Zinsser on Friday

Mark Twain’s Hannibal

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By William Zinsser


When the hot days of August arrive I sometimes think of Hannibal, Missouri, the Mississippi River town where Samuel Clemens spent his childhood and which he forever preserved when he grew up and became Mark Twain. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he described Hannibal, which he called Petersburg, as “a white town drowsing in the sunlight of a summer’s morning,” and it was still drowsing when I once went there on a writer’s pilgrimage. The thermometer in the parking lot said 100 degrees—very gratifying. I like to visit American places at their pertinent time of year—to get their metabolism into my metabolism—and to me Hannibal has no other season. It’s a place where school is always out and the Mississippi is always ready to oblige a boy with a raft.

I sat on the bank of the river, which is more than half a mile wide at that point with a swift current, and had no trouble imagining that I was the young Sam Clemens, watching all those steamboats and tugs and barges heading south to St. Louis and Memphis and New Orleans. Where were all those people going? It must have driven the boy half crazy to find out, and when he finally did go forth into the world he saw more of it than any other 19th-century American author, fashioning from his voyages two books—The  Innocents Abroad and Following the Equator—that are still classics of travel literature.

I walked up into the town and found its historic district, which was one block long. I knew it was a historic district because it was paved with brick and was barred to motor traffic at both ends by “attractive” barrels with geraniums. The main landmark was a small white house with a historic marker stating that it was Samuel Clemens’s boyhood home from 1839, when he was four, until 1853. As a cultural artifact the historic marker—black capital letters against a silver background—is familiar to generations of American families, who have stopped the car by the roadside to read of long-gone battles and long-dead generals. It is our warranty of authentic fact.

Attached to Samuel Clemens’s boyhood house was a white fence, which also had a historic marker. It said:

TOM SAWYER’S FENCE

HERE STOOD THE BOARD FENCE WHICH TOM SAWYER PERSUADED HIS GANG TO PAY HIM FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF WHITEWASHING. TOM STOOD BY AND SAW THAT IT WAS WELL DONE.

Hmmm.

Across the street was another old building with a historic marker identifying it as the law office of John Marshall Clemens, Sam’s father. The words J. M. CLEMENS JUSTICE OF THE PEACE were painted on its façade. Next to it was a pleasant white house with green shutters that had a historic marker saying:

BECKY THATCHER’S HOUSE

THIS WAS THE HOME OF BECKY THATCHER, TOM SAWYER’S FIRST SWEETHEART IN MARK TWAIN’S BOOK “TOM SAWYER.”

It turned out to be the house of Laura Hawkins, the girl Mark Twain used as his model for Becky. I went into Becky’s house and found a brochure directing me to the cave where Tom and Becky got lost.

By now my head was beginning to swim. I knew there never was a boy named Tom Sawyer or a girl named Becky Thatcher. What kind of chump did these people take me for? And yet . . . could it be? Was it possible that Mark Twain’s reality was more real than my reality? Every year a quarter of a million tourists descend on Hannibal, which isn’t on anybody’s way to anywhere—twice as many as visit the grandiose mansion Mark Twain built for his older years in the 1870s, at the height of his worldwide fame, in Hartford, Connecticut, a city crisscrossed by interstate highways. They come to Hannibal in all ages and sizes. School groups arrive in the spring, families with children in the summer, and older couples in the fall, when the days are cooler and the crowds have thinned, and they are all there for the same reason. They are on a quest for an idyllic childhood. Everything they want to see can only be seen if they bring along what they want to see: memories, wishes, dreams, regrets, and vague longings for a simpler America.

“Young boys simply become Tom Sawyer while they are here,” I was told by Ila May Dimmitt, owner of the Show Me Antiques & Gift Shop on Main Street. “They buy a straw hat and a corncob pipe and they walk all over town looking for adventure.” Many of the visitors come from abroad, “The farther they are from Hannibal, the more they know about Mark Twain,” Dimmitt said.

That didn’t surprise me; in the small Mark Twain museum I had already seen one of Hannibal’s striking sights: a display of his books that have been translated into other languages, including Afrikaans, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Japanese, Icelandic, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Telugu, Turkish, and Ukrainian. I saw a Tom Sawyer in Latvian, a Prince and the Pauper in Lithuanian, and a short-story collection in Urdu.

So who was the chump? Maybe it was me after all. I spent three days in Hannibal and didn’t have one original thought about it. Everything that went through my head was put there by one writer. Like all those other tourists, I was almost ready to believe that once upon a time, in a town by a majestic river, there really was a boy named Tom Sawyer who meowed to his friend Huck at midnight. And what I thought was, “That’s some writer!”

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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