Telling Mark Twain's story

Mark Twain, Hannibal and Slave History - A Lesson for Black History Month


For the Courier-Post

Last month millions of people watched the PBS biography of Mark Twain by Ken Burns. In that film, America got a close look at the mainstream of present thought about Hannibal's famous son. If you saw it, you probably noticed one thing. The film presented a very different Twain than we present in Hannibal. Black History Month is an appropriate time to examine what we are doing with our Twain legacy here.

The basic premise of the Ken Burns biography was that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not only Mark Twain's greatest book, but is considered by many academics to be the greatest American novel written to date. Much of the greatness in the book lies in the racial subtexts that run through it. Middle-aged Mark Twain, sitting in the little building at Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y., reached back to his childhood in Hannibal and resurrected the conflicts and themes that resonated here from 1839 to 1861.

Sam Clemens's personal life after he left Hannibal is a story of change. He left here in 1853 a full-fledged supporter of slavery. He was at that time a true racist who believed that African American's were inferior to whites. His first letters home reflect his opinions at the time. On August 31, 1853, Sam wrote home from New York complaining of "trundle-bed trash" and "Niggers, mulattoes, quadroons, Chinese" which he refers to as "human vermin." Over his lifetime, though, he made a transformation. If you saw the Burns special, you will recall the moving story of Mary Ann Cord, a cook at Quarry Farm who told Twain how her husband and seven children were sold away from her as a slave. It was a poignant story that Twain wrote down and published in 1874. Over his life, Sam Clemens was so transformed that he paid the way through college of several African Americans with the comment it was part of the debt due from white Americans.

But we in Hannibal are stuck presenting the increasingly dated story of Tom Sawyer. Though the novel was Twain's best-selling work during his lifetime, it has been eclipsed by Huckleberry Finn. We have been telling the Tom Sawyer story for nine decades and the decision was made by one man George Mahan. Mahan was born in 1851. His father was a slaveholder and Mahan lived with slavery until he was an adolescent. His father was a member of the racist colonization society which sought to send African Americans to Africa. A newspaper in Hannibal reported when his father captured a runaway slave and returned him to his master.

It was the younger Mahan who purchased the boyhood home and set it up as a museum. As president of the Missouri State Historical Society, he had official Historical Society signs placed about town denoting not history, but where Mahan claimed the fictitious events in Tom Sawyer had taken place. One of the signs, which used to stand down near Nipper Park, referred to Jim from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as "Nigger Jim," although "nigger" is never used as part of Jim's name in Twain's book. Mahan never made the change in racist attitude that Clemens did.

Mahan saddled Hannibal with many inaccuracies that have taken root here. It was apparently he who arrived at the mistaken notion that Sam's father John Marshall Clemens had practiced law in Hannibal. Even today we have a building that purports to be his law office. The tape recording in the parlor of the boyhood home tells visitors that John Marshall Clemens met with clients there. It never happened. On the other hand some very fascinating and important things did happen in that room.

The real story of Sam Clemens in Hannibal has very much to do with the man who would write the great American novel. One of the revolutionary features of the Huckleberry Finn was Twain's writing in dialect. Sam Clemens learned that very technique right here in Hannibal. The stories he set in type and may have written are offensive to modern ears. Here is an example of the type of story Sam Clemens set while he worked for his brother Orion Clemens from 1851 to 1853. This story was published on May 7, 1853:

"Julius, is you better dis morning?"

"No. I was better yesterday, but got over it."

"Am der no hopes den ob your discovery?"

"Discovery ob what?"

"Your discovery from de convalescence dat fotch you on yer back?"

"Dat depends, Mr. Snow, altogether on de prognostifications which amplify de disease. Should dey terminate fatally, de doctor tinks Julius am a gone nigger; should dey not terminate fatally, he hopes de colored indiwidual won't die till anoder time. As I said before, it all depends on the prognostics, and till these come to a head, it is hard telling whedder de nigger will discontinue hisself or not."

This story, a short example selected for this article, and others like it are important because they show clearly how Sam Clemens learned the dialect technique that he made famous as Mark Twain.

What is fascinating is that the Hannibal Journal, Orion Clemens's newspaper where Sam worked, was printed in the parlor of what we call the boyhood home. An early postcard from the days before Mahan's purchase of the house identifies it as the "Mark Twain Printing Office." The house was not as we present it, the comfortable home of an upper-middle class lawyer. It was a busy place where a poor family struggled to earn a living. For two years Orion and Sam operated the press and conducted business in the parlor while their mother Jane Clemens took in boarders to try to make ends meet.

The consensus among most academics who are teaching Twain at the college level is that Huckleberry Finn is a liberating novel that moves beyond racism. The vast ocean of Sam Clemens' experience with African Americans and slaves took place in Hannibal. We have not only ignored this fact of Sam Clemens' life, we have erased our slave history. During the time Sam Clemens lived here, slavery was at the very heart of every aspect of life. Slaves were in the homes of Hannibal. Slaves were members of what are now all-white churches. Slaves did the hard labor. Slaves were bought and sold. Slaves were a safe liquid asset in which families kept their wealth and passed it from generation to generation. It is impossible to portray life here in that time and omit slavery without sacrificing our integrity.

We present absolutely nothing about Twain's wonderful character Jim. Many scholars now consider Jim as the first African American character in American literature portrayed as a full-fledged human being. Prior to this book, African Americans were reduced to simple stereotypes lazy, comical, mischievous characters. Jim ran away from Hannibal slavery, but we have nothing about the world he fled. It is not unusual that Twain would write about a runaway. Between 1850 and 1860, the number of slaves who ran away declined nationally, but it increased in Missouri. But a school child who comes here will not learn that.

Children who are bused here in the spring do not learn the risks that faced a runaway slave. They are not told that Sam Clemens was with a group of boys who found the body of a runaway slave in Bird Slough, near Sny Island. The slave was killed by the slave catchers and left to rot in the backwaters of the Mississippi. The visiting children will learn nothing about the racism that existed and supported slavery. The child will learn virtually nothing about the world that formed America's greatest writer.

There are those who think that only fluffy children's tales will attract people here. That is not true. If it were, people would not flock to places like Gettysburg or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. People want more. I have written about the simple justice of giving African American's their story back. The simple truth is that by doing that we are giving Sam Clemens his story back. America is curious to know about the world that produced Mark Twain and we are failing them. The proof is in the dwindling numbers of people who are coming to see our presentation of Sam Clemens. In the mid-1980s between 150,000 and 200,000 people annually visited the boyhood home in Hannibal. That dropped to about 100,000 by 1992. Last year only 72,000 visited the boyhood home. If we are going to turn those numbers around, we are going to have to tell the story correctly.

Terrell Dempsey is a Hannibal attorney. He is completing work on a book, "Searching for Jim, Slavery in Sam Clemens' World."

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