I Spent Summer Vacation With Mark Twain


Now here’s a unique summer vacation for you — Mark and I went to Hannibal, Missouri. The location itself is not so remarkable except for the fact that in the 1840s, it was the hometown of a young boy named Samuel Clemens, the kid who grew up to be Mark Twain.

When Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he based much of the landscape of those stories on his time in Hannibal. The characters were based on people he knew. Because of that, you can visit the homes of Finn, Becky Thatcher and Twain himself. His father’s justice of the peace office is there, and you can get a photo of yourself whitewashing a fence. I could place the characters in their proper settings.

Whenever I visit a historic town, I am amazed by the small houses and the large families that resided within them. With Twain, I just knew he did not spend any more time inside than he had to. His world was the Mississippi River, the nearby caves, the hills and brooks and woods. The way he described them makes everyone want to go there. There seemed to be adventure lurking around every corner.

That is probably why Twain’s writings remain enormously popular and, even back in the day, he was speaking and touring and representing America at its best.

“I am not an American,” he said. “I am the American.”

It is nice to know we were being represented across Europe by someone who said:

• “Loyalty to country always. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

• “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

• “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

And maybe a little embarrassed by things like:

• “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

• “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”

• “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

As a writer, though, I need to take some of his quotes very seriously. Some of my favorites are:

• “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.”

• “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”

• “The difference between the ‘almost right’ word and the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

There are a lot of quotes to be enjoyed along one’s tour of Hannibal. Best to bring your reading glasses. And best not to become annoyed by the “outdoor voices” being used by 10-year-old boys, dragged to Hannibal by parents hoping to infuse some education into their vacation. After all, it was the type of vacation Twain himself would have hated.

Release those kids into the caves — now that’s more like it.