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In Huck Finn Country

The town of Hannibal, Missouri, benefits from a case of selective memory.


They don't mess around with the visitor in Hannibal. You come for Mark Twain, you get Mark Twain. In fact, you don't even have to worry about all the complexities and contradictions of one of America's greatest writers, nor worry about the long life lived by anybody named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

No, when you roll into this quiet little town on the Mississippi River, you get the old, warm, fuzzy Mark Twain, with white hair and suit, who wrote some really cute stories about children playing and having adventures. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- compared to most small towns, Hannibal is lucky anybody stops there for anything more than gas -- but if you're looking for Mark Twain, the Man of Letters, in Hannibal, you might as well look for a meal in a candy store.

It's all Twain in Hannibal. South of town on Highway 61, the restaurant in Injun Joe Campground is Huck's Homestead. Down in the old part of town, by the river, the Mark Twain Dinette is across from the Hotel Clemens. Pudd'nhead's Antiques is right around the corner from Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall. There's a Mark Twain Gift Shop and a Mark Twain Book and Gift Shop, as well as Tom Sawyer Dioramas and Gifts, a Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, Mark Twain Cave, Mississippi riverboat Mark Twain, Sawyer's Creek Fun Park, Mark Twain Outdoor Theater, and the Becky Thatcher home.

Well, actually, it's the Laura Hawkins home, and this is where things get a wee bit odd in Hannibal. After a while, you might wonder if you're in Mark Twain's hometown or that of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I confess there were times in Hannibal when I wanted to tell people that Tom and Huck weren't real, that Laura Hawkins wasn't really Becky Thatcher -- and, for that matter, that Mark Twain wrote some other books that they might enjoy.

Out in front of the Twain home, there's a sign that reads, "Here stood the board fence which Tom Sawyer persuaded his gang to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing." Call me a wet blanket, but I'm more intrigued by the fact that America's Greatest Voice To Be sat on this street one day, looked at this fence, and thought of that story. I was also intrigued to learn that Hannibal's town drunk at the time was named Finn.

Or you can call me a cynic. While I was enduring a film about "that rascal Huck" at the Mark Twain Museum, I remembered that later in life Twain wrote another story about Huck. In that one Huck came back from "the territories," which he had lit out for at the end of his book, and he was quite thoroughly insane. I also remembered "The Mysterious Stranger," about Satan coming to a place just like Hannibal, and Letters from the Earth, in which angels discuss, hilariously, how foolish humans are.

Hell, on the cover of the Hannibal Visitors Guide they have a kid in a straw hat (presumably Huck) holding a frog (presumably a jumping one from Calaveras County). To a Twain purist, this is like Beale Street publishing a picture of Elvis with a saxophone.

But, like I said, you can't begrudge Hannibal for playing up the Local Hero angle. Without Mark Twain, Hannibal would be Jonesboro, only smaller. So you roll with it. You tour the two Clemens family homes, go through the museum to see one of his white suits and translations of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in Icelandic, Norwegian, Chinese, Finnish, Hindi, and a bunch of other languages. You read that Clemens misspelled a word so Laura Hawkins could win the spelling bee (how cute) and see his actual "orchestrelle," which appears to be a large music box. The newer museum in town has 15 original Norman Rockwells of Twain scenes and a heck of a collection of old woodworking tools. The tools have nothing to do with Mark Twain and are therefore a unique presence in town.

You can even go nuts and make plans to visit during the first few days of July, when National Tom Sawyer Days features a National Fence Painting Championship (raising the possibility of Regional Fence Painting Championships), a jumping-frog contest, and a Tom and Becky in the roles of King and Queen. There's also, in a nod to more modern entertainment, a Hannibal Cannibal 10K Run and by all accounts a heck of a fireworks show over the river on July 4th.

Or you can take a different tack altogether: Leave the details of Tom and Huck World to your imagination and go read one of Twain's books. Better yet, skip the sweet, cute stuff and get yourself a literary meal, something to sink your teeth into. One could make the argument that the very literary heart of America lies in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but you wouldn't guess it from hanging out in Hannibal.

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