A Kansas City Labrick in California*

I’m teaching The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in my Topics in the Novel: Nostalgia/Desiderium class today. Rather than wax on Twain’s approach to nostalgia, I want to wax on my nostalgia for Twain—or lack thereof.

See, I grew up in Missouri, where Samuel Langhorne Clemens is something of a local hero, even though his boyhood home in Hannibal was on the other side of the state from where I lived. As such, I could take him or leave him throughout my childhood.

The more teachers, librarians, and other would-be mentors tried to make me interested in Twain because he was “one of ours,” the more I resisted. I never read Tom Sawyer until adulthood. I read Huckleberry Finn rapidly, out of a sense of obligation, in college (I’ve grown to love it). Also, Missourians—maybe all Midwesterners—tend to be skeptical of anything good that comes out of their area.  “If it’s from here, it can’t be THAT good–can it?”

My family took a summer vacation to Hannibal while I was nine years old.  At the time, it seemed like a tourist trap–full of museum-window mannequins in period dress and prone to portraying Tom, Huck, and Becky as real people who actually walked the city streets.  Case in point: they have the “actual” fence Tom Sawyer whitewashed.  There’s a great recent book about Twain tourism that covers some of this, but you get the picture.  The trip only reinforced my skepticism about Clemens.

I returned to Hannibal a few years ago, doing scholarly work. I was impressed. It seems the town’s interest in Twain shifted just as my own did.  The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum has expanded, with more factual history than I remembered.  They have a lot more resources, a new museum, and new fund-raising efforts for historic preservation.  In the last few weeks, there’s been an article about Twain’s homes in my local California paper and an announcement that the Hannibal museum’s innovative and ebullient director will be moving to Hartford to work at Twain’s home there.  Of course, these developments reinforce my current worldview: Twain was a complex guy and a versatile writer, worthy of his iconic status and all the scholarly attention it brings.

This week, I’ll be teaching Twain to a room full of people who aren’t Midwesterners, who don’t have any of my baggage or my johnny-come-lately scholarly interest.  We’ll see what happens.

*The term labrick was in constant use by all grown men except certain of the clergy in the state of Missouri when I was a boy. It had a very definite meaning & occupied in the matter of strength the middle ground between scoundrel & son of a bitch… a little stronger than ass, & not quite as strong as idiot.  –  Mark Twain, 1906

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