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.


  1. What a wonderful blog post! We're so glad you enjoyed your visit here. Fair warning: I first visited Hannibal in 1996 and experienced the same magical sensation of time travel. I couldn't stay away and finally moved here in 2007. For this lifetime fan of Sam Clemens, it just doesn't get any better than waking up every day in America's Hometown. Come back soon, and stop in the office and say hello. I always love meeting a fellow Twain fan! --Cindy Lovell (executive director)

  2. .

    Wow. Museums never comment on my blog. I would blog about the boyhood home but I was there in 2000 and I think it was closed. Don't remember much.

    Did buy a couple books, though.

  3. Yeah. This is the first time a museum has commented on my blog too.

    Thanks for reading, Cindy. My family had a great time on our tour of the site. I look forward to our next visit.