Going Home With Mark Twain

PrintPrintEmailEmail

AMONG THE MOST MOVING PARTS OF LIFE ON THE Mississippi for me are those about his old Hannibal and his return to it, his hail and farewell to it, those many years later. The distance in years does not matter. His Hannibal, Missouri, and my Yazoo City, Mis- sissippi, are symbiotic for me, evanescently linked in detail and sensation and remembrance; the two most vivid towns of my youth were my own and his—his fictional Hannibal, which in breath and substance, if not in exact geography, was as Southern a place as my own. Reading him as a boy on rainy days in the muted old library in Yazoo City, I felt palpably in my heart, Why, that town’s like this one now. Much as he tried, Mark Twain would never get away from Hannibal. Thank God he could not. When he was young, he once wrote, he could remember just about everything, “whether it happened or not,” and Hannibal was at the core of his being as a writer. No matter how far away he was, it tugged at him. “Memory believes,” Faulkner said, “before knowing remembers.”

 

Here, from Life on the Mississippi , is his Hannibal in the 1840s, a favorite passage of mine: “Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis, and another downward from Keokuk. Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing. Not only the boys, but the whole village, felt this. 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 summer’s 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 stonepaved 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, rolling its milewide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense forest away on the other side; the ‘point’ above the town, and the ‘point’ below, bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant and lonely one.”

My Yazoo City lies on precisely the same parallel, a mere thirty miles due east across the Mississippi, as Lake Providence, Louisiana, “the first distinctly Southern-looking town you come to, downward bound. … level and low, shade-trees hung with venerable gray beards of Spanish moss; ‘restful, pensive, Sunday aspect about the place,’ comments Uncle Mumford, with feeling- also with truth.” That, too, could be a description of my boyhood Yazoo. In the nineteenth century the cotton growers, adventurous younger sons and brothers, came here from the older South, where the land had played out, seeking the rich alluvial earth. Later the merchants arrived to exploit the commerce of the Yazoo River, where riverboats were stacked with cotton bales ten and fifteen deep, and steamboats with names like Hard Cash, City of Greenwood , and Katie Robbins plied their trade from the upper Delta to Vicksburg. Surely the arrival of the grander steamboats at the foot of Main Street caused much the same commotion in the summer’s torpor as they did in Hannibal when Mark Twain was a boy: “The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to a common centre, the wharf.” This was part of my own inheritance; and by the time I came along, the river was still there, and the same main street and precipitous bluffs, although the wharves of the older time were mere remnants of their former glory.