American Sabbatical 015: 9/17/96


9/17.. Across the river.

Then we tried to get out of Illinois. I mean, we didn’t think we’d spend 8 days in Illinois! But it had a grip on us. We were going to sprint to the Mississippi, then start our questing. But the East had a grip on our wheels, and dodge as we might, we just couldn’t get across the great water. Trying to avoid interstates after could we plunge back into that?...we found ourselves back in bucolic corn country, like a returning nightmare. The river kept turning away from us. We spilled out into the Illinois River valley, classic flatsyourpalm blackdirt turf, but there was no getting across IT, either. Finally, just as the sun burned down through the gray and the weather cleared, we romped up onto the high ground across from Hannibal. Instantly we were in the middle of Huckleberry Finn. There was The Island, and the Mythic River, just as you imagined them. And a paddlewheeler just putting into St. Petersburg. Sure it’s all tourist town makebelieve, but it sure looks like Mark Twain, and wouldn’t he get a yuk? Now we’re camped at the mouth of Tom’s cave (which Peggy will not go in), and ready for a day of mythologizing. Maybe even e-mailing.

Watercolor by Karl Bodmer 1832

(Memo #14)

Sept. 17 - FICTIONAL HISTORY - Hannibal, Mo. & Riverview, Ia.

Who? Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

What? His hometown and the source of setting and characters for his novels

Where? a small town on the Mississippi in Missouri

When? mid 1800s

How? father had a business there

Topics: Mark Twain, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, fiction and history

Questions: When an author captures a place in a famous book, does it change the place?

Huck's Island


You can learn a lot about Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. You learn more about Hannibal, Missouri, and the process by which history becomes fiction and fiction becomes history.

People come to Hannibal to see the source of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer where the author - as the boy Sam Clemens - lived. The Clemens family moved here from the boy’s birthplace in Florida, Missouri. His father was a judge and storekeeper in the town. The Clemens house, the law office, the apartment over the drugstore where the family lived when financial difficulties caused them to lose their house (all in the downtown area) are all preserved. In fact, the whole two-block area of downtown has been basically cordoned off. You enter a museum and follow a carefully orchestrated tour across a memorial garden up to the second floor of the house, down to the first floor, into the museum store, across the street to the law office, upstairs to the apartment over the drugstore and then downstairs to the drugstore.

Tom's house
(Peggy picture)
You do get a sense of the town’s geography. The town is set on the Mississippi, here a slowmoving river about the size of the stretch of the Kennebec River I know in Maine. High bluffs are found just north and just south of the town which is really in a valley. Several lowlying islands lie across the river from the town shore. There is an oldfashioned riverboat moored at the landing. Many of the two story brick stores remain from Twain’s era (though now painted in pastels). Just standing in town, you can imagine the longings of a restive young boy to be off down the river, over to the islands, up on the bluffs.

Norman Rockwell, before illustrating Twain’s books, visited the town. Afraid he might not find enough, he was astounded. “Mark Twain had swallowed up Hannibal,” he noted. He’s right. Every store has a Twain title: “Becky Thatcher’s Bookshop”, “Aunt Polly’s Restaurant”.

What is scarier are the markers you see throughout town. “Here is where Huck..”, “Here Tom Sawyer..” signs read in the same print used for a historic site marker such as “In 1846 Bill X built a store here in which he sold dry goods.” After a time, you realize that Tom and Huck and Becky and Aunt Polly are being treated as historical personages. Well, they all WERE patterned on real people (Aunt Polly is Twain’s mother, for example), but the line between history and fiction is blurred and apparently was even to the people themselves. The museum has a copy of an interview done with Twain’s boyhood sweetheart Laura Hawkins that begins, “ I am Becky Thatcher."

I can imagine the difficulty of touring Hannibal with a child. No, Huck wasn’t a real boy, but Sam Clemens (who was really Mark twain) knew someone LIKE Huck and the hill in the book is really this hill.

The bizarre feeling I got of history as fiction and fiction as history was heightened by the museum exhibits. Wonderful bits of Twain memorabilia - one of his white coats, his harmonium, several of his pipes, photos of him writing, pictures of his wife and daughters, were interspersed with odd bits of things gilded by sortofmaybe association with a great man. A cape worn by someone at the time, a newspaper clipping PROBABLY set by Twain when he worked as printer’s apprentice, silver owned by someone who lived in Florida, Missouri AT THE SAME TIME as the Clemens family, an old bicycle LIKE the one Twain described.

Thomas Hart Benton's Version

In the house and law office fictional sets are provided behind glass panels. You stand in the entry and press a button and get told that this was the Clemens parlor PROBABLY used by Mrs. Clemens for entertaining and the furniture is AUTHENTIC TO THE TIME PERIOD, and at this door Aunt Polly stood.... . (Fiction and history, history and fiction... I wonder if empty rooms might not have served better. When I visited the Ann Frank secret annex in Amsterdam the whole place was empty and it was incredibly powerful.)

I came away bemused. Twain has swallowed Hannibal, but Hannibal is alive and well. Few small towns hereabouts are. We spent a week in Illinois, driving from Chicago down to the Shawnee National Forest at the southeastern corner, following the Ohio down to Cairo and the Mississippi up to Hannibal. We went through a hundred towns and villages that seemed dead or dying. Boarded up stores, decaying houses, empty lots everywhere. Hannibal survived because of Mark Twain. Isn’t that in fact what the books accomplished, to make a town and an era live forever?

We drove on from Hannibal toward Cedar Rapids and came by chance on the ultimate fiction as history. Our guidebook clearly labeled Riverview, Iowa, as “The authentic future birthplace of Captain James Kirk." Of course, we had to visit. We drove into the small town... no signs except in the town square. Parked right on the grass was a trailer with a float for a parade. It was a small scale model of the Starship Enterprise (clearly labeled as such) with the yearly date of the parade lauding Kirk, and the claim, again, of Riverview as ”The Future Authentic Birthplace of Captain James Kirk." With thousand of Trekkies around, Riverview - like Hannibal - has a future. There is a lesson in this for small towns, and we saw it in Metropolis, Illinois (“Home of Superman”) with a huge statue in the central square. Chester, Illinois, is now the “Home of Popeye” with signs leading to the statue and a Popeye museum. Well, a small Maine town has created Chester Greenwood Day. Lisbon Falls has Moxie. BUT what about creating a new character to save a specific town!!


9/17... To Cedar Rapids.

We are leaping across the map after escaping Illinois. Huck and Jim couldn’t find Cairo in the fog, and we couldn’t seem to get across the river to St. Petersburg. Once over the water, though, look out far West we come.

It was cold and drear when we got up at Tom Sawyer’s cave (6AM), and a nasty north wind was kicking up a small chop on the river. We made a quick visit to lovers’ leap (hours: 6AM to 10PM unrequition after 10), then I hunched over my sketchbook on the levee doing one of the paddlewheeler “Mark Twain". It felt like a May morning on the Kennebec. In fact the Mississippi at Hannibal looks a lot like the Kennebec in Bath, hardly the Mother of Waters you’d expect.

Mark Twain (Bryce)

One of the old journals I read, written by some Italian count in the 1820’s, followed his journey to the source of the big M (he claimed prior discovery of the REAL source). The accompanying map was fascinating. From St. Louis north into Wisconsin the place and river names were in French. Then they were both French and Native American. Finally up in the Lake of the Woods and the Lake Superior watersheds the names were just in Indian. And you could see the tribal territories. The endings (meaning “river” I assume) were clustered in distinct areas (and followed the Count’s different tribal contacts reported in the text). Sioux to the west, Saux and Fox to the east. The uppermost “sippi” on the river was the Missis-sippi. I’d always thought that was supposed to mean the “Mother of Rivers”.. sort of a Iroquois linguistic thing. But maybe it just means “the brook that comes out of fox pond”, or whatever, and since that was the branch the early French travelers portaged to from Superior, that became the name for the whole river. A gazetteer of Native place names would be instructive. As would a rivers-only atlas, and a hills-only one. Contemporary road atlases just don’t show the landscape, and the historic landscape disappears entirely. I meant to Xerox all the old river maps out of the journals before we left but.....

While Peggy was nosing about in the Huckleberry Twain Museum and other mythic shoppes in Hannibal, I was thawing out over the powerbook, resurrecting lost mail. Seth had come through, and our car registration was waiting at general delivery, Hannibal (and I gathered that such mail was an unfamiliar item at the PO). Hurray for the kid. So now I hoped to get us back on the E-train. But where to send e-mail? Peggy suggested the local paper. You old newshounds will be glad to know that the Hannibal Courier-Post will befriend male modems in need of female outlets..or is that inlets? Not that the reporters could make any decisions, but the production manager was willing to let me play, if he could watch. Made me feel like a masternerd. Ah the bouquets we carry. Or is that cachets? Ah hell, I got all puffed up.

Then we were off for Iowa. Peggy had listed Nauvoo as a stop, but that’s in Illinois, and I said NO more. This means that the Mormons are getting short shrift this trip (isn’t that the kind of underwear....?). We didn’t stop for the angel Moroni, now no Nauvoo, and we think Utah is off our map, too. What’s going on here? If Mormonism is The One Native Christian Religion, aren’t we missing the story? Maybe we’ll repent and go tiptoe to the salt lake.

Back into the lineated vegetables. Corn, soy, and more corn. But also lots more fallow land, and hay and alfalfa mixed in with the beans and CORN. We discovered that the strange-looking bottomland crop (with a short stalk and leaves like corn but a heavy head of seeds like some marsh plant) is milo .. makes sorgum. There was lots of that in the river bottoms in Illinois, but back up on the uplands it was CORN. Do I repeat?

But as Missouri turned to Iowa some ineffable transformation moved in the air. The land looked healthier, the towns more solid (or is it stolid?). Illinois seems worked to death, even in the heavy-producing central sections. Was it just the temperature and humidity? Iowa is a glorious corn-fed heifer while Ill. is an old milk cow on steroids. Then there is the shape of the land. Grant Wood got it right: the crazy-quilt angles, the full forms, the hard-edged light. We think of Grant taking personal liberties with his landscapes, until we travel Iowa. He got it just right. We kept coming over rises and saying “O yes, there’s another Wood.”

A lot more trees, too. After a couple of weeks of flatness, Iowa is like lolling in mother’s arms. If she’s running across the freeway. There aren’t any byways. They didn’t build new highways in IA., they widened the old ones. To get from here to there you have to take the highroad. And the semis keep you rushing right along. The tailgate stickers read “Truckers Carry America.” It’s true, of course, and somehow the sight of big rigs looming up over the rolling groundwaves make truckers the prime movers of the landscape. You almost never see a farmer at work in the fields, for instance. But the big rigs just move on.

History seemed a bit sparse in SE Iowa, although I could easily imagine blooded Iowas galloping over the rolling fallow fields. But Peggy is irrepressible. Right there in one travel atlas she found a must-see entry. Here’s a chance for you to peep in Festiva’s windows. We’ve taken on roles. Bryce is in the pilot’s seat, dodging semis, while Peggy is nested in as navigator, balancing maps, guidebooks, history texts, and other found objects. She calls out the numbers. Next turn, take a left on 147 for Riverview, about 2 miles. And glosses the directions with readings from the lit. Riverview is “The Official Future Birthplace of Capt. Kirk. Has an annual festival.” Only in America can a town create a fictional history, and get the world to come. In high chuckle we moved on into Cedar Rapids where I’ll let this fall down and go to sleep.

Bodmer 1832

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