed so much to the richness of America. I plan to read more of his writings, starting tomorrow.

Reach Mary Magee at marymagee@harbornet.com.

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