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A visit to Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo.

On the centennial of the author's death, his hometown spotlights its favorite son.

June 27, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Hannibal, Mo. — 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.

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