Could the real Mark Twain please stand up?

If there was one unifying theme to my touristy destinations (besides museums and friends), it might just be “small towns capitalizing on famous former residents.”  In Springfield, IL there are more statues of Abraham Lincoln than should be legal for any one community to have.  Independence, MO is complete with signs of Truman walking confidently along its main thoroughfares.  And as you read previously, there’s very, very little in Mansfield, MO besides Laura and Almanzo’s home.  But all of that kitsch pales in comparison to what you find in Hannibal, MO.

Frankly, I was fairly undecided about visiting Hannibal.  I knew it was on the way from Springfield to Kansas City.  But I had visited there in my early teens and thought it was more than a little strange then.  And that was before being a museum professional corrupted me from fully enjoying more than one small museum.  But Wendy and I had a day to play, and I felt like I had done everything I needed to do in Springfield.  So I made the decision: if Hannibal was less than two hours from Springfield, we would go.  According to mapquest, it was 1 hour, 50 minutes, so off we went.

As you might expect, Hannibal is right on the river–and in some ways, this is the best part of Hannibal.  It’s such a powerful, historic river and for some reason I almost always get a slight thrill down my spine when I stand on its banks.  But you can never get away from the popular imagery of Twain or his characters–and I don’t think I ever got a real emotional connection with the author or his works.

Of course, on the other hand, we were awfully busy being goofy.  The place just asks for it!  Here I am, encouraging Wendy to whitewash the fence, as she’s showing that her pockets are empty.  In a brilliant piece of fundraising, we could have paid $10 for the privilege to write on the fence.  I only read a few of the scrawls and most of them were something on the level of “hey Mark, thanks for the books.”

And maybe this is the time to share what they’re doing right, rather than just talk about the weirdness.  In the last 15 years or so, the Mark Twain Home Foundation has opened gallery space in downtown with some fairly nifty exhibits.  They’re currently restoring Becky Thatcher’s house and will be adding an exhibit about 19th century childhood.  2010 has been declared the year of Mark Twain (100th anniversary of his death), and they’re working hard to raise $10 million for their endowment (insert round of applause for a museum thinking of endowments!).  The exhibits in the Visitor’s Center, next to the Boyhood Home, are also pretty good.  Enough clever ideas that I took a few photos to add to my exhibit idea file. 

But then we began to tour the Boyhood Home.  I don’t even know how to explain how weird it was.  Here–we’ll start with a picture.

Yes, that’s a statue of Mark Twain.  Playing with paper dolls.  Of his own characters.  The room is completely framed with plexiglass.  The only interpretation is that chalkboard in the back, featuring quotes from his autobiography.  Every single room had a statue and a chalkboard.  Almost every quote had something to do with him revisiting his childhood or how important Hannibal was to him.    The more you saw, the creepier they became.

 Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s cardboard cutout is Tom Sawyer.  Running away from his creator.  Or maybe I’m just becoming increasingly bitter at how these exhibits are assuming that visitors have no imagination at all.

In one of the last rooms, you just see Twain’s back.  I thought this was incredibly odd, until we got outside and looked up.  That’s when I realized what they were trying to do with that particular arrangement.

 It’s the ghost of Mark Twain, looking out at his beloved Hannibal.  Personally, I found this creepy and disrespectful and Just Not Right.  But perhaps I am an intellectual snob.

Here’s the thing: Mark Twain was all about making a buck.  He certainly did plenty during his career to capitalize on his success.  And yet, so much about this place is so wrong.  The line between fiction and history simply doesn’t exist.  Visitors aren’t challenged.  It’s fluff and popular culture and not much else.  Twain was one of the most important writers in the 19th century.  His books are still powerful, controversial and important.  And this place is none of that.  I visit literary historic sites to connect with the books I love.  I want to get a deeper sense of who the writer was and where those stories came from.  My Hannibal experience was the antithesis of my Mansfield experience.  But in some ways, maybe it all worked. I did leave with a deep desire to revisit Twain–to read his autobiography, revisit Tom and Huck, and maybe explore some of his other works as well.  I need to get back in touch with the real, after being surrounded by the fake.

For Twain fans, I highly recommend skipping Hannibal and getting to his home in Hartford, CT.  Unless you truly enjoy the tacky.

Here are a few more shots from our visit:

It’s a rotating root beer mug!  Where else?

 This sign about Mark Twain impersonators begs the question: how often is this a problem?

They don’t make it easy to have your photo taken with Tom and Huck.  Which seems very backwards compared to the rest of the place.

4 responses to “Could the real Mark Twain please stand up?”

  1. Like you, I am a Twain fan. I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania in the 1960s reading Tom Sawyer again and again before I discovered Twain had written so many other books. I made my first trip to Hannibal in 1996, and for me it was mecca. Somehow I saw past all of the commercial antics and visualized this little town during 1839-1853 – the years Sam lived here, played here, and worked here. Something kept pulling me back. I couldn’t stay away. I have been to Elmira and Hartford many times, but Hannibal is the source of those enduring stories and became the constant on my compass until I finally moved here a few years ago. Yes, we have the Mark Twain Dinette and the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Mark Twain This and That. But we have so much more for those who have read Tom or Huck or Life on the Mississippi or the autobiography. And yes, they will need to bring their imaginations. That figure of Tom Sawyer “running away” from his creator? Actually, he’s just sneaking out the window to hook up with Tom Blankenship (aka: Huck Finn).

    I don’t want to get into defending exhibits or interpretations. Certainly I’ve read worse. Through pure serendipity I found myself in the position of executive director of the museum back in October 2008. We have many challenges, and I appreciate you taking note of our endowment needs. You probably realize we receive ZERO tax dollars. No city, state or federal funds at all. We care for 8 historical buildings, many artifacts, and are in constant need of funds to do so. Admissions and gift shop sales keep these buildings standing. Currently, Grant’s Drug Store is on Missouri Preservation’s Most Endangered Buildings list. When the Clemens family fell on hard times, they rented rooms there. This is where Sam’s dad died, which led to Sam leaving school and earning his own keep from that day on. Hard times affect us still.

    I truly appreciate your comments and take them to heart. I also cordially invite you to return and let me show you some of Hannibal’s “not so neon-ized” Clemens sites – the family graves, the old cemetery that provided the scene for the murder of Doc Robinson, etc. This is a magical place, and our task to preserve Twain’s legacy is one we take very seriously. It is a miracle any of these buildings have been preserved, and as Twain fan I am deeply indebted to the handful of Hannibal residents who had the foresight to save them. Keeping them preserved is another matter…

    Sam did not write his books here, the boyhood home is not lavish, and sadly, all of the Clemens family furniture is long, long gone. But Hannibal does have much to offer Twain fans. Did you note the exhibit on the Clemens family’s slaves in the kitchen of his home? This is an important part of the story we recently added.

    I respectfully ask you to reconsider this phrase:

    “For Twain fans, I highly recommend skipping Hannibal and getting to his home in Hartford, CT. Unless you truly enjoy the tacky.”

    For those of us who work long hours to keep the doors open, a phrase like this hurts us to the core. Hartford is a wonderful destination, and all Twain fans should go there – often. They are blessed to receive far more financial support than we do, and we are happy for them. But real Twain fans should want to come to Hannibal and see past the parts they don’t care for, using their imaginations to conjure the people, places and events that Twain brought to life on the page. We hope they spring for admission (as you did – thank you!) and not just pose for a picture in front of the house (as most do – saying, “There. I’ve seen the house.”).

    Thank you for letting me share my thoughts. I do hope you’ll return.


  2. Cindy,
    First, thanks for your comments. As a museum person, it’s always hard to receive criticism about our institutions, especially when we pour our hearts and souls into them.
    You have done so much since my first visit (early 1990s) that I truly am eager to see what’s next. And you all have such a tricky game to play–what tourists expect doesn’t always match what might be historically or even fictionally correct. And I know that a lot of things were done in Hannibal before museum folks ever got involved.

    I wish you all the best of luck–it’s a tough job. And I do want you to know that we not only paid admission–but we gave to the endowment also!


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