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.

Anticipation. . .

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be in the same room with Pa’s fiddle, Ma’ china shepherdess, and Laura’s desk.  I’ll be in Mansfield, MO, the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books.  It’s a literary pilgrimage I’ve long wanted to take.  A college friend lives less than 2 hours from Mansfield, so it always seemed like an easy enough trip, even though I’ve never done it.  But after visiting Mankato and Walnut Grove, I knew it was time to add Mansfield to my list of literary landmarks.

Though Mansfield is never featured in Wilder’s famous books, I’ve always been as interested in the places where authors create.  Edith Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, gazing out the window at the Berkshires.  I might have taken an illegal photo of that view.  Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a tiny, half moon desk in her room.  So tiny that I can’t imagine how she fit paper and herself at that desk.  William Faulkner wrote at a typewriter in his antebellum home in Oxford, Mississippi.  All of these places gave me a unique thrill–one I’m pretty sure I’m going to get again on Sunday.

This particular trip isn’t about just the one pilgrimage.  I’ll be communing with Lincoln in Springfield.  And I’ll be reconnecting with dear college friends in Kansas City. 

I am on the fence (freshly whitewashed, of course) about stopping in Hannibal.  My parents and I went there when I was around 14, and I thought it was a strange place then.  Becky Thatcher’s house?  But she was never real. . .  Somehow, I have a feeling it may be even odder to me now.  I’ll probably stop, but it remains to be seen if I’ll find it all amusing or horrifying.

Any of you planning any literary pilgrimages this summer?