To celebrate Mark Twain’s birthday today, Henry Sweets, Executive Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, takes a look back at the author’s early life and how it inspired many of his beloved books.
When Sam was nearly four years old his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. His father, John Marshall Clemens, began to operate a general store. Later John Clemens was elected justice of the peace and held court sessions.
Sam began school when he was four and a half years old. He recalled breaking a rule on the first day of school and being warned. Then a second infraction brought a switching. Mrs. Horr “called me by my entire name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—probably the first time I had ever heard it all strung together in one procession—and said she was ashamed of me. I was to learn later that when a teacher calls a boy by his entire name it means trouble.”
The Hannibal days were rich for Sam. His keen power of observation and sharp memory later provided him with a wealth of inspiration that he used frequently in his writings as Mark Twain.
As Mark Twain, he immortalized Hannibal as St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The geographical features are real. The Mississippi River and its islands, Cardiff Hill, the great cave South of town, are all features visitors can explore today. The town had but 700 or so people when the family arrived in 1839, it grew to more than 2,500 by the time he left in 1853. He was familiar with the community and its inhabitants.
Inspiration for many of the characters in Tom Sawyer comes from actual people. He used his mother, Jane Clemens, as Aunt Polly. His sister, Pamela, and brother, Henry, became Cousin Mary and Cousin Sid. The real girl, Laura Hawkins, who lived across the street from the Clemens family inspired Becky Thatcher. And Tom Blankenship from a poor family spawned Huckleberry Finn. We see Sam’s childhood spent playing in the hills, on the river, and in the cave spread across the pages of Tom Sawyer. The book also captures his school experience, and his father’s courtroom became the setting for the trial scene in the story.
Sam’s father died on March 22, 1847, when Sam was just 11 years old. Shortly thereafter he was taken from school and apprenticed to a local newspaper. There by setting type letter by letter, he was exposed to many writing styles and built up his vocabulary – experience that served him well as a writer himself.
In the spring of 1853, Sam left Hannibal to travel to New York City to see the Crystal Palace Exposition at the ripe age of 17. Over the next few years he was to become a steamboat pilot; travel to Nevada and become a newspaper reporter; serve as traveling correspondent to Hawaii and to the Holy Lands; then to marry and settle in New England.
The writing career of Sam Clemens, who chose the pen name Mark Twain, produced more than 25 books in a wide range of styles. His early experience in Hannibal was ever with him and his childhood home of Hannibal appears in many of his works, supplying episodes in The Innocents Abroad, serving as the start of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, sections of Life on the Mississippi, and Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Today the cabin in which he was born is preserved in Florida, Missouri as the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site. In Hannibal, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum preserves the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, the Becky Thatcher House, the John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Building, the reconstructed Huckleberry Finn House and museum buildings. You can visit www.marktwaiunmuseum.org to learn more about the quintessential American author whose boyhood in Hannibal provided inspiration for many of his most beloved writings.
Henry Sweets grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. He earned a B.S. and Masters in Education from the University of Illinois and a Masters in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware. He has been at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, since January, 1978. He organized and has overseen the Mark Twain Teacher Workshops for 10 years, and edits The Fence Painter, now in its 36th year. In 2011 and 2015 he ran The Clemens Conference, a quadrennial scholarly Mark Twain conference. Sweets has traveled the United States speaking on Mark Twain.