After a night of camping in Nebraska with the hum of the interstate for company and a visit to The Missouri Lewis and Clark Museum, we rolled up to the Hannibal Visitors Center. As we stepped from the car an invisible curtain of hot, muggy air enveloped us. It had been a while since I had inhaled air so thick. We walked by Mark Twain’s boyhood home and down to the Mississippi River. It looked like swirling chocolate milk with bits of trees and trash tossed in. The powerful river lumbered along in silence, swiftly sending massive logs past Hannibal toward Saint Louis, Vicksburg, New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The surface of the river was only a few inches below the sidewalk and based on the mud covering the walk it must have recently been underwater.
Hannibal Missouri, the river town that Mark Twain introduced to the world with the help of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, looks like many of the river towns I’ve seen in Illinois and Iowa – worn, economically struggling and lost in time. Most of the robust riverboat towns of Twain’s youth drifted off to sleep after the Civil War. Prior to that Hannibal was the third largest city in Missouri with a bustling economy and three steamboat visits a day. Now it’s home to about 18,000 people and the only boat with a paddlewheel you will likely see is the one that offers a two-hour dinner cruise.
It would have been wonderful to see Hannibal at its peak filled with travelers, steamboat captains, scoundrels and wide-eyed kids like Mark Twain but I also enjoyed my visit to the quaint Hannibal of today. It was interesting to see Twain’s humble home and discover that he quit school when he was only 12 years old. That’s when his father died of pneumonia and young Twain needed to help with family expenses. He worked as a printer’s apprentice and learned the writing craft by reading the newspapers he set the type for. To me Twain illustrates the most critical component of education that seems to be ignored today, “personal responsibility”. He educated himself through reading, writing and exploration and did a damn good job of it. It’s the same curriculum I’m currently enrolled in – but I’m no Mark Twain.
Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) was born in 1835 and died in 1910. He lived an adventurous life during a period of incredible change in America. Twain recorded his experiences as a printer, journalist, prospector, steamboat pilot, world traveler and even as a young boy, in a simple yet interesting style that has entertained and educated people around the world for over a hundred years. Some critics of his time said his writing style was “inelegant” and that he talked about things that were suited more for “slums” than “intelligent, respectable people”. However, most of the world disagreed.
Even today some people complain his fictional work is not “politically correct” and have had it removed from school curriculums and public libraries. Others have gone as far as to publish altered renditions of his writings. Such thoughts and behavior appear ridiculous to me. I have found more facts and honesty in the fictional works of Mark Twain than many politically correct White House press releases. As for the damage his writings may cause our delicate youth I would argue that most are already exposed to and even enjoy songs that are far more offensive to all races and genders than anything Twain ever penned.
So if you are in the neighborhood make a visit to Hannibal Missouri and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. You’ll be impressed by his humble beginnings, probably learn a few new things about Missouri’s favorite author and the local economy could use your financial support. If you can’t make it to Hannibal then just grab one of Twain’s classics, head to your local river, kick off your shoes and start reading. Before long you’ll be in another place. Enjoy the adventure.