Reading and Road Trips
Reading and road trips are two of my favorite things to do. A combination of the two is always a good thing for me. I have realized that I love visiting the homes of authors or the towns that my favorite literary works are set in or based upon.
A study by Pew Research showed that in 2017, Americans read an average of 12 books the previous year. That’s one book each month. Without full disclosure, I’ll just say that I read WAY above the national average. I read most anything and I love American literature, so combine that with a road trip and adventure awaits.
Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, is one of my favorite American writers. Years ago, I saw his home in Harford, Conn. and saw evidence of his success and life with his wife and daughters. While I enjoyed this immensely, I put the Mark Twain Boyhood Home on my bucket list. I wanted to see the setting and inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi.
My daughter and I were driving across the country earlier this summer on a mission to get to Medora, N.D. (There is NO easy way to get there from Washington County.) Instead of heading west in St. Louis as we have when we have previously visited the Dakotas, we drove a about a hundred miles north to find Hannibal.
When I opened the car door at our hotel, I could smell the Mississippi River mud and hear the tugboat traffic. I was honestly disappointed that it was well into the night and I’d have to wait until the next day to explore Tom and Huck’s playground.
From our hotel, we walked into the downtown area and to the boyhood home of the father of American literature and a major contributor to the Southern gothic genre. The home where the Clemens family lived from 1844-1853 was the inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is located across a cobblestone street from the Becky Thatcher House. The Thatcher House was actually the home of the Hawkins family whose daughter Laura was the muse that inspired the character of Becky Thatcher. These homes were lovely and showcased furnishings from the time period as well as Clemens’ famed white jacket, first editions of his works and photographs of the Clemens family.
In stark contrast to these homes that were rather upscale for the time period is the home of Tom Blankenship, the model for Tom Sawyer. Unlike Clemens’ father who was a justice of the peace, Blankenship’s father was an alcoholic and of no account in the community. As I observed the differences, I imagined the two boys, Tom and Samuel, and the times that they must have had together living mere feet from the dark, adventure filled waters of the Mississippi. Details in each of the three homes perfectly matched the details I read in the books. It was neat to share the experience with my daughter who is familiar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I certainly did not protest at the gift shop when she asked for a book of Twain’s short stories.
Clemens left Hannibal to become a journeyman printer in St. Louis in 1853. He never returned there to live. Instead he chose to allow Hannibal to live through the novels he was crafting. Henry James wrote, “The art of the novel is a direct impression of life.” Based on my observations of Twain’s life and my understanding of his works, this is true. Raised in a river town, in a time before childhood was scheduled, I imagine that Samuel Clemens was “all boy” and loved all things outdoors, especially the river and the caves around the small, quiet town of Hannibal.
The people of Hannibal in the mid 1800s were probably not unlike the people we met at the Mark Twain Diner in late June. Practical, hardworking people who knew everyone in town and felt free to share their opinions, regardless of if you were interested or not. Being raised in this environment no doubt shaped the quick wit and sharp tongue of one of America’s favorite writers. In fact, some of Twain’s most famous sayings were probably forged right along the riverbanks where opinions flowed as freely as the Mississippi.
I have an even greater appreciation for Twain after seeing both of his worlds. His wit and wisdom are endearing. Here are a couple of my favorite Twain-isms: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” “Challenges make life interesting, however overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” Perhaps my favorite is this one, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Go find an adventure! I’m sure glad that I found adventure in Hannibal, which was also home to Titanic survivor Margaret “Molly” Brown and Cliff Edwards, the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket. And to think that small towns often get discredited!
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