FLORIDA, MISSOURI- August 1, 2016
Driving back to Indiana from Fort Leavenworth, KS I stopped at the birthplace of one of my favorite writers.
I have always loved Mark Twain.
I would love to write a study about his life and works. Not a best seller, but something that was critically acclaimed.
In college, between a part-time job, my national guard weekends, and my classes I didn’t have time for anything other than textbooks.
After Afghanistan, I didn’t have anything to do except read. I found an old, much-thumbed book of Mark Twain’s quotes.
One passage I read made an impression on me by one of America’s unique and best-loved personalities- Mark Twain speaking:
“Patriotism is patriotism. Calling it Fanaticism cannot degrade it; nothing can degrade it. Even though it be a political mistake, and a thousand times a political mistake, that does not affect it; it is honorable-always honorable, always noble- and privileged to hold its head up and look the nations in the face.”
As an American soldier home from an unpopular war those words made me smile. I have been reading and re-reading Mark Twain ever since.
Samuel Clemons-Mark Twain is one of the great literary figures of American history. He is still popular today. He has a great ear for dialogue. He captured how Americans talked and put it down on paper.
He is a rough, self-taught, go-getter who knew how to write to the common man in a witty, folksy way. He was a wise political voice, an admired lecturer who was a sharp-eyed traveler.
Clemons was also a brilliant storyteller. His books are some of the greatest achievements in fiction. He wrote about how people felt, the human condition.
Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
His books are timeless. I think his best novel is Tom Sawyer.
Tom Sawyer is a nostalgic tale about American boyhood. Throughout the book I always pictured a hot, muggy Missouri day. The kind of sticky, humid heat you can only find in the Midwest in the middle of summer.
I see Tom as a barefoot boy, in coveralls and a straw hat walking down a country road with a piece of straw in his mouth. I see Tom as Clemons, as maybe he saw himself as a boy.
Tom Sawyer is a look back at what it means to be a boy in the 19th century. Clemons writes about what America was like when pioneers are moving west and being settled. Tom Sawyer is a boy with questions, but so is America.
Tom is not a bad kid, but he is a wily con artist. He knows how to work people and get away with things. He’s always working a scheme.
His entire reason for being is about rebellion. He wants to do everything he’s not supposed to do. He uses the people around him to do what he wants, when he wants, and gets away with it.
That is the fun of reading Tom Sawyer. I think Tom was the boy that Clemons wanted to be.
Samuel Langhourne Clemons was born on November 30, 1835 in a very small, two-room rented cabin. The cabin sheltered eight people after Clemons was born. The cabin was one of the first frame structures in the community.
The cabin sat about one-fourth of a mile from the small town of Florida, MO. Florida is a little riverfront village, a tiny speck on the map. Even today, you’d almost miss it if you blinked.
The cabin is now preserved inside the museum at the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site. Along with the two-room cabin, the museum has displays of Twain’s life and times.
In 1839, the Clemons family moved to Hannibal, MO. Young Clemons would return to Florida to spend summers on his Uncle John Quarles’ farm. There he listened to wild tales told by Uncle Dan’l, a slave who was the model for Jim in “Adventures of Huckberry Finn.”
To this day Hannibal is a small cluster of civilization on the great American prairie, it’s not near anything.
In Clemons stories you can hear that, but in his story he makes Hannibal sound majestic. Even today, there’s not a lot there and not much to do. Clemons makes this a theme to why Sawyer gets into so much trouble.
His childhood is spent in Hannibal. Hannibal is the setting for St. Petersburg in “Tom Sawyer.”
Young Twain left school at the age of 12, to work on a Hannibal, MO newspaper. Over the next couple of years he became an itinerant printer.
While on a steamboat trip, he persuaded Horace Bixby, a riverboat pilot, to teach him the Mississippi River and how to pilot a steamboat. He spent four years piloting until his riverboat days ended with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Clemons loves the sounds of the Mississippi- the steamboat whistles, the spinning wheels of the big boats, and the rushing of the water. He is deeply affected by the mournful songs of the slaves on his uncle’s farm when he is a young boy.
The publishing of “Tom Sawyer” was in 1876, the centennial of America’s birth. In Tom we see a model for the American character.
Sam Clemons allows us to run away with him in Tom Sawyer. Everybody wants to be a pirate and live a life of carefree adventure.
Tom and Huck feel the danger of nature, the pleasure and the pleasure of breaking society’s rules. There is the adventure of leaving home and yearning for home.
Clemons was a witty writer. He was born in a time when America was going through the growing pains of becoming a nation. Like Tom, America wanted to be free and to be sophisticated. The two natures are always in competition with one another.
This same restlessness led to the Civil War. The idea of the old way of doing things clashing with the future and progress. The old way is memories, nostalgia and romantic notions- being a boy. The new way is progress and the boring responsibility of being an adult.
It’s an attitude that is strictly American, two halves into one.
Clemons later years were marked by painful loss. During the last 14-15 years of his life, almost everyone he loved died.
His son died. Then two daughters died. His beloved father-in-law a little after than followed by his wife. At the end of his life only one daughter was left.
By the time he wrote Tom Sawyer he had retreated into the character of Mark Twain. Real life was too painful and almost impossible to bear.
Humor saved his life. He loved it and understood it. He said, “… the real source of all humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” One his great gifts was his ability to convert grief and anger into humor.
Tom Sawyer is filled with it. It’s a boy’s novel for adults about boyhood. Like every book written by Clemons it’s about human nature.
There is something very American about Tom Sawyer. The American soul fears the coming of autumn, a chill in the woods, the beginning of school, and worst of all, the end of summer.
Tom Sawyer is about an endless summer that doesn’t have to end.
Seeing his childhood home really allowed me to understand where Tom Sawyer came from. It added another level to a favorite book.