Where We Write: Hannibal, Missouri

Melissa Scholes Young
From the November/December 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When I decided to set my first novel, “Flood,” in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown I share with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, I knew I was wading into murky water. One afternoon on a recent visit to Hannibal, my brother asked if I wanted to see his property. He’d purchased forty-seven acres of undeveloped wooded land. In this particular part of the country, where I was born and raised, showing someone your land is akin to sharing a rough draft of your novel. Opening the gates to your property is a form of intimacy in the Midwest. As I sat beside my brother in the front seat of his Chevy truck, bumping along a gravel road ten miles south of town, we passed two men in tattered blue-jean overalls sitting in lawn chairs by a pond with shotguns on their knees. We rounded the corner, coming within twenty feet of their gun barrels. One of the good ole boys raised his gun and aimed at the water.

My brother waved. I didn’t. Where I currently live, in Washington, D.C., a raised gun means something entirely different. These men, my brother and the fellow with the shotgun, were speaking a language I didn’t understand. “Yeah,” my brother said, “you know what they say: In Missouri, we love God and guns.” He chuckled.

“That’s probably why I left,” I mumbled.

“Probably,” he agreed.

I adore my hometown and my brother. But something deep inside me wrestles with the question of what it means to be from a place like this—even if the answers may not be so welcome.

Fictionalized as St. Petersburg, Hannibal is the lovely little river town Twain described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s nestled on the Mississippi between two rocky, wooded bluffs: Lover’s Leap to the south and Cardiff Hill to the north. Clemens’s boyhood home is a stone’s throw from the riverbank, or at least it would be if the levee and flood walls hadn’t both blocked the view and saved the historic district when they were installed in 1993. Time doesn’t wait; neither does the water when you live in a floodplain.

Clemens couldn’t stay, though. In 1853, when boredom struck, he left his hometown. He accepted a position as a printer in St. Louis, a few hours southeast on the Mississippi, but his wandering spirit took him quickly beyond the Missouri state line. A decade later he signed his name as Mark Twain for the first time, on a piece of journalism. It stuck. Six years after that he published his first book, The Innocents Abroad, a satirical look at world travels far from Hannibal. But leaving was never easy. Neither was being away. After he sowed a few wild oats and found his beloved wife, Olivia, he sought a quieter life raising kids and writing books. His debts, brought on by the Panic of 1893, and his growing celebrity eventually demanded otherwise. He hit the lecture circuit and tried to give his publishers what they wanted: books that would sell. Because Olivia led him to all things heart and home, they had settled into their dream house, designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1874. But even with a foundation firmly under his feet, Clemens ran off no fewer than twenty-two times, to Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York, where he could write in peace and escape fame.

Clemens had to leave Hannibal to find a place he could finally call home; he had to find enough distance to write about the place he loved.

Like Twain, I grew up loving my hometown, and I, too, packed my bags to travel. After graduating from Monmouth College in Illinois with a history degree, I moved to Brazil to teach middle school for two years. When I came back to the States I taught high school English in Ohio and Florida, where I was licensed to force-feed teenagers the books I’d survived on. Ten years later, I went back to school and earned an MFA at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I now teach writing at American University in Washington, D.C. I’ve moved thirteen times in fifteen years. My spirit is as full of wanderlust as Twain’s and no matter how far I get from the Mississippi, the river always flows through my writing. 

Every summer I pack up my suburban family and take a road trip that maps Twain’s work. Eventually we arrive in Hannibal and settle onto the sprawling porches of my parents’ country home, where brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles descend. We get filled up with hometown goodness. My kids chase fireflies. They swim in a muddy pond and ride four-wheelers on dirt roads. We sit on the bank of the Mississippi on blankets and watch the Fourth of July fireworks. It’s magical. I can practically feel Tom and Huck and Becky Thatcher sitting beside us.

But then, after a few days, things start smelling funny. Corn dogs and funnel cakes become limp and greasy. The brick sidewalks in the historic district are suddenly littered with cigarette butts. The rural midwestern accents evolve from welcoming to maddeningly slow. By week’s end, even Tom and Becky’s costumes start to itch (Huck would have shed his upon arrival). In a letter to author and critic William Dean Howells dated August 22, 1887, Twain writes, “When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood, it has always shrunk: There is no instance of such a house being as big as the picture in memory and imagination call for.”

It’s hard to go home, mostly because I make it so. And then I try to write about it.

In my novel, “Flood,” protagonist Charlotte Jackson has returned to Hannibal jobless, hopeless, and disoriented. As she becomes embroiled in her family’s conflicts and small-town dramas once again, she reflects on how hard it is to go back to a place that raised her: “Part of the problem of leaving and coming home again is that you start fitting back into the person you were before you left. When you leave, you can be anyone you want. When you’re home, people know you, or they think they do. You hear it enough, you start fitting their mold.”

As Charlotte spends more time with the people in the town she thought she knew so well, her own perspective shifts. When she fled, ten years before, she assumed that those who stayed behind didn’t have another choice. Her sassy, born-again best friend, Rose, was trapped by a teenage pregnancy in high school. Her boyfriend, Sammy, committed himself to his family’s farm. Mama and her brother, Trey, were resigned to the way things had always been. “If you just came home to criticize us all, Char, you got another thing comin’,” Mama yells at her the first morning home. “We don’t all need fixin’, you know.” Charlotte realizes that sometimes it takes more courage to stay, to embrace the value of what’s in front of you rather than escape to the grass that must be greener on the other side of the Mississippi.

In the end, coming home, back to the town, the river, and the people, Charlotte sees possibilities that arise when you are firmly from a place, even when that place is imperfect. Just as Huck Finn revealed the wrongs of slavery, Charlotte sees the clearly drawn class lines between the Beckys (the haves) and the Hucks (the have-nots). She’s now an outsider, and her protests of unfairness aren’t welcomed. That’s how it is in Hannibal, Charlotte is told. That’s how it is along the Mississippi, Huck was told. And if they want it to be different, well, there’s the door. For both characters the answer is self-preservation. Leaving is sometimes the only way out, but when you leave, you can take a piece of home with you. Maybe you even leave a piece of you behind.

Are the truths we tell ourselves ever true? In writing “Flood,” I’m trying to answer that. When you love a place you leave, your new experiences shape your outlook. You see home through adoring eyes when you’re not there, but when you return to the familiar riverbank, the stench of rotting catfish seems stronger. Can you leave and still hold on? Can you return and reveal the injustices? Mark Twain and Huck did. Charlotte and I hope we can too—even if some consider our truths lies.

In On the Decay of the Art of Lying, first published in 1885, Twain writes, “Note that venerable proverb: Children and fools always speak the truth. The deduction is plain—adults and wise persons never speak it.” He goes on to proclaim that judicious lying should even be taught in our public schools.

Growing up in Hannibal, I would have liked Twain’s version of schooling. I began telling lies and making up stories at a very young age. When I was in second grade at Oakwood Elementary School, I won my first writing contest for telling a lie, or at the very least, a “truth stretcher.” The contest was held in honor of Mother’s Day, and it called for an essay about why you had the best mom in the world. My winning entry went like this: “I have the best mom in the world because I have the best dad in the world and everyone knows that the best dads pick the best moms. The end.” My teacher said it showed great imagination and humor. My mother dressed up and took me downtown for the awards ceremony. We stood on a flatbed trailer on Broadway and I yelled my words into a microphone. The Hannibal Courier-Post took our picture and my mother was given a silk flower corsage the color of lemons and a ten-dollar gift certificate to Ponderosa Steakhouse. I got paid for the first time for my words. What could be better than that? A free meal for a couple of sentences was a good deal. My entry certainly featured some element of truth.

The thing about fiction, as Twain has taught me, is that it gives us a veil. We have permission to tell truths that may tarnish the ideal. Our characters speak for us. One year I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer out loud to my students, and they wanted to know what was true. Did your house have a white picket fence? Was your schoolteacher that mean? No to both. Did you grow up on the Mississippi swimmin’ and fishin’ and raftin’? Yes to all three. We assume writers get their stories from a place they know. Whether that place is physical or emotional or imaginary, the place is inside them. That part is true. Was Mark Twain mischievous like Tom Sawyer? Probably. Did he see a world full of racial prejudice? Certainly. Did he trick his friends into painting a fence? Yes, but does it matter? Some version of it happened to him, but more important: It’s a great story.

How do we writers reveal the soft underbelly of our beloved homes without hurting the people who make up the place we love? We wrestle with the truth. Honestly and without fear of breaking a few hearts. We expect more from our readers. They can digest ugly facts and bitter truths alongside fierce loyalty and neighborly devotion. They can distinguish between setting and struggle. They can see that the story wouldn’t exist and that the writer wouldn’t write without the place from which to grow. We have faith that our readers will embrace a picture that is both lovely and imperfect.

Every girl who grows up in Hannibal dreams of becoming Becky Thatcher. We fantasize about blond braids and bonnets and fancy dresses trimmed with lace. We doodle “I Love Tom” on the side of our notebooks and send demure smiles to ornery boys across the aisle. Yet so few of us get to be Becky.

Becky works because she’s fictionalized through the adoring eyes of Tom Sawyer. They are both beloved and stuck in time. If Becky had grown up, her mobility would have sent her on adventures beyond the borders of Hannibal too. Hopefully, she’d have come home again, but home would never have looked the same.

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo fellow.