Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Childhood on Display: Two Hours at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

It was hotter than double hockey stick when I parked alongside a white picket fence in Hannibal, Missouri.  The thermometer in our minivan read 103 degrees, but I knew outside the cloudless sky and mid-western humidity were collaborating to make it feel ten degrees hotter.  Did I really want to step out of my air-conditioned vehicle and see where Mark Twain hung his knickers?

I did.

Hannibal, after all, is two stops down from nowhere, and I didn’t know when I’d be in the neighborhood again.  And I had been planning to visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum for weeks, talking it up to my kids, and reading all the Twain my eyes could stand to be ready for it.  I couldn’t let a little sun get in the way.   Besides, the white picket fence and the Mississippi River were calling out to me.  I was in Twain country.

Not that I needed a picket fence and a muddy river to tell me that.  The road to Hannibal had already taken me across the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge and past a giant caricature of Twain painted on a grassy hillside just inside the city limits.  Once in town, I saw no limit to Mark Twain souvenir shops and folksy billboards advertising Mark Twain theme parks like the Mark Twain Cave.  Twain was everywhere—even on the Pepsi machines.  It was incredible.  I had never seen a town capitalize on literature before.

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is a complex of some seven buildings more or less associated with the history of Mark Twain.  I say “more or less” because two of the buildings—the “Huckleberry Finn House” and the “Becky Thatcher House”—are dressed up and pitched to the public as the homes of Twain’s characters rather than the real folks who occupied them in Twain’s childhood.  It is only when you enter the houses and look around that you learn that they actually belonged to the people who inspired the fictional characters—Tom Blankenship and Laura Hawkins. 

It’s one of the stranger aspects of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home:  the way the tour melds fact and fiction.  For example, aside from the homes named after fictional characters, a room in the Interpretive Center—the first stop on the self-guided tour—seeks to draw definitive parallels between Twain’s childhood friends and neighbors and the characters in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. One prominent display even asks, “Was Tom Sawyer Mark Twain?”

Of course, I suspect that this blurring of fact and fiction is mostly for the kids who would rather hear about Tom Sawyer’s adventures than about some poor kid who wasn’t even named Mark Twain.  Let’s be honest: Injun Joe and buried treasure trumps a printer’s apprenticeship and a steamboat any day.

Still, I should note that there’s more to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum than a bunch of displays aimed at kids. The boyhood home itself, along with the Huckleberry Finn House and most of the Interpretive Center, offers modern, well-designed exhibits with informative signage that draws broadly from Twain’s own writing.  From them, visitors learn not only about Twain’s upbringing along the Mississippi—his parentage, his first loves, his family’s involvement with slavery—but also his later life as an author and performer.  Everything is kept at an introductory level, though, so the information never gets overwhelming.

Not all of the historical site is in tip-top shape, however. The Becky Thatcher House and Grant’s Drug Store, for example, are currently closed for renovation. (The docent at the front desk encouraged us to peek inside the windows of these buildings. “That way you’ll be able to see everything you would have seen if the buildings were open to the public,” she explained. When we peeked inside the Becky Thatcher House, though, all we saw was a gutted first floor that looked as if it was being used as a storage shed.) Also, the J. M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, where Twain’s father held court, looks as if it hasn’t been touched—even for a quick cleaning—since the 1950s.

Of course, the Justice of the Peace Office does provide the quirkiest exhibit the site has to offer.  In a backroom, visitors are met with a decrepit recreation of Twain’s eyewitness account of “Hannibal’s First Murder,” a stabbing that he happened upon once when he played hooky from school. The display depicts a young Twain recoiling in terror at the sight of a corpse, which is grotesquely splayed across the floor in a manner becoming any murdered body. 

Both the Twain figure and the murder victim are appallingly cracked and unconvincing as models—better-suited, perhaps, for a house-of-horrors than an educational venue—yet they lend a certain charm to the Boyhood Home and Museum.  In fact, for the rest of the week, all my two-year old daughter could talk about was the murdered “spooky guy.”

So, even the very young take something away from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.

In addition to the Interpretive Center and the various homes on the site, the price of admission—a fairly reasonable $9 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, and $0 for everyone 5 and younger—also lets visitors into the Museum Gallery a few blocks south on Main Street.  As its name suggests, this building houses both a museum (first floor) and an art gallery (second floor) of all things Twain.  There’s also a gift shop in the entryway where visitors can buy Twain paraphernalia, including some classy planters shaped like his face.

The Museum Gallery, in my opinion, is the best part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex.  The first floor features various interactive exhibits based on Twain’s most popular novels, short stories, and memoirs: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee, Innocents Abroad, etc. Here, children can walk through Tom Sawyer’s cave, grip an Arthurian baseball bat, dress up like pioneers, sit in a stage coach, and watch a movie from Huck Finn’s raft. On a landing in between the two floors, they can also pretend to steer a river boat and sound its whistle.

The second floor gallery is oriented more towards adults.  It boasts two series of original Norman Rockwell paintings based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It also displays various items of vintage Twain kitsch, two freakishly giant Twain busts, and various Twain relics, which range from the mundane (his top hat), to the predictable (one of his white suit jackets), to the bizarre (the plaster death mask of his 19 month old son Langdon).

All in all, I enjoyed it immensely.

And I never felt judged by the pink-haired docents, none of whom actually had pink hair.  In fact, I’ve learned that when I travel with my three little girls, no one ever pays much attention to me—except to tell me how cute my daughters are.  So, every time I had the opportunity to flex my knowledge of Twain trivia, I got upstaged by my daughters’ dimpled cheeks.  I’m not complaining, of course.  I’m sure it happened to Twain all the time.  I mean, he did have three daughters of his own.

Ironically, the closest I came to having a conversation about Twain with one of the docents came when I was purchasing tickets for my daughters.  When I told the docent that I needed tickets for two adults, I didn’t realize that I had to pay five bucks for my six year old as well.  When I realized my mistake—after I had already paid and donated a dollar (I think) to their endowment fund—I told the docent that I owed her five more bucks.

“Well,” she said, “we’ll just pretend she’s five today.”

“Ah,” I said, knowingly, “a real Twain stretcher!”

She looked at me vaguely.

That was it.  

We left Hannibal about two hours later having seen all we needed to see.  On our way out, our borrowed GPS system steered us up a wrong road that carried us to a residential area on a hill overlooking the town.  Once I finally realized we were not on the road to Branson—our final destination—I did an awkward three point turn while a local kid watched on without curiosity, her bored face contrasting with the excited faces I had seen on my own daughters’ faces as they had toured Hannibal’s premiere attraction. 

For an instant—in the time it would take to swat a Mississippi River mosquito—I wondered if that girl realized she lived in the birthplace of the American childhood, the town that inspired the adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and every other kid who has ever wanted to witness a murder, get lost in a cave, find treasure, or raft the Mississippi.

Probably not.  The dull look on her face said it all. 

Of course, I’m not one who believes that video games and television are viciously destroying American childhoods.  But I do think the kind of childhood on display at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is increasingly becoming a thing of the distant past.  Like me, my children love electronic media—movies, TV, the internet, video games—and that’s always going to be a part of their childhood.  Still, it’s too bad they live at a time when depictions of childhood—on the Disney Channel, on Nickelodeon—consist of little more than rote pranks and sarcasm, bubble-gum pop, and fart jokes.  Maybe I’m out-of-step with the times, but I take some satisfaction whenever my kids come in from outside and talk about their make-believe games of “Family” and “Spy Club.”  

In fact, times like that remind me that places like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum are worth braving soaring temperatures and out-of-the-way locales.  They’re memorials to the childhood we all remember or wish we had had—when all we really needed for fun and adventure was a dead cat and a string to swing it by.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Holy Shattered Cityscape, Batman!

Tell me this isn't a cool movie poster. Now if only they had hired someone other than Anne Hathaway to play Catwoman...

P.S.--Sorry for the corny reference to the 1960s Batman series in my post title.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tom, Huck, and Twain (Un-Shirted)

Before this year, I had never finished a novel by Mark Twain. Don't get me wrong: I had tried before--at least six or seven times in the last decade--but I could never get to that last page. The closest I ever came was with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I read about two-thirds of it, just enough to pass a quiz, and tossed it aside. Eventually, I sold my copy of it back to the university bookstore. Probably for two bucks and some change.

In a few weeks, though, my family and I will be visiting Hannibal, Missouri on our way to Branson, and I want to go there with at least some Twain titles in my quiver. I mean, I don't want to tell some pink-haired docent that I've never taken the time to read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. That would be embarrassing. Like trying to talk football without knowing what a first down is.

So, I've been reading Twain--or, more accurately, listening to recordings of Twain's books. Two weeks ago I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I'm about halfway through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sam Clemens willing, I'll be able to get my hands on a recording of Twain's recently released autobiography before hitting the road.

Of course, what has surprised me most about Twain is how entertaining his books are when you hear them read aloud. Admittedly, this should not have surprised me. Twain is, after all, known for being a regular nineteenth-century maroon. But, one of the things that has always bothered me about his writing are those endless, seemingly irrelevant tangents.

They wear a reader out.

Listening to them on CD, though, has been a whole new experience. Part of it, I'm sure, can be blamed on the A+ performance of the actor reading the book. But I'd also like to think that part of it is Twain himself. The guy was a genius for comedy, and I'm beginning to see his tangents--especially those in Huckleberry Finn--are instances where he's really flexing his comedic muscles.

But the tangents aren't the only aspect of his novels that I'm finding entertaining. I also like how he presents childhood in a grandly Romanticized way. Just the way I remember it. When Tom Sawyer gets into a fight with a new boy in town, for example, Twain tosses realism aside and casts it as the incomparable life-or-death struggle all childhood scrapes are in the minds of young combatants:
In an instant both boys were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other's hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory.
Of course, the literary critic in me wants to say that passages like this one are just Twain's way of poking fun at Walter Scott and the popular melodramatic novels of his day. But the part of me that still remembers childhood wants to pat Twain on the back and tell him he got it all right.

So far, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is shaping up to be just as good, if not better, than Tom Sawyer. Of course, it's hard to compare the two books since they differ so much in style, tone, and content. By far, Huckleberry Finn is the most interesting character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Twain did well to write Huckleberry Finn in the first person. For one, it gives us the unfiltered musings of Huck, who lacks his friend's Romanticism. Huck sees and feels things with a clearer eye and deeper emotions than Tom. Notice, for instance, the maelstrom of feelings that come to him as he witnesses the tragic end of the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud:

All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns--the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river--both of them hurt--and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell ALL that happened--it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them--lots of times I dream about them.
I stayed in the tree till it begun to get dark, afraid to come down. Sometimes I heard guns away off in the woods; and twice I seen little gangs of men gallop past the log store with guns; so I reckoned the trouble was still a-going on. I was mighty downhearted; so I made up my mind I wouldn't ever go anear that house again, because I reckoned I was to blame, somehow. I judged that that piece of paper meant that Miss Sophia was to meet Harney somewheres at half-past two and run off; and I judged I ought to told her father about that paper and the curious way she acted, and then maybe he would a locked her up, and this awful mess wouldn't ever happened.
When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.
That's heavy stuff. In these three paragraphs, Huck experiences disgust, regret, fear, guilt, sadness, and gratitude. It's a emotional gamut that Twain executes in an entirely believable way, totally devoid of the tongue-in-cheek emotionalism of Tom Sawyer. And it's part of why Huckleberry Finn is so good.

So, like I said, I'm hoping that readings these books will make it so I don't come across as a total newb in front of the pink-haired docents in Hannibal.  Not that I care that much about what museum docents think about me. I just don't want to be one of those tourists who shows up thinking Mark Twain was a country singer or Colonel Sanders' older brother.

And if I do end up sounding like a newb, I'll just toss my pretensions aside and ask them what the heck the deal is with Twain's shirtless picture. I mean, seriously, it's not like they had Facebook back then.