Mark Twain is an American figure whose grand interests, talents, and literary accomplishments helped to define an age. He was born in Hannibal, Missouri, a small town on the Mississippi River. His sense of adventure and giftedness in writing allowed him to travel widely throughout the world. He went on to marry a woman from a prominent family in Connecticut and they lived a splendid life there and abroad on the profits from his writing and speaking. However, the experiences he had growing up in small town Hannibal are thought to have given him the inspiration for his most enduring and well-known books, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, moved to Hannibal as a child. The Clemens family lived there from 1844 to 1853. Eventually, Samuel’s father became a justice of the peace. Samuel learned the trade of typesetting and published his first writing while working for the town paper. Later, he left home at age 17 to work in the printing business. Eventually, he returned to Hannibal where he began a stint working as an apprentice for a riverboat captain. His two years working as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River left an indelible impression on him. This period also found its way into the development of his pen name. The phrase “mark twain” was a riverboat term meaning “mark two depths” and a sign that the boat was in safe waters.
Boyhood Home and Museum
In order to learn more about the world of this writer, I started my visit to Hannibal at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Beyond getting glimpses into Twain’s home, it was remarkable to step inside the homes of the friends who provided the inspiration for the characters of Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn. Also memorable was the tour inside the actual building where Twain’s father worked as justice of the peace. I was impressed with the way the exhibits throughout the museum addressed head-on the terrible racism and slavery of the period and provided perspective from people such as noted African American writer Toni Morrison.
I hope next time to be able to go to Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center, The African American Historical Museum of Hannibal. Unfortunately, it was closed on the day I was visiting. This museum is devoted to telling the history and stories of the local African-American community using the character of Jim, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as a starting point.
Like many of Twain’s other fictional characters, the character of Jim was based on someone Twain knew personally. In this instance that was Daniel Quarles, an enslaved person on Twain’s uncle’s farm. Daniel Quarles went on to be emancipated and lived his life and eventually died in Hannibal. The museum tells his story and the stories of many other African-Americans in the local community. It also connects to Twain’s story. As noted on the Jim’s Journey website, “Samuel Clemens was the first white American author to humanize a slave, making him more than a fixture as he contributed to the fight against racism…”
Other Local Attractions
After viewing the museums and areas of historical interest, make sure to walk down to the nearby Mississippi River. If you’re lucky, a riverboat blaring lively music may be pulling in to dock. Adventurers with a great deal of time may enjoy exploring the local cave tours. I ended my visit with a trip to Java and Jive where I was able to get my excellent lunch packaged to go.
The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is the first stop on our Missouri Author Adventures Trail.
Rebecca Blake Beech