Telling Mark Twain's story
Mark Twain, Hannibal and Slave History - A Lesson for Black History Month
By TERRELL DEMPSEY
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
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 Ü 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
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
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
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. Ü 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 Ü
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
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."