Travel south and west, there Mark Twain to meet
When Montreal’s Windsor Hotel was demolished two decades ago, the ghost of Mark Twain might have shuddered.
He was in Canada on legal matters in December 1881 and was overwhelmed by the fitness and health of Canadian fitness and health.
“Canadian girls are so pretty,” he said, “that it’s a relief now and then to see a plain one.”
Nor could he resist a dinner thrown for him by the elite of this city, dazzling them with off-the-cuff remarks on Canadian crime (“I haven’t come here to commit one”) the weather (“So characterless that all right-feeling Canadians are probably ashamed”) and speaking French in Quebec (“Horses, not people, mistake me for a Frenchman”).
Nonetheless, Twain finished the speech in eloquent French.
“Right-feeling” Canadians knew he was a most remarkable international celebrity. But his deepest soul was back in Hannibal, Missouri, where, as plain Sammy Clemens, he was Mark and Huck, and his world was a river that led to the world he would soon conquer.
In Saint Louis a short time ago, I drove parallel to Ole Miss Hannibal, through old towns—countless Baptist churches, run-down clapboard houses—and finally the home of Tom, Huck and Twain himself. Hannibal is about 200 kilometres north of St. Louis.
In 1848, Hannibal had a population of 800, not including slaves. The Mississippi was seen from every window, with boats unloading daily adventurers, shysters, harlots, visiting circuses and, yes, escaped slaves. For Sammy and his friends, the river was for raftin’ or sittin’ or catchin’ fish and being “a heaven for little boys.”
The clientele has changed but a riverboat goes about four times a day to the northern lighthouse, then south past Twain’s “pirate cave” and forested Jackson’s Island.
At the Hannibal Visitors Bureau, information is plentiful, and a few dollars allows admission to all the adjacent buildings, starting with young Sam’s boyhood home, built in 1844. The tiny, quaint, two-storey clapboard house has a white picket fence.
Sammy’s mother summed up his childhood: “If he hadn’t become a writer, I daresay he’d be in jail.”
You can see why. When he left, Hannibal consisted of two churches (which he never attended), three saloons, two schools, a distillery and a few sawmills. Just behind his own house lived the original Huckleberry Finn. Sammy adored the disreputable kid, so unlike his own “proper” family. Across the street is the office of his father, where Sam once sneaked out of his house and found a dead body (now shown in replica) on the floor. Next door is Becky Thatcher’s home—not the real one, but the house belonging to Sam’s girlfriend. It has a huge bookshop filled only with Twain-iana.
A few steps away is the cluttered old Main Street pharmacy and the sumptuous Mark Twain Museum.
You can climb to the old lighthouse for a beautiful view of the river. (Sammy almost was jailed for throwing rocks at horses down below.)
Twain once said, “Exotic travel begins with morning ham and eggs.” Here this includes berry cobblers, fried catfish and the original root beer, which comes from the cellar of Becky Thatcher’s Restaurant, a nauseatingly sweet mélange of sassafras, sugar and “secret roots.”
Try the unprepossessing Java Jive, billed “the first coffee shop west of the Mississippi,” which has fresh pastries, great coffee, a souvenir shop and a sense of humour.
Richard Garey is an excellent Mark Twain raconteur at the Planters Barn Theatre. Garey has the high-pitched Twain twang, and this year has a “Mark Twain For President” show. Garey—who runs a nightly walking tour of Hannibal—quotes Twain on everything from slavery to God to missionaries in China.
Twain revisited Hannibal in 1902, a sad, lonely man who had lost his wife and his fortune, yet never his wit and love-hate affair with humanity. He stood on Hannibal’s jetty, was solemn for a moment, and then exclaimed, “This is the most enchanting river view on the planet.”
Twain, who had dined with royalty, who was the best known American of his time and who immortalized childhood for eternity, would have looked askance at America today. Hannibal offers a reflection of that small town to which Americans today impossibly wish to return.
Considering a Hannibal trip?
The Hannibal and Convention and Visitors Bureau is one of the most friendly little offices anywhere in America. Visit hannibal.com There are many hotels from the highway into town. Recently I heard of the most interesting place, a bed and breakfast called the Stone School Inn, built in 1818. stoneschoolinn.net
Richard Garey’s site is http://heritagestage. com/theater.html