Hannibal, Mo. — The graves were sunken. My feet, squishing past the caretaker's house, were drunken. And as a midnight rain slashed across the cemetery, the flashlight finally found what it had been searching for, its beam illuminating slick, dark stone: INJUN JOE.
"There he is," whispered Cindy Lovell, self-proclaimed Mark Twainiac, admitted Huckleberry Fiend, pointing to the very real grave of the very fictional villain. The look on her face was bemused rapture, another reason why she first came here in 1996 and never left.
I, however, was more confused than bemused. In the downpour, I contemplated rebuttal: Um, Excitable Mark Twain Lady? Injun Joe wasn't real. He was a bad guy in "Tom Sawyer." Ink and paper. No bones about him.
But I didn't say a word. First of all, this wasn't some goofy ghost tour. We weren't supposed to be here. The caretaker probably had sharp hearing; dude probably had a shotgun, too. Lovell adheres to the tenets of "What Would Huck Do?" For her, casual illegalities, especially those perpetrated in the pages of Twain, are fuzzily permissible. Still, I wasn't prepared to plead the Finn defense with a Remington to my head.
But I also kept my mouth shut because here, in a seriously spooky cemetery, I was finally figuring out this twisted Midwestern burg. Because of Twain, who lived here as a boy, who celebrated this place as a man, there are not one, but two Hannibals, twin cities overlapping like blurred Polaroid images.
There is the actual town — hardscrabble and industrial, hilly and humble — where Samuel Langhorne Clemens spent his formative years, age 4 to 17, from 1839 to 1853, before becoming the pseudonymous legend in white suit and bushy mustache.
There is also the adventureland that Mark Twain imagined, romanticized and clung to until the day he died: April 21, 1910 — 100 years ago this Wednesday. And that mythical Hannibal, called "St. Petersburg" in his novels, is somehow just as tangible.
So as the rain fell, Lovell explained that Injun Joe, a.k.a. Joe Douglass, was fantasy and flesh. He knew Tom Sawyer; he knew Sam Clemens, too. In the pages of a novel, Joe died young in a cave; in reality, Joe lived to be 102.
Hannibal, a tourist stop like no other, blends the twin personae of its literary founding father.
So what to believe?
How about all of it.
• • •
After all these years, I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning, the streets empty, or pretty nearly so . . .
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883
We all rose-color our salad days, and Sam Clemens, a man whose tragedies were as pronounced as his triumphs, was no different. It didn't matter if he was living in Hartford, Conn., or Elmira, N.Y., roughing it in the Nevada Territory or following the equator across the Indian Ocean, it was always Hannibal.
He was tethered, obsessed, in love. And why not? The town had everything both a young rapscallion could crave and a sad old man could cling to: family, "unwashed" friends, curly-haired paramours and, a few hundred yards away, that big, bad river.
Still does, too. For all the places that will claim Twain during this anniversary year — the anniversaries being his death, his birth on Nov. 30, 1835, and the 125th of the publishing of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — there is nowhere that retains the man's rakish spirit and thirst for boyish freedom quite like Hannibal.
They don't call it "America's Hometown" for nothing. For all the art galleries and wine bars, pizza parlors and fast-food joints, this hamlet of 18,000 or so hasn't changed much. San Francisco can't say that; neither can New Orleans. But you can still find him here, touch what he touched, see what he saw. Hannibal is nestled low, surrounded by bluffs and pure farmland. There are caves and boats and great leafy trees to climb. The river, wide and relentless, remains an ominously seductive force. Beware.
It's not all perfect, mind you. Sitting 90 miles north of St. Louis, Hannibal has been hit hard by the recession; for every quaint cafe and book nook, there is also a shuttered shop waiting for a second chance. The architecture is mostly brick, mortar, efficiency over beauty. On a gray day, you're better off curling up with The Prince and the Pauper.
But rest assured, there is also great Americana magic here. And that's why I showed up. I grew up in Westford, Mass., a sleepy apple-picking hollow 25 miles northwest of Boston. It was quiet, leafy, golden. And as I get older — I hit 40 like a brick wall a few weeks ago — I've come to romanticize and chase my childhood. Never mind that the last time I went home, all of those apple orchards had become Applebee's.
I've always loved Twain.
Now I understand him.
Hannibal is a playground for a kid, playback for a grownup. It starts at the humble white two-story on quaintly cobblestoned Hill Street, where Clemens grew up. "Just imagine what he saw from his bedroom window: the river!" says Lovell, 53, the executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum.
From his bedroom, shared with younger brother Henry, Sam could also see the dilapidated cabin of pal Tom Blankenship, whose father was "the town drunk." Sam and Tom would raft to islands and explore a bat-rich cave, the latter of which is now the most popular tourist attraction in Hannibal. When Clemens turned 50, he wrote about his scruffy pal Tom: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Blankenship home acts as a mini museum dedicated to the racial controversy — and, 125 years later, continued enlightenment — of Huck Finn. And when I was there, as if on cue, Emily Ott, a blond 10-year-old from Green Bay, Wis., walked wide-eyed into Huck's place, the low ceilings a contusion-in-waiting for most grownups. "I was at the library and I just picked up Huckleberry Finn," says Emily. "It was really good. I couldn't put it down!" She doesn't see controversy in the novel; she sees a bad boy with a unique moral compass. She sees her first crush.
"I was always grateful I was never taught Mark Twain," says Lovell when I tell her about Emily. "I discovered him on my own, too." This reminds Lovell of a Twain quote: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." Lest you think Hannibal is an academic snooze, remember that Twain was the first great American smart-ass.
(My favorite Twain quote: "The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.")
Young Sam would have loved Emily Ott, especially since she looks like Laura Hawkins — or at least Laura's fictional counterpart. Hawkins lived across Hill Street. Her home is now called the Becky Thatcher House, after Tom Sawyer's sweetheart, the ultimate girl next door.
The Becky Thatcher House, I'm not ashamed to say, is my favorite part of Hannibal. Because the interior is being renovated, Lovell sneaks us in. Peering out a window onto the Twain house, I just have to know: Did Sam and Laura ever cuddle in a cave, just like Tom and Becky? What's the fact and what's the fiction this time, Excitable Mark Twain Lady? "Sam wasn't a kisser-and-teller," says Lovell. "But he definitely had romantic feelings."
Sigh. Of course he did.
• • •
Well, it was a beautiful life, a lovely life. There was no crime. Merely little things like pillaging orchards and watermelon patches and breaking the Sabbath — we didn't break the Sabbath often enough to signify — once a week, perhaps.
Mark Twain, on his 67th birthday, 1902
"I think Sam would be proud of Hannibal today," says Lovell about her "boss." "A Twain Pepsi machine! He would love that!"
Indeed, Twain would have no need for a mirror here. His image and name are in every camera click, from the Mark Twain Cave to the Injun Joe Campground. It's a full-on love affair, not just a way to soak the busloads. As well as soda machines sporting his visage, there's the Mark Twain Dinette, which serves Mark Twain fried chicken, Mark Twain root beer. In season, the picaresque Mark Twain Riverboat offers trips up the Mississippi.
In Hannibal, high schoolers don't grow up dreaming of quarterbacking the football team or captaining the cheerleader squad. Instead, they vigorously compete to spend their eighth-grade year dressed as Tom and Becky. Alex Addison and Paige Cummins, both 14, are the current "ambassadors"; he has a fishing pole and a plastic rat, she wears a bonnet and a flirty smirk. They are often joined in the quiet streets of Hannibal by adult Twain impersonators. Eat your heart out, Elvis.
For all the joyous artifice, however, there are also myriad solemn reminders of why Hannibal meant so much to Twain — and how he used his feelings for Hannibal to shape American popular culture and progress. There are two museums in town. One is next to his boyhood home. It is here you learn that Twain based Huckleberry Finn's Jim on Uncle Dan'l, a slave on his Uncle John's farm. Beloved Uncle Dan'l was a storyteller; he was a friend and guiding light to Sam.
The other museum is just down Main Street. The ground floor takes a delirious Disneyfied approach: Ride a river raft, sit in a stagecoach, the kids flip for it. But upstairs adults find startling artifacts, including the ceramic death mask of Langdon Clemens, the son of Sam and wife Olivia. Their first child, Langdon died when he was 19 months old.
In Riverview Park, looming high above town, a tall regal statue of Twain as an old man gazes down the Mississippi. At sunrise from way up here, the wide, imposing river looks as if it is made entirely of light. In 1902, Twain made his last visit to Hannibal. As he recounted that light, that river, the normally stoic man broke down sobbing in front of the townspeople. After a lifetime of success but also great pain — the death of brother Henry and son Langdon and daughter Susy, the money woes from horrific business decisions — Twain wept for the town, the innocence, the ideal he left years before, but which never, ever left him.
• • •
Outside the Mark Twain Boyhood Home stands a historical marker touting "Tom Sawyer's Fence," the one the rascally punk convinced pals to whitewash for him. People pose in front of the broad white pickets all day, pretending to wash it, pretending to work. For a $10 donation, you can even sign the fence. Twain would admire the hucksterism.
But the truth, boys and girls, is that there was never any whitewashed fence, at least as far as Lovell and historians can figure. It was mere literary invention, a whimsical plot point.
No matter. In Hannibal, just because something is imaginary doesn't mean it's not real.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life columns runs every Sunday in Floridian.