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Missouri's Shining Star

Mark Twain’s contributions to literature and Midwestern culture were as bright as the comet that framed his worldly entry and exit.
By Gayle Harper

In November of 1835, Jane Lampton Clemens was expecting her sixth child in the tiny village of Florida, Mo., when Halley’s Comet dashed across the night sky, creating quite a stir in the quiet community. Just two weeks later when the Clemens’ baby boy arrived prematurely, it seemed doubtful that the infant would survive. However, the comet seemed a fortuitous omen to Clemens and she believed her baby would not only survive but would be blessed with special powers. The baby was named Samuel Langhorne Clemens and he would grow to be known the world over as Mark Twain.

statue

Above: A statue of a young Sam Clemens at the pilot’s wheel reminds Hannibal visitors that America’s beloved author once worked as a riverboat pilot. Gayle Harper photos

Below: Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home is one of six historically significant properties in Hannibal. Hannibal CVB photo / Mark Twain photo courtesy Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, Conn.

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The comet’s visit framed Twain’s life like a pair of bookends. “I came in with Halley’s Comet and I expect to go out with it,” he said. In fact, he did just that. The next sighting of the comet came in 1910, with its closest pass occurring on April 20. The following day, Twain died of a heart attack at age 75.

Although we will not see the comet in 2010, this year marks the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth and the 100th of his death, so a year of commemorating his life is underway.

Growing up in Hannibal

When Twain was 4 years old, the family moved to Hannibal, Mo., on the banks of the majestic Mississippi River. For a boy with imagination and a thirst for adventure, it was the perfect place to grow up. The memories of those years in Hannibal were fodder for Twain’s tales for the rest of his life. For his millions of readers, the characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, Jim and the rest are as vibrantly alive today as ever, and nowhere is their presence more keenly felt than in Hannibal.

Families have celebrated Fourth of July weekend with National Tom Sawyer Days since 1956. To commemorate the 2010 anniversaries, new events will join old favorites like fence painting or frog-jumping contests. Don’t miss the giant fireworks display over the river.

At the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, actors present Twain’s wit and wisdom in “A Daily Chat with Mark Twain.” As part of the museum tour, visitors see Twain’s home, typewriter, writing desk with chair and first editions of his major works. There also are 15 original Norman Rockwell paintings illustrating scenes from Twain’s novels.

Other attractions include Mark Twain Cave, made famous by “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and the Mark Twain Mississippi Riverboat.

“People of Hannibal feel honored that 100 years after the death of Mark Twain, fans still come from all over the world,” said Cindy Lovell, executive director of the museum. “We see firsthand how he lives on for our visitors.”

Twain and the river

It seems fitting that the man who came to be known as “The Father of American Literature” had the spirit of the river known as “The Father of Waters” flowing through his veins. His respect for its power and mystery never waned. Twain claimed that all boys who grew up near the Mississippi River dreamed of becoming steamboat pilots. He lived that dream when at the age of 24–after two years of memorizing every bend, twist and eddy in more than 1,200 miles of river–he was granted his steamboat pilot’s license. That career came to an end with the outbreak of the Civil War two years later, and he moved away from the Mississippi, but it never left him.

After 22 years of travels, adventures, fame, raising a family, acquiring and losing great sums of money, he returned to the river again to gather material for “Life On the Mississippi.” The river constantly changes, expanding and contracting to do what is asked of it. The geography Twain had memorized has vanished, but the river continues as it always has.

Echoes of his presence

I share Twain’s love of the Mississippi River, and my favorite way to wander it is to follow the Mississippi Great River Road. This National Scenic Byway accompanies the river on its great winding journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, touching 10 states along the way. Tracing the travels of Mark Twain is one of many ways to enjoy it.

In his riverboat pilot days, Twain traveled the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans. The river towns and ports described in “Life on the Mississippi” can still be explored along the Mississippi Great River Road and echoes of Twain’s presence found.

About 200 miles south of Hannibal, Cape Girardeau, Mo., was once described by Twain as “…situated on a hillside, and makes a handsome appearance.” During the era of the steamboats, Cape Girardeau was the largest port on the Mississippi between St. Louis and Memphis.

Today, the rich history of this area is painted on a floodwall that protects the town. Taking a walk along the 1,100-foot Mississippi River Tales Mural is a stroll past all the significant events of the area from pre-history to the present. Watch carefully and you will spot Twain’s familiar face. The last of the 24 panels depicts the 2003 dedication of the elegant Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, a 4,000-foot cable-stayed bridge spanning the Mississippi, connecting Missouri with Illinois.

Cape Girardeau’s old City Fire Station is now home to the Cape River Heritage Museum. Mississippi River history comes to life here with an interactive display enjoyed by adults and children. Appreciated for its strong connection to the Mississippi, Cape Girardeau is known as the city “where the river turns a thousand tales” and now offers an annual storytelling festival in April. The Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival perpetuates the legacy of the Mississippi as the touchstone of stories and tales that Twain recognized and embodied.

Another 35 miles south and just across the river, Cairo, Ill., is at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. Cairo figured prominently in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a landmark for Huck and his companion Jim, a runaway slave, in their journey to reach a free state. In “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain listens to rivermen as “…they talked about how Ohio water didn’t like to mix with Mississippi water.”

At Fort Defiance, a former Civil War post on the very tip of the peninsula where the two great rivers join, it is still possible to watch the different colors of the two rivers swirl as the Ohio gradually melds into the Mississippi.

Back on the western shore of the river about an hour’s drive south is New Madrid, Mo., possibly best known for the 1811-12 earthquakes that briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River. You can learn more about the earthquake and the history of this river town at the New Madrid Historical Museum.

My favorite spot in New Madrid is the Mississippi River Observation Deck where a spectacular eight miles of river can be seen curving gracefully around an enormous oxbow. It’s easy enough to relax here and lose oneself in the ancient mystery of America’s greatest river or to imagine that you hear a distant steamboat whistle.

Mark Twain and the Mississippi River are inseparable in America’s heart. A century after his death, Twain’s wisdom is as timeless as the river itself. “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles…by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it,” he said. Discovering Twain today in the town of his boyhood, along the great river he loved or in the legacy of words he left us is the perfect way to do just that.

Gayle Harper is a new contributor from Springfield, Mo.

May/Jun 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Anniversary events in Missouri and elsewhere in the United States are detailed at www.twain2010.org.

For more information, contact:

Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(866) 263-4825 or www.visithannibal.com;

Cape Girardeau Convention & Visitors Bureau,
(800) 777-0068 or www.visitcape.com and www.capestorytelling.com;

Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau,
(800) 248-4373 or www.southern
mostillinois.com
;

New Madrid Chamber of Commerce,
(877) 748-5300 or www.new-madrid.mo.us.

To visit these Mississippi river towns, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.


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