Mark Twain’s life, as well as his stories, revolved around the Mississippi. Laura Barton follows the river across ten states to see it through his eyes ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
“NOTICE—Neither the Mark Twain Museum nor the City of Hannibal employs Mark Twain impersonators or look-a-likes.” This poster, hanging in the window of a justice of the peace, tells a cautionary tale about the Missouri town where Mark Twain grew up: half a million people now flock here each year, drawn by the legend of the man himself and his immortal creations Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Hannibal is a city of some 17,750 people which labels itself “America’s Home Town”. On the outskirts there is industry—food-processing and cement and agricultural chemicals—but at its heart there is tourism. The main drag is a run of fudge shops and ice-cream parlours, art galleries and antiques stores, and Twain is everywhere: there’s a Tom Sawyer Diorama Museum, a Mark Twain Hotel, Dinette, Motor Inn and River Boat, the Mark Twain Caves and a Mark Twain Museum.
It is evening, midweek and out of season, and the streets of Hannibal are quiet except for the workmen restoring Becky Thatcher’s house and the chirping of crickets. A handful of teenagers cluster near the Twain Museum, where a sign advises: “America’s Official Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher appear here every Friday and Saturday at 11:30am, Sunday 1pm”. The air is still warm, but the light casts cool, sharp shadows on the path down to the riverbank and splays itself in great burnished ripples across the river.
Here, 700 miles from the headwaters, the Mississippi stretches three-fifths of a mile wide, far across to the dark, wooded banks of Illinois. It runs north into Iowa and south to Kentucky, but right on this particular curve the river lies deep and silty, its banks rich with black walnut, maple and hickory trees, and the water itself, dappling blue and gold and olive-green. Standing here, I agree with Twain, who called this view “one of the most beautiful on the Mississippi”.
Mark Twain died 100 years ago this April. He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 40 miles from this spot, in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. He seemed to steal into writing, first as a composer of humorous verse, then as a travel writer, before he wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, which drew heavily on his youth here in Hannibal. For me as for millions of schoolchildren around the world, “Tom Sawyer” was a first encounter with Twain. Not yet in my teens, I was swept up by tales of playing pirates on river islands, murders in graveyards, hidden treasure and getting lost in underground caves. But even at that stage, it was his tone as much as his material that made an impression: he tugged at your sleeve and wheedled his way past your reservations with a naive, bobbing enthusiasm. Like Sawyer himself, he was the best kind of bad influence.
In later years, studying American Literature with a capital L, I returned to Twain— to Sawyer and his partner-in-crime Huck Finn, as well as to the political satire “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, to his journalism, commentary and his travel writing—“Innocents Abroad”, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Life on the Mississippi”. He could be verbose, and a grouch, and at times he was all elbows and sharp teeth, but he was also piercingly funny, and few could turn a phrase quite so neatly: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” for example, or “Sometimes I wonder, whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” He was a great social commentator too, an opponent of imperialism and racism, a supporter of women’s rights and labour unions. But more than anything it was his voice that caught me; like that of Walt Whitman, it rang out as something new, something uniquely and compellingly American.
To know Twain fully, you first have to know the river. He was raised on its banks, but their acquaintance goes much further; having spent his early 20s dabbling in printing and newspapers elsewhere, Twain returned to Hannibal and trained as a steamboat pilot, studying 2,000 miles of the river before he was awarded his licence in 1859. He knew these waters intimately; he loved them, was reassured and inspired by them. Even his pen name was a piece of riverboat terminology—the boatman’s cry of “mark twain!” meant that the water was two fathoms deep and it was safe to proceed. It was already a pseudonym before Twain came along: he says in “Life on the Mississippi” that it had been used by another riverman, Captain Isaiah Sellers, upon whose death he breezily “confiscated” it.
At the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, I got talking to the curator, Henry Sweets. “Growing up in Hannibal”, he said, “Sam Clemens saw the world through the river. He saw the boats unloading from and going to St Louis and New Orleans. Later, when he was a riverboat pilot, he saw every type of life—everyone from the very rich to the slaves travelled on the river. He could paint the world he was familiar with to people not familiar with it, he was able to convey the majesty of the river, the power and the strength. And today, if you take his books and stand on the banks of the river and read those passages, you can see those same places Twain wrote about.”
For all its power and majesty, the river in Twain’s work was often a source of freedom. It acts as an adventure playground for Huck Finn, breaking loose from the constraints imposed by the Widow Douglas, and for his companion, Jim, the journey up the Mississippi will bring freedom of the most vital kind—from slavery. Though the pair are bent on escape, heading northward on a home-made raft, there are delights and diversions along the way—lazy mornings, sweet breezes, refreshing swims. Huck (and, you sense, Twain) never loses his sense of awe.
In later life, when he had moved far away to Connecticut, the river would return to Twain. He found that its silty waters seeped into his writing, providing the inspiration not only for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and those of Tom Sawyer, but also for “Life on the Mississippi”, which began as a series of sketches for Atlantic Monthly, but was finally published as an account of his time working as a riverboat pilot. Both a homage to the beauty of the river and an opportunity to recount some outlandish tales, it allowed him to pay some dues and to acknowledge that it was the Mississippi that had lubricated his imagination: “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him,” he wrote, “for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.”
The Mississippi still seems to steer life here in Hannibal. In a bar not far from its banks, where a stag’s head hangs on the wall and a jukebox is warming the room, a group of railroad workers, in town only for the night, are drinking beer, revving up for evening. They work all down the length of the river on the miles of rail track that run alongside it. “I crossed the river this morning, about 6.30,” one of them tells me, his voice low and sweet. “It was all fog, and the sun coming up and the barges passing by, and it was beautiful. Right here you have the Iowa River and the Illinois River and the Mississippi River, and where they meet, that’s where the geese fly south. Every fall, you hear that sound when they fly, and you look up and you’ll see thousands of them, migrating south. I love that sound.”
Last autumn, in an effort to get to know Twain a little better, I decided to trace the Mississippi from its beginning in northern Minnesota to its conclusion at the Gulf of Mexico, driving the Great River Road through ten states and taking in some of the sites most significant to Twain. It was an idea that both thrilled and worried me; I feared that, viewed close-up, these places could never hope to match their literary incarnations, and I kept in mind a line from “Old Glory”, Jonathan Raban’s account of his own journey down the river: “It is called the Mississippi, but it is more an imaginary river than a real one.”
It had been shaped in my own imagination by a confederacy of literature and song lyrics. I pictured it as described by Twain, or Eudora Welty, or William Faulkner, who saw “alluvial swamps threaded by black, almost motionless bayous and impenetrable with cane and buckvine and cypress and ash and oak and gum.” I imagined it as it was conjured up by Paul Robeson in “Ol’ Man River”, or in the songs of Johnny Cash or Charlie Patton, a mighty force capable of carrying away the one you loved, of breaking levees and washing the lowlands of Greenville and Leland and Rosedale, and I saw the delta through Paul Simon’s eyes, “shining like the national guitar”.
I had encountered the Mississippi twice before. First on a journey through the Deep South, when we ran into one another at Memphis and elsewhere as I passed through the delta; she was a sparkling, witty thing then, dancing about in the early summer sun, catching my eye as I drove through the cotton fields. I met her again on a visit to New Orleans, not so long after Hurricane Katrina had caused her to break her banks, and then she was a quite different creature, standing high, and sullen, and strong; the river, Twain wrote, “will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise”.
When we greet each other this time, up in rural Minnesota, the river lies just a few feet wide and less than three feet deep. It has taken hours to get up here from Minneapolis, a long, steady drive through small towns and strip malls and flat countryside to Itasca State Park, where the red pines are broad and dun-trunked and a paddle steamer meanders across the lake. The sky is quickening grey as I reach the head-water dam, and the loons are calling out a mournful bleat. The water looks up dourly, as I slip off a summer shoe and dip my toe in the cold, grey river, a far cry from Twain’s “majestic…magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun”.
When we think of the Mississippi, we do not picture these pine forests or this greyish windswept water near the Canadian border. We picture her winding through the delta, or swaying broad-hipped through Tennessee, not ribboning through Wisconsin while the autumn leaves are coming into flame; we do not think of her as she passes through McGregor, Iowa, once the busiest shipping port west of Chicago, but now a few summery blocks between the bluff and the riverbank; we overlook the point at which she wraps herself around the factory buildings of Missouri. Twain, too, observed this oversight: “It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1886. “The river below St Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part…Few people ever think of going there, however. Dickens, Corbett, Mother Trollope [Fanny, mother of Anthony] and the other discriminating English people who ‘wrote up’ the country before 1842 had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed.”
The beauty of this stretch of river has remained largely undisturbed since Twain’s day, but much else has changed. The river was once the thread between knots of industry—“the avenue of commerce”, as Henry Sweets in Hannibal explained. “There were not good roads, so it played a much more vital role. Today there are barges loaded with grain from the Midwest of course, but it doesn’t affect people’s daily life.” Twain was in awe of the “vast manufacturing industries” he found along the riverbank at Moline, Clinton, Lyons and Dubuque, where he picked out “a plow factory which has for customers all Christendom in general”.
Today many of these towns sit dark and deflated on the water’s edge. Some 600 miles from the headwaters, Muscatine, Iowa, is still known as the Pearl of the Mississippi in honour of its once-thriving pearl button industry (in 1905 its factories produced more than a third of the world’s buttons). Today, though one factory still operates, the button-making is largely done abroad and there is a lost feeling to its streets.
Twain worked on the local paper, the Muscatine Journal, which is still published daily. He was captivated by the sunsets: “I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equalled them,” he wrote. “They used the broad smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it every imaginable dream of colour.”
In a bar in Davenport, one of the Quad Cities, where the states of Iowa and Illinois meet, I get talking to a local man, several beers down and eager to discuss the joys of the river, as well as the intricacies of the local firework laws and salmon-fishing in Alaska. “The weird thing about America,” he says finally, as if poised to divulge some immense secret, “it’s what you’ll find as you travel down the river, is that people like different fish in different places. When you get down to the end, to Louisiana, it’ll all be crawfish.”
I was reminded of Twain’s words: “Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.” The conversation in the bar stayed with me as I journeyed on down the river, the days growing warmer, the sky growing broader, the accents too spreading wider and slower as I travelled. Three hundred miles away, I passed the fish fries of St Louis, and in another 600 miles, the catfish suppers down in the historic town of Natchez, Mississippi. And the barfly was right: in the sticky heat of Louisiana it was indeed all crawfish—the summers there peppered with crawfish festivals, full of zydeco music and crawfish queens, crawfish hats and buttons and bibs, and crawfish cooked any way you please—in étouffée or fried with dip or, for the truly devoted, boiled up and piled high.
The Mississippi here has become a fearsome thing, broader and deeper and more forbidding. I drove the backroads, through hot, silent farmland, past cypress trees and giant eagles that sat in the road and glowered. The river seemed to be gathering strength with each mile, swallowing the land, growing bloated and high. In Baton Rouge I took an airboat out through the swampland, where the trees stand still and submerged, the air ruffled only by the wings of a heron or the sound of an alligator slipping gently into the heavy green water. Past hanging vines and pale avenues of trees covered in Spanish moss, I paused and heaved up a basket from the dark water to find two pale pink crawfish sitting inside.
By the time you near the Gulf of Mexico, the river is almost unrecognisable: a broad and mighty sea, coursing at over three miles an hour. Twain would not recognise the roads lined with condos, motels angling for the spring-break crowd, casinos, ice-cream parlours and fast-food joints. But there are still armadillos on the tarmac and pelicans on the shore. I felt no closer here to the Mississippi he wrote about than I had standing in the grey chill of Lake Itasca, though I imagined that, were he still with us, he would have a few things to say about what progress had done to this stretch of his beloved river.
But this is not really the end of the Mississippi. One hundred miles from New Orleans her banks give way, the right and then the left, as if shrugging off the land, and there comes a point known as the Head of Passes, below which she divides into many branches, fine fingers spreading into the silty delta.
Ten miles north lies a place named Pilottown, little more than a cluster of buildings, with a weather station and oil tankers. It sits only a few feet above the water and hosts a small, shifting community of riverboat pilots, a pathway, a few houses on stilts. “When I was a boy”, Twain wrote, “there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” Here in Pilottown, amid the marsh and mud and bullfrogs, and far from the chintzy main drag of Hannibal, you can still picture him, piloting the river he loved, the 2,000 miles of it he committed to memory, and the faces, the voices, the lives of the men he met on the Mississippi.