- Historic Sites
Going Home With Mark Twain
WILLIE MORRIS revisits a book that nourished him as a boy and discovers that the landscapes the young Samuel Clemens navigated are in fact the topography of Morris’s own life
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
This was unexpected country for me, as apparently it was for him more than a century ago. Dubuque to me was a grand surprise—a laeniappe, I am tempted to say. A New York cliché in my days there was: “Will it play in Dubuque?” This was unfair. It looked to me in 1990 much as it had to him in 1882, which suggests something about how good writing lingers: “The majestic bluffs that overlook the river, along through this region, charm one with the grace and variety of their forms, and the soft beauty of their adornment. The steep, verdant slope, whose base is at the water’s edge, is topped by a lofty rampart of broken, turreted rocks, which are exquisitely rich and mellow in color—mainly dark browns and dull greens, but splashed with other tints. And then you have the shining river, winding here and there and yonder, its sweep interrupted at intervals by clusters of wooded islands threaded by silver channels; and you have glimpses of distant villages, asleep upon capes; and of stealthy rafts slipping along in the shade of the forest walls; and of white steamers vanishing around remote points. And it is all as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland, and has nothing this-worldly about it—nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”
The river in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I must however confess, was a disappointment to me. It was exceedingly pristine, and not half the width of the Yazoo. I am pleased to note that Mark Twain did not even write about it.
This is one of my favorite passages in American writing; I have personally felt this, and so too, I think, has every American writer from a small town who has come back to it after many years: “The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the memory of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years ago. That picture of it was still as clear and vivid to me as a photograph. I stepped ashore with the feeling of one who returns out of a dead-and-gone generation. I had a sort of realizing sense of what the Bastille prisoners must have felt when they used to come out and look upon Paris after years of captivity, and note how curiously the familiar and the strange were mixed together before them.”
He arrives on an early Sunday morning with no one about. He walks the deserted streets, still remembering the village as it once was, “metaphorically shaking hands with a hundred familiar objects which no longer exist.” He climbs alone to the top of Holiday’s Hill to look down on the town. He gazes at the older houses and remembers the people who once dwelled in them. “The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I could mark and fix every locality, every detail. … The things about me and below me made me feel like a boy again—… and that I had simply been dreaming an unusually long dream.” In his three days in town this labyrinthine, dreamlike ambience haunts him and frightens him. “I woke up every morning with the impression that I was a boy—for in my dreams the faces were all young again, and looked as they had looked in the old times; but I went to bed a hundred years old, every night- for meantime I had been seeing those faces as they are now.” During the day he has met old acquaintances he hardly recognizes—young ladies, for instance, who have scarcely changed at all, because they turn out to be the daughters or granddaughters of the young ladies he had in mind. “When you are told that a stranger of fifty is a grandmother, there is nothing surprising about it; but if, on the contrary, she is a person whom you knew as a little girl, it seems impossible. You say to yourself, ‘How can a little girl be a grandmother?’” Years later, as Justin Kaplan reminds us, “after he had tasted failure and loss, he would ask, Which was the dream—the hideous present or the remembered past?”
When he left Hannibal and returned north toward home, he had to have felt an immense weight, almost physical in its intensity, being lifted from him, the burden of time and remembrance. But this is not all, for in returning to his childhood after his six weeks along the river, he must have experienced some deep interior liberation from his own existence as a singularly rich and successful writer of enormous celebrity living now “as an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , which he had not been able to get right, was in the notdistant future.