Missouri: Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Hannibal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mark Twain lived in this house through the formative years of his youth. Decades later, his memories turned back to those years and he wrote the most popular boys’ story of all time, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), setting it in a village like that of his own youth and giving Tom a home almost identical to his own. During the twentieth century, his boyhood home came to be regarded as an icon of nineteenth century America and helped make Hannibal a major tourist stop.

Site Office

Mark Twain Home Board

208 Hill Street

Hannibal, MO 63401

ph.: (314) 221-9010

Web site: www.hanmo.com/hcvb (Hannibal Convention and Visitors’ Bureau)

When Mark Twain left Hannibal, Missouri, in 1853, he was not quite eighteen years old, and less than half of his young life he had spent living in what later became famous as his boyhood home. Despite the comparative brevity of his residence in that house, the building came to occupy a special place in American cultural history, both because of Mark Twain’s fame and because Hannibal–which styles itself “America’s Hometown”–is perceived as an archetype of small-town America. The years that Mark Twain did spend in the house were important ones, and when he later approached middle age, his thoughts increasingly went back to those years. His now-classic depictions of early nineteenth century America center on idealized memories of Hannibal and his boyhood home. Millions of people visited the house during the twentieth century. Many–perhaps most–hoped to capture the nostalgic flavor of the simpler and more innocent world depicted in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The Clemens Family in Hannibal

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain was the sixth of seven children of a proud but impoverished Virginian, John M. Clemens, and Jane Lampton Clemens, who had come to Missouri in the mid-1830’s in the hope of finding prosperity. The Clemenses first settled in the tiny inland hamlet of Florida, where Sam was born on November 30, 1835. Disappointed by Florida’s failure to provide business opportunities and devastated by the death of a daughter there, the family relocated to nearby Hannibal, a steamboat stop on the Mississippi River, around the time that Sam turned four. Apart from summers spent on an uncle’s farm near Florida, Sam lived in Hannibal without interruption until 1853. He never lived there again, but he did revisit the town at least seven times over the next half century.

In 1819, two years before Missouri became a state, Hannibal was founded on a site well placed amid a developing transportation network pointing toward the western frontier. The Clemenses arrived there in 1839, shortly after Hannibal was incorporated. Though it had but a thousand residents, it seemed poised for rapid growth. It did, indeed, eventually become a prosperous transportation and manufacturing center, but not until after the last Clemens had left.

The Clemenses lived in several different Hannibal houses, all of which were on or near Main and Hill Streets, several hundred yards west of the river and about the same distance south of Holliday’s Hill–a prominent landmark that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would later immortalize as “Cardiff Hill.” Soon after arriving, John Clemens purchased a large Hill Street lot that he subdivided, while reserving the plot on which he had a small wood-frame house built for his family. Exactly when the house went up is not known. However, the Clemenses were living in it by 1844. They stayed there until 1853, except for an interval in 1846-1847, when financial problems forced them to board in the upstairs apartments of a drugstore down Hill Street. That building, still standing, later became known as the Pilaster House.

No original plans or pictures of the boyhood home exist, but late twentieth century research and reconstruction work discovered that the house originally had two stories in the front and one in the rear. The Clemenses either enlarged the house while they occupied it or its plans were modified in the midst of its original construction to add more upstairs rooms. In any case, Sam and his younger brother, Henry, shared a rear second-story room, from which they could see the river and climb out a window for nocturnal adventures. At times, their sister Pamela used the downstairs parlor–which also served as a bedroom–to teach piano, and their older brother, Orion, published a newspaper out of an annex to the house.

Although the head of the family, John Clemens, earned the community’s respect as a lawyer and civic leader, he never found the business success he sought. His family’s fortunes–always precarious–fell even lower when he died in early 1847. His widow managed to get the family back into the boyhood home, but Sam’s formal education gradually gave way to full-time employment, and he learned the printing trade while working for local newspapers, including his brother’s. In June, 1853, he left Hannibal for good. After working as a journeyman printer in the East, he became a steamboat pilot in 1857 and worked on the lower Mississippi until the Civil War ended commercial river traffic. He then went west, where he became a newspaper reporter and wrote sketches under the pen name “Mark Twain.” After his first travel book, The Innocents Abroad, made him famous in 1869, he married and settled in the East. By 1871 he was becoming a gentrified New Englander in the Nook Farm community of Hartford, Connecticut.

Meanwhile, Pamela Clemens had married in 1851 and moved to St. Louis, where her home would become Sam’s base on return visits to Missouri. In the fall of 1853, Orion moved to Muscatine, Iowa, accompanied by Henry and their mother, Jane. Each of them later returned to Hannibal, but only after they died–for burial. Killed in a steamboat accident in 1858, Henry was originally buried alongside John Clemens in Hannibal’s Baptist cemetery. In 1876–the year that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published–Mark Twain had his father’s and brother’s remains moved to Hannibal’s newer Mount Olivet Cemetery, where his mother, Orion, and Orion’s wife were later buried. (Mark Twain himself is buried in Elmira, New York.)

Later Residents of the Boyhood Home

After the Clemenses left Hannibal, their home became a rental property. City directories published every other year in the late nineteenth century show the names of different occupants in the house in almost every edition. During one period, the house appears to have been a restaurant. In 1882 it was occupied by an African American family–a fact that Mark Twain noted in Life on the Mississippi(1883), which includes a nostalgic account of his return visit to Hannibal in 1882.

When Mark Twain paid his final visit to Hannibal in 1902, he had his picture taken directly in front of the old family house. On that occasion he remarked that each time he returned to the house, it seemed to grow smaller; if he came back one more time, he feared, it would be only a birdhouse. His remark was long interpreted as being merely a reflection of his changed perceptions after decades of living in a palatial mansion in Connecticut. However, when the Hannibal house was being restored in 1990, it was discovered that Mark Twain had not merely imagined that it was smaller; it was smaller in 1902 than it had been when he lived in it.

The Boyhood Home in Fiction

Mark Twain became a novelist only after making his reputation as an author of travel books and humorous sketches. His first novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day (1873), he wrote in collaboration with his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. That book’s first eleven chapters contain an embroidered history of how the Clemens family came to Missouri and offer a memorable depiction of frontier conditions there in the 1830’s. After publishing The Gilded Age, Mark Twain turned to writing about his own past. In 1875 he published, in The Atlantic Monthly, a vivid memoir of his years as a steamboat pilot that he later expanded into Life on the Mississippi (1883). Around that same time he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, his first novel without a collaborator.

Untroubled by the moral issues raised in the more complex Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), that earlier book is–as Mark Twain himself described it–simply a “hymn to boyhood.” It puts Tom, and his friend Huck, through a series of exciting adventures that conclude with an extraordinarily satisfying triumph. Along the way, Tom displays large measures of rascality, brilliance, and heroism–qualities that ensured the book’s universal and lasting appeal. In what is probably the book’s most famous episode, for example, Tom tricks his friends into paying him to whitewash a fence.

The house in which Tom lives with his Aunt Polly so closely resembles Mark Twain’s boyhood home that passages in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other stories provided useful clues that helped in the real house’s restoration. The fictional St. Petersburg of the Tom and Huck stories also closely resembles the Hannibal of Mark Twain’s youth: from its position on the Mississippi River to its nearby limestone cave. One of the most dramatic episodes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer occurs toward the end, when Tom and his girlfriend, Becky Thatcher, get lost in a labyrinthine cave south of St. Petersburg that is modeled on a real cave south of Hannibal.

Restoration

By the time of Mark Twain’s death in 1910, his boyhood home had fallen into such disrepair that it was slated for demolition. A year later, however, a community leader named George A. Mahan bought the house, had it refurbished, and donated it to the city. Since 1912 it has been a public museum. For twenty-five years, a caretaker lived on its second floor, and visitors were allowed to inspect only the first floor, where memorabilia were displayed. In 1937, with the help of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), a permanent museum was built next to the house. It provided living quarters for the caretaker, making it possible to open to visitors the rest of the house, which was refurbished with WPA help. Meanwhile, the city of Hannibal created a permanent commission to maintain the house. In 1990 that commission became the Mark Twain Home Board, which leased the house and several other properties to the Mark Twain Home Foundation, a semiautonomous nonprofit body that still maintains the home.

Never strong to begin with, the house suffered under the traffic of the literally millions of visitors who tramped through it after 1912. In 1984 its interior was closed to visitors, and an exterior viewing platform was built along its west side, permitting visitors to peer inside through windows. Meanwhile, ambitious plans were made to restore the house to its original condition. Around that time the discovery of an 1883 photograph of the house showed ground-level and second-story rear rooms that had disappeared some time before Mark Twain’s 1902 visit. Under the direction of curator Henry Sweets III, a careful study of the house and grounds revealed its original layout and suggested that a chimney collapse may have been the reason that the rear rooms were removed after 1883.

In 1990-1991, the house was placed under a protective cover and taken apart, down to its interior beams. After its foundation was correctly aligned, its entire structure was strengthened and then rebuilt to resemble its appearance when Mark Twain’s family lived in it.

In addition to the house and the museum–to which a downtown branch was added in 1999–the Mark Twain Home Foundation maintains the nearby Pilaster House, in which the Clemenses briefly lived, and a small building that served as John Clemens’s law office. The section of Hill Street on which the boyhood home stands has been transformed into a pedestrian arcade, along which visitors can find both authentic and purely commercial evidences of Mark Twain’s legacy. Although a sign beside the boyhood home proclaims the spot to be the very place where Tom Sawyer got his friends to whitewash the fence for him bewilders many visitors, management of the boyhood home and museum meets high standards of objectivity and professionalism.

For Further Information
  • Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Examines darker aspects of Hannibal’s history, which the town ignores while celebrating a sanitized legacy of Tom Sawyer.
  • “Hannibal, Missouri: Mark Twain’s Hometown, America’s Hometown.” www.angelfire.com/mo2/hannibal2/home.html. Web site containing pictures and information on the boyhood home, as well as links to other Hannibal and Mark Twain Web sites.
  • Powers, Ron. White Town Drowsing. Boston: Atlanta Monthly Press, 1986. Written while Hannibal was preparing to celebrate Mark Twain’s sesquicentennial, a penetrating look at Mark Twain’s legacy by a former Hannibal resident.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. General reference work containing lengthy entries on the boyhood home, Hannibal, and other related subjects.
  • Sweets, Henry H., III. “Mark Twain Boyhood Home.” In The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, edited by J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson. New York: Garland, 1993. Concise history of the house by its curator. Other articles in the encyclopedia cover related subjects.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Authoritative, corrected edition of the novel, prepared by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley.
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