After Louisville, I went to St Louis to visit an old friend and crash for the night. Friday morning I got up early and headed northwest to visit the home of another old friend, one from my childhood: Tom Sawyer.
Like most American schoolboys of a somewhat literary disposition, I had grown up thinking of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as ever-present if invisible companions on my youthful adventures. Growing up on a river, in the south, and during the last decade in which children could play outside largely unsupervised without their parents being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, I’ve always compared my childhood to Tom Sawyer’s.
But my love and appreciation for Mark Twain didn’t begin in earnest until I read some of his longer novels as an adult, especially A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It and The Prince and the Pauper are among my favorite novels of all time. Connecticut Yankee is my favorite because I love the way that Twain takes the wind out of the sails of the Arthurian cult. I have always been extremely skeptical of people who romanticize the past, and so I relished Twain’s skewering of the medieval fantasy of chivalry and honor.
Although I am of a decidedly non-spiritual bent, I have always loved visiting the birthplaces/homes/graves of my heroes and favorite artists. Even if there weren’t a wonderful museum and several historic sites to visit in Hannibal, I would still want to pass through and experience that level of personal connection to a person that you can only feel when you stand where they’ve stood.
Although it meant having almost no time to properly explore St Louis — by all accounts an interesting place — and the digression being more or less void of connection to Shakespeare, I was determined not to miss the opportunity to visit the birthplace and boyhood home of the father of all American literature. So off I went.
I didn’t realize that I was visiting Hannibal at the perfect time: during their annual festival, Tom Sawyer Days. In addition to the museums and historic sites to visit, the streets were filled with children in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn costumes participating in fence whitewashing contests. There were food trucks everywhere and also a mud volleyball tournament — not mentioned in any Twain novels with which I am familiar but believably something Tom and Huck would enjoy.
The museum is fascinating, if small, and the tour is buoyed by several other buildings at least peripherally related to Mark Twain’s life and writings: the house of the real life people who inspired the characters of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher, for example.
After completing the tour, I walked down to the river and spent some time skipping stones across the surface of the Mississippi. It felt like the most Tom Sawyer thing I could do.
After Hannibal, I drove the extra hour over to Florida, Missouri to the Mark Twain state park which has a visitor center built around the two room shack where Twain was born. Other than the birthplace, the visitor center also had an original manuscript of Tom Sawyer. It’s a small place, but the state park around it is gorgeous. I sat on a bench overlooking the Mark Twain lake for a bit, a rare bit of quiet in a hectic trip.
A thing that struck me, particularly in Hannibal, is the way that Twain’s literary greatness has made celebrities of people who did nothing particularly remarkable in their life except make an impression on a clever young man. The woman on whom Twain based the character of Becky Thatcher was asked to do radio announcements and has had her house preserved as a site of literary and historic significance. Same with Huck’s real-life counterpart. It isn’t a new idea; writers work their acquaintances into their fiction all the time. But in Mark Twain’s case it’s an exaggerated form of the fame that people get from being connected to great writers.
Truthfully, Mark Twain himself was not just a pen name; he was a literary character created by Sam Clemens, so the same idea applies to Clemens himself.
I’d already been thinking about my own writing a lot on this trip, both because I am doing a decent amount in the form of these blog entries and hopefully eventually some kind of travelogue at the end of the trip, but also because I am spending so much time in the presence of literary greatness, Shakespeare’s and others. I wondered how it might affect the people in my life that have been incorporated into my writing if I were to ever become famous. How would Jay Banks or Stephanie Singletary or Desirai Thompson feel if their fictional counterparts became icons of modern American literature?
Spending the day in Twain country made me want to sit down and write, but I had to hit the road. As I said in my last blog entry, it is very difficult to find the time to write anything when I spend all my free time requesting places to stay on CouchSurfing and figuring out the most efficient want to schedule my drives and trying to finagle discounted theatre tickets so I can afford to see more shows. I’m currently in Utah and I’m only just now getting the chance to sit down and write about my time in Missouri.
After Florida, I drove west to Kansas City and crashed in a musty old farmhouse for which I paid way too much money on airbnb but I was desperate and exhausted and it was late. I got up early and stopped in at Second Best Coffee — which I would highly recommend — before hitting the road for the long drive to Boulder to see Colorado Shakespeare’s production of Richard III. More on that in the next entry.
In case anyone is wondering about the title of this entry, it comes from a mis-remembered bit of Shakespeare in Huck Finn.
I should also note, since this is a Shakespeare blog, that Mark Twain, for all his brilliance and talent, was an anti-Stratfordian. If he were a lesser man with no real meaningful achievements to speak of, like Derek Jacobi or Mark Rylance, his adherence to bigoted and inaccurate conspiracy theories would be enough for me to disavow him entirely. However, he has the advantage of being culturally important as well as living in a more ignorant time. I don’t fault him for believing in nonsense like the authorship conspiracy anymore than I fault Charles Dickens for believing in phrenology or Newton for believing in alchemy. They just didn’t know any better.