Exploring the American Experience Exploring the American Experience

How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa

No novelist captured the muddy waterway and its people like the creator of Huckleberry Finn, as a journey along the river makes clear

For Twain, the “magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide” was the stuff of dreams (the St. Louis waterfront today). (Dave Anderson)
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At the crossing, I tried to imagine the silent nighttime boarding and departure and the bitter disappointment across the river. Because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act requiring citizens of free states to aid in the capture of freedom seekers, Illinois represented not freedom to a slave but rather a different kind of danger. I thought of Mark Twain’s Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, hiding on the island to avoid the fate ultimately dealt to Esther. Meanwhile, Huck, disguised as a girl, learns from an otherwise kindly Illinois woman that she suspects a runaway slave is camped on the island and that she has alerted her husband, who is about to head out to capture him. That scene leads to the most famous use of the first-person plural pronoun in literature: Huck dashes back to the island, awakens Jim, and instinctively signs on to his struggle with the words, “They’re after us.”

Kris and I stepped into the nearby information center housed in a square metal former Coast Guard building and were welcomed by a lively, loquacious host. Kris hadn’t been to the site in a while, and when our host learned that she was the one who had discovered the facts of the crossing, he beamed and high-fived her and included me as well, though entirely undeserving. He said to her, “You’re a great lady. You’re a great lady.” Kris shook her head. “I’m a historian,” she said.

I left Kris to her current project—researching hundreds of freedom suits filed by slaves in Missouri courts—and drove up the Missouri segment of the Great River Road known as the Little Dixie Highway. I passed through the small town of Louisiana, where young Sam Clemens was put ashore after being found stowed away on a steamboat from Hannibal, 30 miles up the river. He was 7 years old. I thought about the difference between the boy who had grown up in Hannibal in the 1840s and ’50s and the Mark Twain who had written the island scene in Huckleberry Finn. I had recently read Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World, a book by Terrell Dempsey, a former Hannibalian now living not far from that town in Quincy, Illinois. Dempsey had long doubted that Hannibal’s full slave history had been properly told, and he and his wife, Vicki—an attorney like himself—began to spend evenings and weekends spooling through the local newspaper archive.

To read Searching for Jim is to understand the racist cruelty of the society in which Clemens grew up—the grinding labor that was the slaves’ daily lot; the beatings they endured, sometimes to the point of death; the white citizens’ loathing for abolitionists and free blacks; the racist jokes passed from one newspaper to another, some of which young Sam, as an apprentice printer, set in type. The Clemens household kept slaves, and Sam’s father sat on a jury that sent three abolitionists to prison for 12 years. To reread Mark Twain with a fuller sense of that world is to appreciate the long moral journey he had to make in order to—like Huck—sign on to Jim’s struggle.

I met Terrell and Vicki in their home in Quincy—an 1889 Queen Anne, one of dozens of enviable Victorian homes in the town’s East End Historic District. Terrell proposed a boat ride despite threatening weather. We drove to the dock on Quinsippi Island, unwrapped their modest pontoon boat and headed out. We passed close by a tow pushing nine covered barges and speculated about their contents. Three of the barges rode high in the water—empties, Terrell explained to his landlubber guest.

We talked about Clemens’ early environment and what he wrote—and didn’t write—about it. I mentioned something that had struck me in my recent rereading of Life on the Mississippi, a book not just about Clemens’ piloting years but also—the bulk of it, in fact—about life on the river when he revisited it in 1882. Slaves were a constant presence on antebellum steamboats, both as forced laborers on the deck and in chained droves being taken downriver. Yet there is no mention of them on the boats in the memoir portion, nor is there reflection on their absence in 1882.

Terrell, a bluff fellow, said, “He didn’t want to remind people where he came from.”

As the hum of the outboard stirred large carp into the air (but not into the boat), we talked of other omissions and shadings in Mark Twain’s works. A memoir by a piloting colleague of Clemens’ tells of how they both avoided being drafted as Union pilots in the summer of 1861 when the general in the St. Louis office who was about to complete the paperwork became distracted by some pretty women in the hall and stepped out the door. This allowed the near-conscripts to desert via a different door. It’s a perfect Mark Twain story that Mark Twain never told.

Vicki, huddling against the wind off the river, said, “He also never wrote about defrauding the abolitionist society.”

This was a curious episode uncovered by literary scholar Robert Sattelmeyer and then skillfully sleuthed by him. The Boston Vigilance Committee was an abolitionist group that rendered financial support to fugitive slaves and occasionally put its funds to other uses. For example, if someone wrote to the society from, say, Missouri, that he needed financial help to go to, say, Boston, the committee might very well respond with cash if the circumstances were right—as they seemed to be in this case, according to a September 1854 entry in the treasurer’s ledger book: $24.50 paid to one “Samuel Clemens” for “passage from Missouri Penitentiary to Boston—he having been imprisoned there two years for aiding Fugitives to escape.” Sattelmeyer established that only one Samuel Clemens lived in Missouri in this period and that no Samuel Clemens had served in the state penitentiary. The explanation must be that young Sam, like his later creation Tom Sawyer, enjoyed a good joke at others’ expense, and what better dupes to hoodwink than those meddling abolitionists?

Why would Clemens do such a thing? Because he was an 18-year-old who had grown up in a slave state. A little over a decade later, he would woo Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, daughter of an abolitionist not just in theory but in practice: Her father, Jervis Langdon, helped fund the work of John W. Jones, a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor who aided hundreds of escaped slaves on their flight north. I wondered aloud, there on the boat, if Clemens’ anti-abolitionist prank ever made it into the Elmira dinner table conversation during his two-year courtship.

“Doubtful,” said Terrell. He revved the outboard, looked back at the carp leaping in our wake, and grinned. “That really pisses them off,” he said.

The next day I visited Hannibal, a town that will always feel as small as it was when Clemens grew up, bounded as it is by a bluff on its north side, another bluff just 12 blocks to the south, and the river to the east. I was curious about changes in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which I hadn’t visited for two decades. The concise narrative in the museum’s “interpretive center” (completed in 2005) presented Clemens’ early life without overload. Mercifully free of the looping banjo and fiddle music that had dogged me through other river museums, the room was silent save for a single whispered comment I heard from one museumgoer to another, “I didn’t know he was so poor.”

I was happy to see a large photograph of Sam’s older brother Orion in the interpretive center, looking more distinguished than his reputation. Orion was a bumbler with a disastrous career record, but he was earnest and good-hearted. Sam, in adulthood, showed an anger toward him that had always seemed excessive to me. Now, looking at the portrait on the heels of that one overheard comment, I wondered if Sam’s anger could have gone back to the fact that when he was just 11 and his father died, poverty forced his mother to remove him from school and apprentice him to a stern local printer, and this would not have been the case if Orion, ten years his senior, hadn’t been an incompetent from birth and had been able to provide for the family.

I next went to the boyhood home, sliced down one side from front to back like a dollhouse, its three rooms on each of its two levels protected by glass but still allowing an intimate view. A high-school boy behind me, upon bursting into the parlor from the gift shop, said to himself, with feeling, “This is sweet!” The home was working its magic on him. On the wooden floor of the kitchen lay a thin rug with a sign explaining that a slave would have slept here, rising early to light the fire for the household. This pallet was installed at the suggestion of Terrell Dempsey, who has agitated over the years for the museum to give more attention to slavery. Before him, in the 1990s, Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin made a similar appeal, and the museum indeed now does the subject justice.

After my tour, I sought out the museum’s executive director, Cindy Lovell. While I was in her office, curator Henry Sweets looked in on us long enough to hear me express delight in the exhibits before he hurried off to attend to his many duties, as he has done since 1978. The two of them are Twainiacs even beyond what you would expect from their positions. Cindy, speaking of other curators and scholars, will say, “He’s a geek for Twain,” and “She’s got the bug” and “She gets it.” Or the death sentence: “He gets things wrong.” Don’t try to quote Mark Twain in her presence. She will finish the quotation—with corrections—and extend it beyond your intentions.


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