Going Home With Mark Twain


The radio came, and the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, and the movies, but was my town in the 1940s all that drastically removed from the Hannibal of the 1840s? Mine too was a lazy town, stretched out on its hills and its flat streets, a lethargic, dreamy place. We had a closeness to the earth, and we were so isolated , although I do not think we knew that then. We sat barefoot on the porches in the summer nights and listened to the stories of the old people. Boat horns echoed from the river. From beyond the alleys came the high resonant laughter and the poetry of the blues, the words of the poor and dispossessed. All around town we listened to the extravagant lies of garrulous workingmen, and more or less believed them, not at all unlike young Sam Clemens with the village carpenter who traveled the world murdering people with the last name Lynch. The town and its people drowsed in the sunshine of a summer’s morning just as Hannibal had, and perhaps even more so, since there were no steamboats coming in. I knew the place better than I did my own heart—every bend in every road, the Indian mounds and white frame churches, the forlorn crossroads and cypress brakes, where the robin went for its first crocus. It was not in our souls, only in our pores, as familiar to me yet as water or grass or sunlight. The town was poor one year and rich the next, and everything in our cotton-farming surroundings pertained to usury and mortgage, debenture and labor. We lived and died by nature, and Saxons and Africans together cared for the whims of the timeless clouds. Our people played seven-card stud against God. In his garage my grandfather made me big wooden replicas of the great steamboats he had known along the Mississippi as a boy, in about the time that Mark Twain returned to the river to complete his book.

The earth here is spooky and seductive.The woods are profuse with creeping vines and ubiquitous moss. The land is full of ghosts.

THERE IS A STORM IN LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI IN 1882 , by my calculation less than a hundred miles from my own town. Mark Twain’s description of it is as familiar to me as anything I ever knew, so spookily so that I can almost feel it to this day: “The wind bent the young trees down, exposing the pale underside of the leaves; and gust after gust followed, in quick succession, thrashing the branches violently up and down, and to this side and that, and creating swift waves of alternating green and white according to the side of the leaf that was exposed, and these waves raced after each other as do their kind over a wind-tossed field of oats. No color that was visible anywhere was quite natural—all tints were charged with a leaden tinge from the solid cloud-bank overhead. The river was leaden; all distances the same; and even the far-reaching ranks of combing whitecaps were dully shaded by the dark, rich atmosphere through which their swarming legions marched. The thunder-peals were constant and deafening; explosion followed explosion with but inconsequential intervals between, and the reports grew steadily sharper and higherkeyed, and more trying to the ear; the lightning was as diligent as the thunder, and produced effects which enchanted the eye and sent electric ecstasies of mixed delight and apprehension shivering along every nerve in the body in unintermittent procession. The rain poured down in amazing volume; the ear-splitting thunder-peals broke nearer and nearer; the wind increased in fury and began to wrench off boughs and tree-tops and send them sailing away through space; the pilot-house fell to rocking and straining and cracking and surging, and I went down in the hold to see what time it was.”

When I was a boy in the lower Mississippi Valley, we were never for a moment very far from turbulent waters. In the spring during the heavy rains, the Mississippi to the west high and roaring, the muddy waters of its tributary the Yazoo overflowed into the town all the way to Main Street, just as Hannibal had been flooded. The Negro shacks on stilts in the bottoms along Highway 49-W were often covered over. We would see the open trucks with the convicts crowded in back, brought in to bolster the levees with sandbags, the black and white stripes of their uniforms somber under the ominous gray sky.

My parents and I moved into the house where I grew up, on Grand Avenue, ten years after the Great Flood of 1927, and our neighbors showed me as a child the watermarks inside their houses, almost as high as the ceilings. The Mississippi River itself had extended this far east through its broken levees then, and cottonmouths in considerable numbers floated in the swirling waters, the neighbors told me, and chickens, and various items of furniture.