Hannibal MO: The Town Mark Twain Has Kept On the Map

I’m standing across from the Mark Twain Museum Gallery in Hannibal, Missouri, waiting for a “Mark Twain” taxi to let me cross the street. To my right, I can see the Mark Twain Hotel, opened in 1905 and now a home for seniors, and the Mark Twain Print Shop. To the left, is the Mark Twain Dinette, a theater featuring a Mark Twain impersonator, the Twain Town souvenir shop, the Twain boyhood home, the Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall, the Mark Twain Book & Gift Shop, the Huckleberry Finn House and the Tom and Huck statue.

Straight ahead are the Mississippi River and the Mark Twain Riverboat. The main drag is called Main Street, but it should be called Twain Street. Did you know that Samuel Clemens, the boy who became Mark Twain, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri? You sure would if you visited this old Mississippi River town, which capitalizes on the association more than any town plays on a link to a famous person anywhere.Our first stop on Hannibal’s Twain circuit during a visit last week was the Mark Twain Museum Gallery, which, at first, was a bitter disappointment. Ever since watching Ken Burns’ masterful Twain documentary, I’ve wanted to know more about the man who wrote several classics and practically invented the travel writing genre. But the first floor of the museum was a hokey mess, more geared towards children rather than people looking for a serious exploration of this fascinating, wandering soul.

There’s a stagecoach car with a cheesy film, a barrel with phones featuring recorded animal stories and an insipid Huck Finn cinema complete with fake trees. But hidden up on the second floor of the museum, in the laminated flip board section, we found some interesting nuggets, including Twain’s obituary from the April 23, 1910 edition of “The Hannibal Morning Journal.”

The front page, above the fold obit reflected the community’s deep sorrow and admiration for its most famous son and offered a theory on the real cause of his death.

“Those who know the sorrow and shock which had come into Mr. Clemens’ life since the death of his daughter say his death was the trauma of a broken heart,” it read.

The death of his daughter was Twain’s final loss, but not his first: his father passed away when he was 11, four of his six siblings died prematurely, his wife, Olivia died before he did, at age 59, and so did three of their four children.

After an absolutely wretched, overpriced lunch at Breadeaux Pizza across the street from the museum, we gravitated down to Twain’s Boyhood Home Museum, and found some of the historical context and Twain dirt we were looking for at the museum’s interpretive center. If you’re visiting Twain sites in Hannibal, this should be your first stop because it provides a timeline of Twain’s life and some rich details and historical context about Hannibal and the Clemens family’s ties to the region.

Twain was the sixth of seven children. His parents, Jane and John Clemens moved west from Virginia, first to Tennessee and then to Missouri with six slaves they inherited. By the time, Samuel was born, in the small town of Florida, Missouri, 40 miles from Hannibal, they had sold all but one of the slaves and were scraping to get by. The family moved to Hannibal when Twain was 4, and after two years living in their own house, they had to move to a rented apartment above Grant’s Drug Store, which is around the corner from the interpretive center on Main Street.

Twain left school at 11, after his father died and shortly thereafter he became a printer’s apprentice, after his older brother, Orion, bought the local newspaper. His job allowed him the opportunity to read the news, which fed his curiosity about the outside world. Clemens was a restless soul; he left Hannibal at 17 and after brief stints writing articles for various newspapers, he tried his hand as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and a silver miner in the Nevada Territory before becoming a newspaper correspondent in Virginia City, Nevada at age 27.

Twain was a prolific writer for the remainder of his life but had to travel the world on the lecture circuit in order to maintain Stormfield, his opulent home in Hartford. He still managed to go bankrupt in 1894 after a series of investments went south on him, but recovered after an around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 put him back in the black. Nonetheless, Twain’s financial situation remained muddled late in his life as his anti-government sentiments and focus on human greed and cruelty made it difficult for him to get published, as critics labeled him a traitor.

He only returned to Hannibal a handful of times before dying of a heart attack at age 74, but if you visit, you can stay at The Garth Woodside Mansion in the room he supposedly stayed in during his last visit to the town in 1902. Twain may have beaten an early retreat from Hannibal but he used the town as the inspiration for many of his most famous works, and many of the places he wrote about are part of the circuit of Twain sites you can visit today.

Hannibal was the inspiration for the idyllic river town of St. Petersburg in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Visitors can check out some of the places incorporated into the stories like Tom Sawyer’s house (the Clemens family home), the homes of childhood friends who inspired the Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher characters, and “Mark Twain’s Cave,” a mile outside town, among other sites.

Aside from the Twain sites, Hannibal’s main drag is filled with lovely 19th Century buildings and is just a block from the mighty Mississippi River. Some of the tourist kitsch will make you laugh – I saw a man in a straw hat strumming a banjo while leading tourists around on a horse drawn carriage and a woman in a white feathered hat and period costume (see photo) – but it’s all in good fun.

“Twainiacs” from all over the world flock to the place to walk the streets their hero wrote about, and some, like Dr. Cindy Lovell, the executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, take their Twain obsession a step further by moving to Hannibal. Lovell told USA Today she gave up a job as a tenured professor in Florida to live and work in her favorite author’s hometown.

“People who love Twain and come here don’t see the cars and the power lines,” Lovell told USA Today. “They see St. Petersburg. It’s a town that can’t tell fact from fiction, and we like it that way.”

(Photos by Dave Seminara)

10 landmarks for lovers of Western literature

Are you an enthusiast of everything Voltaire? Can you not get enough of Shakespeare and James Joyce? If you are a lover of Western literature, add these 10 landmarks to your upcoming travel itineraries.

The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Paris, France

It is only right that the first landmark on the list be in Paris, France, as this is where many French writers, such as Voltaire, Proust, Balzac, and Baudelaire spent most of their time. The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore has had some of the most well-known writers of the 20th century as clientele, including James Joyce, who published his famous Ulysses under the stamp of this bookshop. In fact, the founder of Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach, was close friends with many of these writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. What’s also special about this shop is not only do they host literary walking tours around Paris, but you can also sleep there as long as you help out with the chores.Ernest Hemingway House
Key West, Florida

Not only is Key West home to beautiful beaches and energetic nightlife, but it’s also a place with a literary history. In fact, Ernest Hemingway himself lived at 907 Whitehead Street for more than ten years. It was at this house that he created some of his best work, including the final draft of A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. While Hemingway passed away on July 2, 1961, his old home is now a museum that is open to the public.

The Globe Theatre
London, England

According to David Joshua Jennings and John McCarroll at BootsnAll, the Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and hosted some of the most influential verses to date. Even the notorious quote “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players” was uttered by William Shakespeare himself at the Globe. While the original theatre burned down in 1844, it was rebuilt to be almost exactly like the original. Attendees of this theatre should expect to sit on simple wooden benches, just like in the days of Shakespeare.

Walden Pond
Concord, Massachusettes

It was at this site that Henry David Thoreau wrote his novel Walden, which he wrote during his two years living on the pond from 1845 to 1847. His home was a small hut on a piece of land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. This area helped to inspire the novel itself and was also influential in the American Romantic movement in literature. Today, the pond has been made into a state park where visitors can hike through trails, explore Walden Woods, or see the replica of Thoreau’s cottage.

Vesuvio Cafe
San Francisco, California

Travelers should love this landmark as it is the stomping grounds of many Beat Generation writers including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsburg. The cafe is also right across the street from the famous City Lights bookstore. According to Stephanie Yoder at BootsnAll, there is a famous story of Kerouac “holing up in the bar, getting incredibly wasted and missing an important meeting with Henry Miller”. If you visit, be sure to order The Jack Kerouac, a mixture of rum, tequila, and orange juice.

Chelsea Hotel
New York, NY

There are few hotels in existence that could rival the clientele of Chelsea Hotel, which includes Titanic survivors, Bob Dylan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Wolfe, and many other famous actors, writers, musicians, celebrities, and directors. Madonna’s Sex book was even photographed in room 822. The hotel is a cultural hub of art and literature, and visitors interested in learning about the hotel’s literary past can book a public tour.

James Joyce’s Dublin
Dublin, Ireland

While this technically isn’t a landmark but a series of related landmarks in one area, it is definitely worth adding to the list. James Joyce, Ireland’s most famous author, used Dublin as an influence for much of his work. In fact, a fun activity for visitors of Dublin is to trace the different sites that are mentioned in his writing. For the full James Joyce experience, start at the James Joyce Center, where you can see a recreation of the writer’s bedroom, then head over to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. Another noteworthy landmark is the House of the Dead, a small museum created in the house where Joyce spent his Christmases and is the setting in his novel Dead.

Mark Twain Museum
Hannibal, Missouri

Mark Twain, according to Michelle Fabio at BootsnAll, was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the town that inspired his famous Adventures of Tom Sawyer novels. To honor Twain’s memory, the town has created the Mark Twain Museum, which is comprised of eight buildings that all played an important part in Twain’s youth. If you want to see the house where Twain grew up, visit 208 Hill Street, where you will find recreations of what the home looked like when it was still being inhabited by the author himself.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum
Haworth, England

Come to England and you can visit the home of three of the most famous 19th century British authors, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann Brontë (although their pen names were Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell). These three were responsible for works such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At the museum, you will see the dining table where these authors brought their ideas to life, as well as old photographs, original furniture, letters, and manuscipts.

The Eagle and Child Pub
Oxford, England

According to Stephanie Yoder of BootsnAll, not only is this a nice place to relax with a cold beer, it’s also the home to creative thinking. One infamous writing group, who dubbed themselves the Inklings, would meet here once a week to have a drink and compare manuscripts. Some names you may have heard of include CS Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and JRR Tolkien who created The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Have a seat at their old table and take in the moments, sketches, and photos of these famous writers.

Tom Sawyer Days: Hannibal, Missouri

When I got out of the Peace Corps, a friend and I traveled across the U.S. mostly by bus. This was a grand plan to avoid getting a job for four months and to take the time to see parts of the country we hadn’t seen before. It worked beautifully and that was the best summer ever. My most favorite place we visited was the place she wanted to go to the least.

“HANNIBAL, CANNIBAL! Why DO YOU WANT TO GO TO HANNIBAL, MISSOURI?!” was her reaction when I told her the very one thing I thought we should not miss on our journey from the East Coast to the West Coast.

I was stubborn and turned to the pages in Lets Go USA to show her the wonders. “Tom Sawyer Days, that’s why. This is small town America at its finest,” I said, hoping I was right and wouldn’t regret my determination.

Hannibal is the town that inspired Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to write the books Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. What more reason is there than that when it comes to rediscovering an important part of Americana?

Still grousing a bit, my friend finally went along with my plan to buy a bus ticket to Hannibal from Des Moines, Iowa and from there we could buy a ticket to St. Louis for our continued trip westward. Hannibal was everything I imagined and even more charming than I expected. We splurged and stayed in a Bed & Breakfast, and spent the 4th of July going to the town parade, grabbing whatever candy was thrown our way, went to the free ice-cream social in the city park (We were the only ones there I think who were under retirement age), toured Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home and Museum, took The Mark Twain Riverboat trip on the Mississippi River and went to the family barbeque of the couple who owned the B&B. It could not have been a finer time. As for my friend, she was happy that I won the arguement.

Tom Sawyer Days,” July 3-July 7, is going on its 57th year of celebrating Mark Twain and what might be called, good clean, family fun. There is a variety of entertainment options throughout the week. There was a lot we missed.

Calaveras County’s Dueling Frog-Jumping Contests?

Inspired by a short story by Mark Twain, the Calaveras County Fair has hosted the annual Jumping Frog Jubilee each year since 1928. However, Fair organizers claim that low turnout during last year’s fair means they can’t pay the Angels Camp Boosters Club — which has judged the jubilee since its inception — to oversee this year’s contest. Naturally, this has made the Club hopping mad. Rather than judge for free, the Club has decided to organize it own jumping frog contest.

Consequently, Calaveras County will host dueling frog-jumping events this year, during the week of May 16-20. Though the Club hasn’t announced entrance details about its contest, if you’re interested in entering your jumper in the Fair’s contest, the owner of the winning frog grabs a $750 prize. If your frog breaks the record set by Rosie the Ribeter in 1986, you get $5000. Guess how far Rosie jumped that year?

21 feet, 5¾ inches!

Literary Gadling: Mark Twain House

I have a confession to make. I am a literary memorabilia junkie. Yes, I like to go to famous writers’ houses and see how they lived, what inspired them (Kafka), how they partied (Twain) and try to figure out what made them commit suicide (Hemingway). Is this going to make me a better writer? I doubt it. But it always gets me motivated to sit down and actually write. And, as many of you know, that is half the battle.

Anyway, should any of you share my passion for writers, I will occasionally make a recommendation for a place/birthplace to visit. As a kick off to my “Literary Gadling”, I picked one that’s easy: the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut. Not only is it a beautiful Victorian mansion, but visiting the house makes you get a good insight into Twain’s happy personality. It made me realize I need to drastically increase my entertainment budget if I ever want to become a good writer.

And since Twain was probably America’s most productive quote machine, here is one to leave you with:

“It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.” Mark Twain