Ferns sprout from a planter shaped like Mark Twain’s head at the entrance to the gift shop at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.
The author’s countenance on the planter looks a tad alarmed. Perhaps he never thought of himself as a pothead.
He probably never thought of himself as a bobblehead, either, but he is one in every gift shop in Hannibal. He’s also a refrigerator magnet, and his name is brandished on dish towels, mugs, beer koozies, and, of course, T-shirts. Many T-shirts. Most bear one of the author’s aphorisms. The gift shop lady says that in election years, there’s a run on the ones that read, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Anyone wishing to steep in a stew of Twainmania need only travel to the little Missouri town on the banks of the Mississippi River where Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, grew up. Walking around town, you feel like Hal Holbrook’s going to pop out from behind a tree at any minute. Twain’s name and visage blanket the streets, sometimes rather randomly: Mark Twain Oxygen, Mark Twain Behavioral Health, Mark Twain Title Insurance … Is there no limit?
Apparently not. Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain Museum, says that the New York-based Mark Twain Foundation vets the use of Twain’s works and name, but “in Hannibal, we’ve always had pretty much free rein.”
Hence, you can drink homemade root beer at the Mark Twain Dinette or craft beer at Mark Twain Brewing Co. Gas your car up at Mark Twain BP. Live in the Mark Twain Hotel Apartments. Play hooky from Mark Twain School. Tour caverns at Mark Twain Cave. Get your sidewalk made by Mark Twain Redi-Mix, which boasts, “We can meet all your concrete needs!”
It’s doubtful that Twain would have minded any of this. While he was alive, he let his name and face be used on a number of products, some of which are in a display in the Mark Twain Museum, including Mark Twain Flour and Mark Twain Cigars, “Known to Everyone—Liked by All.” After his death, his name and image, smoking a pipe, surfaced on shipments of California lemons.
Hannibal’s Mark Twain Museum is definitely worth a visit, by the way, with exhibits and film clips presented inside an overland wagon, within a fabricated cave, and on a mockup of a very large raft. (“Please do not jump on the raft,” notes a sign that undoubtedly gives small children ideas they didn’t arrive with.) Browse movie posters and Twain-themed Norman Rockwell prints on the second floor.
An exhibit with a navigation wheel and other steamer equipment explains that the Samuel Clemens took his pen name from the depth at which steamboats can safely navigate the Mississippi. “Mark twain” notes a depth of 2 fathoms: 12 feet. He first used the name in the 1860s when he was the $100-a-month San Francisco correspondent for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia, Nevada. Side note: A trove of these stories, tracked down and authenticated by the University of California at Berkeley, will be released by the university in a volume in 2017. So, in a couple of years you can read the dispatches from that chunk of Twain’s life, in which he was broke, sometimes depressed, and not sure he wanted to stick with writing humor. In other words, he was a newspaper journalist.
Meanwhile, in Hannibal, you can buy The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Twain’s other major works, as well as books about him, in the gift shop of the museum or that of Twain’s Boyhood Home. The Boyhood Home, a two-story frame house where plaster figures of Twain are posed in various rooms, is Hannibal’s top tourist attraction. You can tour it along with the houses of the real people that Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher were based on, as well as the drugstore above which Clemens and his parents lived on and off during lean times, his father’s justice of the peace office, an interpretive center, and the aforementioned museum, all for just $11 ($9 for seniors; $6 for kids).
Don’t forget to grab a photo op with the Tom and Huck statue at the foot of Cardiff Hill near the interpretive center. Take an hour’s cruise on a tourist riverboat named, of course, the Mark Twain. And, by all means, get the T-shirt.
Helen Anders writes for the Austin American-Statesman and is a former reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News.