Twain's Paradise Replaced

For the Courier-Post

The next time you walk or drive past that little acre of cracked macadam next to the diorama in the 300 block of North Main Street, take a moment to remind yourself that you are looking at an American shrine, or what would have been a shrine if the city fathers in 1954 hadn't been in such an all-fired hurry to tear down paradise and put up a parking lot. To borrow the slogan that used to grace the window of my Uncle Abe's bar and grill at Fourth and Broadway: if you can't stop in, smile as you go by. For here, a century and a half ago, was where a redheaded kid named Sammy first touched his fingers to newspaper type. That contact would eventually transform American culture, and give this country its distinctive sense of humor.

In 1848 this little plot of ground held a two-story building known as the L.T. Brittingham Drug Store. On the second floor was the printshop of a newspaper called the Courier, formerly the Gazette, and an ancestor of the publication you're holding in your hands. That year, 12-year-old Sammy showed up to work for the sour-tempered owner, Joseph Ament (whom he later described, from the safety of his brother Orion's newspaper, as "a diminutive chunk of human meat").

Sammy's duties at first were to haul water, build the fire, sweep the floor and learn whatever he could about setting type. He learned plenty, and he learned it fast. Working for nothing, subsisting on onions and potatoes from Ament's basement, swaddled in Ament's heavy castoff clothes, Sammy mastered a valuable trade. He also learned to observe human beings at close quarters, and to write about them with laser precision, as his description of Ament proved.

After three hard years, Sammy left the Courier to assist doofusy Orion, who was struggling to publish a rival sheet called the Western Union, and later the Journal. Orion lured Sam with the megabucks offer of $3.50 a week. According to his brother, he never paid a penny of it. But he handed Sam a far richer gift: the chance to break into print himself. Usually this happened when his older, clueless brother was out of town settling family debts or chasing down some doomed land scheme. Then the bright, mischievous kid would light up the pages with his own wild essays and even cartoons, which he carved out of woodblocks with a pocket knife.

Unlike pious Orion, Sammy didn't mind targeting his fellow townsfolk for his poison-tipped barbs. His brother would usually arrive back in Hannibal just in time to deal with the outraged howls of the freshly stung.

There was the unfortunate J.T. Hinton, for exampleča pompous rival editor who had made the terrible mistake of mocking Orion in print. Left in charge of the paper a few weeks later, 16-year-old Sammy unloaded. Feasting on a rumor that Hinton, jilted by a girlfriend, had waded boozily into Bear Creek with the idea of committing suicide and then waded back out again, Sam published a wicked cartoon of the event. It showed Hinton carrying a torch and advancing on the creek, a liquor bottle suspended in front of him. His head was the head of a dog. Sam's caption read in part: "Ain't he pretty? And don't he step along with an air? Peace to his re-manes."

Before he left Orion's paper, Sam managed to sink his barbed wit into many other local targets in the rough-and-tumble style of Southwestern newspapering that was beginning to emerge.

He made fun of certain ne'er-do-well Irish families, dipping into coarse and condescending dialect. He lampooned a fellow worker, a young man who during a fire scare in the offices had lit out comically for a bucket of water and returned hours after the blaze was safely out. ("If that thar fire hadn't bin put out," he quoted the awed boy as exclaiming, "thar'd a' bin the greatest confirmation of the age!") And by age 17 he had actually cracked the fashionable magazine market of the East, with a low-comedy essay in which a Missouri rustic punches out an obnoxious dandy who has minced down a steamboat gangplank with pistols drawn, to entertain the high-toned ladies on deck.

As literature, most of these efforts were on the primitive sidečas well they might be, coming from the pen of a self-educated provincial boy of the mid-19th century. But their fire and spirit were connected unmistakably to the great satirist who would later write "with a pen warmed up in hell." Hannibal had given Sammy Clemens his first taste of the delights of newspapering. He would take up this pursuit again as a rollicking young journalist in Nevada and California. And his great national comic debut, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," was published first in a periodical, the Saturday Press in New York. Like many of his countrymen, Mark Twain would build his immortal literature on a long and deep foundation of popular journalism.

And it all started over on North Main. Where the parking lot is now.

Ron Powers grew up in Hannibal and is an award winning author. He has written books about Mark Twain and Hannibal. For more information about Powers, click here.

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