Going Home With Mark Twain

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Other things I could tell him too. He sets a tableau in Vicksburg, in “the most beautiful of all the national cemeteries,” with the inscription over the great gateway: HERE REST IN PEACE 16,660 WHO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY IN THE YEARS 1861 TO 1865 . “The grounds are nobly situated; being very high and commanding a wide prospect of land and river. They are tastefully laid out in broad terraces, with winding roads and paths; and there is profuse adornment in the way of semi-tropical shrubs and flowers; and in one part is a piece of native wild-wood, left just as it grew, and, therefore, perfect in its charm. Everything about this cemetery suggests the hand of the national Government. The Government’s work is always conspicuous for excellence, solidity, thoroughness, neatness. The Government does its work well in the first place, and then takes care of it.” During the Korean War, a high school comrade and I were summoned out of school to play taps for a hero’s funeral at this precise spot in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. It was a fine spectacle, with a troop of soldiers and American Legionnaires and a special Army representative on hand. I was the echo that day, and I climbed up that green, sloping hill to the top of the bluffs. I walked alone among the gravestones of the boys who had died there for Lincoln and Grant ninety years before; most of the stones were merely inscribed with numbers, and on higher ground I stood with my trumpet under my arm and read a plaque bearing the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent. …” The words leaped out at me like living things, and filled me with an excitement and a sorrow I could not fully comprehend. There, stretched out before me, as far as I could see, was the old river, twisting and curving on itself out to the very horizon, brown and lonesome and seeming to move hardly at all in the glorious morning sunlight. If Mark Twain had been with me that day, might he have asked, “What does Vicksburg have to do with Korea?”

When he got to St. Louis, Twain found the Mississippi’s water there “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

A FEW YEARS AGO I HAD OCCASION TO MAKE A MARK Twain pilgrimage of my own, my transportation being not a steamboat but an automobile, taking Old Highway 61 from Memphis to the Twin Cities, paralleling the river almost the entire journey, with a long stop along the way in Hannibal. Mark Twain would have loved Old Highway 61, which dates from the 1930s; it begins on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans, traverses the Louisiana plantation country, through Natchez, Vicksburg, and the Mississippi Delta, across the river at Memphis, into Arkansas, the Missouri boot, New Madrid, and St. Genevieve, St. Louis, Hannibal, Keokuk, Fort Madison, Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque, back across the river into a sliver of Wisconsin, across the river again at La Crosse, on into Minneapolis-St. Paul—all locales he deals with in Life on the Mississippi . Along this route the river is seldom out of sight, and always on your mind.

To Twain the river water around St. Louis was “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” North of St. Louis and Hannibal, I investigated on my desultory odyssey what the author called “the New Towns” of the river, prosperous and burgeoning in the 1880s—an “amazing region, bristling with great towns, projected day before yesterday, so to speak, and built the next morning.” It was Mark Twain’s first writing on the real Upper Mississippi; most river travelers, he complains, did not know there was anything north of St. Louis. The river grows narrower in Iowa and north, its waters sometimes appearing semitransparent, cleaner and clearer than its muddied course along the state of Mississippi. I admired here the sunsets, as he had: “And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equalled them. They used the broad smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it every imaginable dream of color, from the mottled daintiness and delicacies of the opal, all the way up, through cumulative intensities, to blinding purple and crimson conflagrations, which were enchanting to the eye, but sharply tried it at the same time. … It is the true Sunset Land: I am sure no other country can show so good a right to the name.”