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Looking for Writers Beyond Their Work.

America's personality was once riverine, and all roads led to the wharf. Mark Twain writes, "When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman."

But rivers no longer occupy the same place in our national consciousness, and towns like Hannibal, Missouri, where in the mid-1800s up to a thousand boats landed every year, were cut off like oxbow meanders when railroads, interstates, and then airplanes came along.

No boats were expected in Hannibal on April 21, 2010--one hundred years to the day after Mark Twain's death--or for the rest of eternity, near as I could tell. Even the resident Mark Twain Riverboat, a 120-foot sternwheeler built in 1964, sat idle and dark. Two policemen walked quickly through the narrow waterfront park, glancing over at someone shouting in the distance. Soon the shouting man and I were the only people on the bank as far as I could see in either direction.

He was fishing below a work barge tied off to some mutilated sheet-piling. He loaded up a giant hook with glop that I took for peanut butter but may have been his secret-formula catfish bait, and swung the rod hard and fast. The bait went flying off the hook and splashed down separately at a distance. He shouted an obscenity, reeled in, scooped up two fingers more of the glop from its jar, formed it carefully around the hook, and cast again with the same result. More savage cussing, more bait, another cast, same results.

I stood next to him companionably as the obscenities rained down, their thunder rolling across the Mississippi all the way to Jackson Island. Others might have felt uncomfortable in the situation, but you see I've gone fishing myself, once. Twain wrote in his notebook in 1898, "If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there," and for a split second I wondered if it was him.

Why do we go looking for writers beyond their work? They are, after all, unpleasant people.

I know, for instance, a writer who was mixed up in a university phone-sex scandal; a writer who still cant drink Cuba libres because it makes him want the cocaine he used to do when he drank them with Mongolian prostitutes; a writer who replies to greetings with farts; a writer whose pedagogy involves giving students vile nicknames; and a writer who used to eat dirt.

And that's just Facebook friends.

In the film Amadeus, the composer Salieri sneaks into the room where Mozart writes. Salieri lifts Mozart's pen from its pot of ink and stares quizzically at it, as if it might provide a clue to how, in Salieris words, "music, finished as no music is ever finished," "the very voice of God," came from, "That! That giggling, dirty-minded creature I had just seen crawling on the floor!"

This perfectly dramatizes our puzzlement over the gap between art and artist.

The centenary of Twain's death was also the 175th anniversary of his birth, and the 125th anniversary of Huckleberry Finn. I drove out to Hannibal to catch the ceremony at his boyhood home, where a time capsule would be buried in the presence of a Mark Twain impersonator, a beauty queen, and a dozen Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher "ambassadors" dressed in hokumwear. I knew Twain would have enjoyed the ceremony, if only for the chance to soundly cuss so many so efficiently.

The interstate west of Springfield, Illinois, quickly narrows to an old state road ribboned with tar. In spring the bare soil across much of Illinois is monochromatic because it's been tilled uniformly by computer-controlled machines in fields that extend flatly to the horizon. But just west of the capital, the first low hills emerge, and the plowed dirt begins to look less corporate.

Trees grew along the route, the tender mist of their leaves punctuated with redbud blooms, and marsh weed and cattails grew in the ditches. None of this was allowed to exist along major highways in the east-central part of the state, where I lived, and seeing it made me happy. Drainage creeks twisted through the fields in tight green serpentines, miniatures of the lower river on which Twain piloted as a young man. The sunlight changed too, so inexplicably that it's tempting to refer to old theories about miasmal exhalations of the earth.

A sign marked ninety degrees west longitude: "1/4 way west around the world." Exits led to the hometowns of Stephen Douglas, John Hay, and John Nicolay. Lincoln was clerking at New Salem, Illinois, thirty miles from Hannibal, when Sam Clemens was a toddler cutting teeth. Grant worked in St. Louis and upstream at Galena, and General John Logan was born three hours south, near my hometown. I stopped at a Dairy Queen in this cradle of the American Civil War and bought the best chargrilled burger with cheese food and crunchy tomatoes I'd ever had.

Closer to the river, road-cuts exposed sandstone and limestone, and the highway crossed a long floodplain surrounded by distant bluffs. I experienced a microsecond of confusion. The landscape stood before me, irreconcilable with Twain's prose and my own memories, yet irrefutable. At least crossing the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge was no longer the terror it was when I was a kid and my mom wrestled the steering wheel of her little car, its tires pulling and shimmying, on the deck plates of previous bridges, while I looked far, far down at the boiling brown god.

On the Missouri embankment there was a fifty-foot high portrait of Twain in the medium of colored gravel. The road twisted around a hill and down past gas stations and a tanning salon into the center of Hannibal, where a trim business district contained the Mark Twain Dinette, Mark Twain Family Restaurant, Twain Tours with Twainland Express, Mark Twain Book and Gift Shop, Mrs. Clemens Shoppes, and Pudd'nhead's Antiques, Collectibles and Crafts.

Twain's boyhood home was there too, a small clapboard house that looked taller than it was wide, with other period or reconstructed buildings in a block's radius: a reconstructed version of the Blankenship home (the boy was a model for Huck Finn), a period building being called the Becky Thatcher House, the drugstore building where the Clemens lived for a while, and the courtroom where Twain's dad was a justice of the peace. Two blocks away on Cardiff Hill, where Twain played pirate as a boy and real bootleggers and other criminals lived, the town had installed a statue of Tom and Huck, a small butterfly garden up the slope, and a lighthouse on top, used not for navigation but to honor Twain.

The ceremony turned out to be respectful and sedate, mostly citizens of Hannibal gathering to honor one of their own, with few tourists and no broadcast media. Even the EarthCam pointed at the front door of Twain's home wasn't working.

The Twain impersonator took the microphone and did two or three well-chosen bits from Twain's repertoire. He invoked Twain's line, "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry," which was poignant after he'd read the Hannibal Courier-Post's obituary for Twain, published the morning after his death. The child ambassadors described what they had learned as Toms and Beckys, and one little girl spoke movingly about becoming president and alleviating the misery of the poor. I had only to turn my head and look up the steep incline of Hill Street to see the mix of dilapidated and well-kept houses that reflected the widening disparity in America, worse perhaps than in Twain's Gilded Age. Proclamations were read aloud from the governor, the US congresswoman for the district, and the mayor; 2010 was proclaimed the Year of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missour-uh. After the ceremony people drifted back to their workplaces and into restaurants.

Feeling sad, I took a photo of a horse wearing a hat. Then I walked through the park to the river landing and along the decline of the wharf, the cobblestones so worn their edges stuck up like stone knives. I tried to cast myself back to 1853, when Twain left home, but two steel trestle bridges spanned the river now, railroad tracks paralleled the wharf with a levee beyond them, and there were masses of overhead wires, satellite dishes, and advertising signs.

Yet the river was utterly placid and smoothly flowing, even glassy, and purling the only hint at the mischief of which it was capable. Hannibal boomed after Twain left, then the boom days ended, and now Glascock's Landing felt very close again in spirit to how Twain described his town, in Life on the Mississippi:
    After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now,
   just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a
   summers morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two
   clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their
   splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the wall, chins on
   breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep--with
   shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow
   and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good
   business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little
   freight piles scattered about the "levee"; a pile of
"skids" on the
   slope of the stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard
   asleep in the shadow of them; two or three wood flats at the head
   of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the
   wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, the majestic, the
   magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining
   in the sun; the dense forest away on the other side; the
   above the town, and the "point" below, bounding the
   and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and
   brilliant and lonely one. 

Twain returned five times as an adult. From his notebook of April 1882: "Alas! Everything has changed in Hannibal--but when I reached Third or Fourth Street the tears burst forth, for I recognized the mud. It at least was the same--the same old mud."

The mud of Hannibal has been largely paved over but still rises in the brick of the buildings sprawled over the hills. It's a decent metaphor for how great writers become part of the edifice of a nation, though Twain had doubts about what portion of him would remain.

"We struggle, we rise," he writes, "with the adoring eyes of the nations upon us, then the lights go out ... our glory fades and vanishes, a few generations drift by, and naught remains but a mystery and a name." "Fuck!" the disgruntled fisherman yelled over my shoulder.

In his essay "Writer and Region," Wendell Berry says: "There is something miraculous about [Huck Finn's voice]. It is not Mark Twain's voice. It is the voice, we can only say, of a great genius named Huckleberry Finn, who inhabited a somewhat lesser genius named Mark Twain, who inhabited a frustrated businessman named Samuel Clemens."

This phenomenon is made possible by a technology--black squiggles on white paper--that stores ideas and verbal images so we can see and manipulate them over time by the process of revision. What we love in a writer is this recursive voice, the most concentrated form of that person's best awareness, which can be kept in print, shelved in libraries, and stored in a digital cloud that smiles down from heaven. At its best it's like having a sane, just, brilliant friend who can never die.

But the distilled intensity and sometimes near-perfection of recursive work also explains, I think, the deflation we sometimes feel meeting artists. The work has been shaped over time with the aid of a thousand self-critics; the person who wrote it crunches dill pickles in his maw while talking to you on the phone.

The final disconnect is that unlike its art, the human animal is mortal. Your friend's work may have encouraged you to see and feel, but he or she is always waving good-bye from the fantail of a departing ship.

"Even Beatles die," writes poet Valzhyna Mort.

I can't reconcile that.

Too often, so-called American innocence--in politics, religion, science--is no different from cynicism. Twain's great gift was to find a way to reconcile knowledge and innocence, what Picasso meant when he said, "It takes a lifetime to become young."

It's not fashionable to speak of greatness of spirit, so let's say Twain was an innocence broker and that that quality in his work hypnotizes us, like birds before a snake. I refer of course to the child narrators, the attention to "innocents" staggering abroad (his best seller in his lifetime), the prose that has us believing he's normal but surrounded by odd and colorful characters, the personas of the naif and the put-upon victim, the spotless white ice-cream suits, the image of the loving family man performing skits at home with his beloved children.

Call Twain avuncular if you like, but he put these qualities to work battling imperialism, racism, vivisection, cant, hypocrisy, sham, and injustice. He could also be viciously angry, cornpone, and hilariously filthy. Lecturing at a Stomach Club dinner on the topic of masturbation he reputedly said, "A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush." By becoming in his work a whole human being, he shows how to love our muddy experience and gives us hope that people can be whole too.

One of the dangers of confusing the writing and the life is that the author's stuff becomes as suffused with meaning as his books. The Mark Twain Museum, separate from the boyhood home, is modern, cheerfully lighted, and contains an incoherent mishmash of objects that's still interesting and even moving: the death mask of Twain's only son, a little boy shown in a photo sitting up in his stroller; items of Twain's clothing; a pipe with the stem worn away by his teeth; two dozen paintings and sketches by Norman Rockwell for an edition of Tom Sawyer; a reproduction pilot's wheel; furniture from various households; and period newspapers.

The front page of the Hannibal Morning Journal, Friday, April 22, 1910, says Clemens was "bad in the morning at Stormfield" (his last home, near Redding, Connecticut) but "seemed in good spirits" and recognized his wife's nephew and niece.

"Unable to talk too much, he asked the nurse for his glasses. When he was given them he picked up a book which for many years had been one of his favorites, Carlyle's French Revolution, and read several pages of it. This exertion was too much for his fast-failing strength, and he relapsed into a comatose condition, which verged into complete unconsciousness from which he never recovered."

It's fitting that a display in the museum quotes a passage from Innocents Abroad, in which Twain complains about the ubiquity of holy relics in his travels in Europe and the Middle East:

"But isn't this relic matter a little overdone? We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together. I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails."

There are other kegs of Twain's nails on display a few blocks away at the other sites, and the gift shop at the boyhood home sells a few near-relics, should you want to take one home. In one corner I found: Wild Huckleberry Gummi Bears, Wild Huckleberry Pancake Mix, Wild Huckleberry Cocoa, Wild Huckleberry Honey, Wild Huckleberry Syrup, Wild Huckleberry Chocolate Bar, Wild Huckleberry Jelly Beans, Wild Huckleberry Sampler, Wild Huckleberry Pinwheels, Wild Huckleberry Stix, Wild Huckleberry Taffy ... and Missour-uh Chocolate River Rocks.

There were also books by and about Twain, steamboat models, jaw harps and pennywhistles, and all manner of other geedunk and geegaws. In response to my questioning, the two older southern ladies who staffed the cash register patiently explained that the huckleberries were not local but grown deep in the Ozarks. Of course I'd seen right through that, so I was pleased with myself when I found the jam to be delicious anyway, that my boys liked their T-shirts, and the postcards I bought of Twain, cartooned by Calvin and Hobbes's Bill Watterson for the Mark Twain Journal, looked fine in my office. I began to plan another visit to pick up a few other things. Maybe a marble head.

We try to get closer. My friend Rory is rumored to have two bricks he took from the yard of William Faulkners house, Rowan Oak. Rory's a big guy who lettered all the sports and for one afternoon flung cloth bags of flour for a living, but it's rumored there's a five-foot Faulkner scholar somewhere gonna kick his ass.

Sometimes it feels as if each of us is sunk in our own crystalline well. We think we know each other through the glass landscape until some event reveals how impossibly distant we are in that proximity, how another's singing was actually keening.

And yet. Once at a dinner I sat across from a poet and felt over the course of a short, broken conversation her enormous intelligence and consciousness focus on me. Such moments almost make the hard breaks of mortality bearable and drive us to search for more such experiences.

Then she walked out of the restaurant and kicked a dog. The dog was metaphorical.

One of Twain's favorite words was "lonesome." He uses it eighteen times in the great moral novel Huckleberry Finn. The novel Tom Sawyer, a boyhood fantasy by comparison, has only five mentions.

There were many events celebrating Twain on the centenary, the biggest of them the release of volume one of his unexpurgated memoirs, which he insisted not be published until one hundred years after his death. Despite the book being a $35, four-pound, 500,000-word ramble, by Thanksgiving it had gone back to press six times, and the publisher still couldn't meet holiday demand. All this renewed interest made us feel closer to Twain, a presumption he would have appreciated, ham that he was, and been amused by.

As Twain prepared to leave Hannibal for the last time in his life, Tom Nash, a childhood friend--now deaf--approached him.

Twain writes: "[Nash] was old and white-headed, but the boy of fifteen was still visible in him. He came up to me, made a trumpet of his hands at my ear, nodded his head toward the [other] citizens [who'd gathered to say good-bye], and said, confidentially--in a yell like a fog horn--'Same damned fools, Sam.'" {deletethisline}
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Author:Griswold, John
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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