In a way, Mark Twain never left Hannibal, Missouri. All his books reflect the voice and outlook of a man who grew up in a small antebellum river town. And his best-known books, Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, reflect his childhood adventures on and around the Mississippi River.
When a Post reporter visited Hannibal in 1900, when the famous author was 65, he found several of Twain’s boyhood friends still alive. They recalled young Samuel Clemens as a voracious reader who’d entertain his friends by reciting stories from the Arabian Nights. They also recalled his Tom Sawyer-like behavior as a youth: He was apparently a frequent fugitive from Sunday school, and the fearless explorer of the cave and a treasure island, both made famous in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
One of the boyhood friends named in the article below was Tom Blankenship. Late in life, Twain identified him as the model for Huckleberry Finn. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person — boy or man — in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.”
The Friends of Mark Twain’s Boyhood
By Homer Bassford
Originally published on September 22, 1900
Most of the boys who went to school with Mark Twain are dead; but in the hills of northeast Missouri one may yet come across white-bearded, pleasant mannered old fellows who played the pranks and knew the hairbreadth ’scapes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Only a few weeks ago The Saturday Evening Post’s Paris correspondent set forth the interesting fact that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are on the friendliest of terms with the youth of France. These boys, along with thousands upon thousands of our own boys, will be happy to know that nearly all of the atmosphere that surrounded Huck and Tom is just about as it was fifty years ago, when the boys ranged the hills, the river, the islands and the Cave. Scores of other “Hucks” and “Toms” have come and gone, and many others are doing pretty much the same thing, right now, that the originals did.
If you were to go to Hannibal today and make inquiry for some of the “boys” who went to school with Sam Clemens you would probably be directed to Ed Pierce and Charley Curts. When you hear them spoken of as “Ed” and “Charley” you feel that they must be youngsters yet, and that some trick of time has kept them just as they were when they used to row up to the island and scratch for the Frenchman’s gold. Mr. Curts told me the other day that he was more than seventy years of age. He is over six feet in height, very straight, very carefully dressed and very classical in facial outline. We were standing near the little park of the town when Mr. Curts pointed to a spot in the centre of it.
Where Tom and Becky Were Lost
“Right here,” he said, “stood a one-story, frame schoolhouse. The teacher was Miss Newcomb. Sam Clemens and I learned to spell in that schoolhouse, and on Sundays we went there to church and Sunday-school — when we couldn’t sneak away. That was when we were round about ten and fifteen years old. In the period when we were older Sam and I ran off a good deal and went to the Cave, the same Cave that you read about, the Cave in which Tom and Becky were lost. We always took some fire with us, carefully guarding it from the wind. We managed to get candles somehow, and after we got lighted up we would climb the hill and crawl through the little hole that let light into the long, narrow passage leading to the main part of the mysterious place. We spent hours and hours there, day after day. Sam never tired of exploring the wonderful hallways, rooms and walks. To this day there are portions of it known only to Sam Clemens. Once in a while we hear that Mark Twain is lazy and that as a youngster he put all the work on the other fellow. This isn’t true. He not only did his share of all the work there was to do, but he lent another aid that was beyond the gifts of the others. He used to get a lot of the boys — Ed Pierce, Bill Nash, Ben Coontz, ’Gene Freeman, Ruel Gridley, Tom Blankenship and Joint Meredith — and tell the Arabian Nights stories to us. His father, John M. Clemens, owned the only copy of the book in town, and after Sam had digested it thoroughly he related the whole thing to us, decorated in his own way.”
“Did Mr. Clemens aspire to authorship at that time, or do you recall that he gave any indication of his future course?” I asked Mr. Curts.
“He was the best story-teller among the boys—the best boy story-teller I ever knew; but he wasn’t thinking much about authorship. One time some one patted him on the shoulder and asked, in the usual way:
“What are you going to be, Sammie, when you grow up?’
“‘Haven’t thought much, sir,’ said Sam, ‘but I suppose I’ll grow into a man.’”
One of Mark Twain’s Early Pastime
Edward Pierce is a bit younger than Mark Twain, but he always managed to be present when the Arabian Nights stories were going around, and many a time he helped to dig for gold on Treasure Island. When Ed Pierce, Sam Clemens, Bill Nash and Ruel Gridley were boys together there was a mill near which the youngsters loved to gather. This mill was in the centre of a narrow valley, and at the top of the long, steep inclines that ran away from it were great stones, tossed there in bygone ages by the wondrous hand of Nature.
“Sam Clemens and the others of us used to tear those stones loose,” said Ed Pierce on a recent Sunday, “sometimes working days and nights together to get a particularly big one free. Then we’d start her down the hill. One time we cut loose a whaler, and, when we saw the course it was taking, we began to in our boots. It would hit the mill. Once the stone struck a flat place on the slope and we held our breathing in the hope that it would stop. We grabbed each other by the shirt-sleeves and strained our eyes as the great rock paused, wobbled, struck a smaller rock and then, with a whirl to one side, set off to the bottom with a speed that would have filled our hearts with joy if the mill “ad not been there.
“Mebbe she’ll hit something an’ turn out,’ Sam suggested.
“Sure enough, at that instant the rolling stone struck a small boulder and shot twenty feet down a side course, but our relief was of short life, for there was yet another boulder in just the right position to restore the course of our big one. While we were watching, the head miller appeared at one of the doors. He grasped the situation in an instant and, calling his helpers out, he and the others ran for their lives. Sam and I waited for the stone to strike. It went through the wall and landed far inside the mill. Then we got away. Many times we sent rocks down that hill. As I look back at it, I wonder that we didn’t kill some one.”
Mark Twain’s Broad Range of Studies
Not many years ago – less than fifteen perhaps —Mr. Clemens went to Hannibal for the purpose of spending a short time amid the scenes of his boyhood. In the course of his visit he was much in the company of his lifelong friend, Colonel RoBards, who is one of the pillars of the community. With Colonel RoBards he made a tour of the churches one bright Sunday morning, taking particular interest in the children. At the place of his first visit the host told the Sunday-school Superintendent that the distinguished visitor would be glad to address the little folks. Mr. Clemens at once grew reminiscent. He was glad to be home again, back among the hills of his early youth, where he knew every rock and gully. It was good to be in the old home Sunday school again. Here Colonel Robards and the Superintendent exchanged glances of doubt.
“Yes,” continued the speaker, “ and you must know how it delights me to be in this Sunday-school where every bench is to me as an old friend. I sat right over there where the stove used to be—right in that seat where the little girl with the red dress is now. Ah, how it all comes back to me!”
Then Colonel Robards pulled at the famous man’s coat-tails and indicated that it was time to hurry on. At the next Sunday school Mr. Clemens was soon on his feet.
“My dear friends,” he said, “ I’m so happy to be here again, close to scenes I once knew so well, for right there, within twenty feet of where I stand, is the seat in which I used to sit with Charley Curts “ (or some one equally well known). “ How well I remember it all!”
Colonel Robards blushed for his guest and begged a pressure of time as an excuse for leaving. When the two were safely out of The church, Colonel Robards turned on him.
“See here, Sam,” he said, “you never went to Sunday-school in that church. It wasn’t there when you lived in Hannibal, or the other one, either, for that matter.”
“Goodness me! Can that be so?” Mr. Clemens exclaimed. “ How time does fly!”
Then the two visited a third church, a spic and span new one of which the congregation was very proud. Mr. Clemens, as soon as his presence became known, was duly pressed for a few remarks.
“I can only say,” he said, “ that I am very happy to be here this morning. The sight of this magnificent edifice recalls to my mind other days than this. It brings to my thoughts another group of youngsters, hardly as well dressed as these bright-faced boys and girls, but all quite as anxious to become good men and women. I was one of them. My seat was over there near where the boy with a red necktie is sitting. Indeed, I think it must be the same seat.”
Then, walking closer, as if to scrutinize the place more carefully, he said, “ Yes, it’s the same.”
“Come on,” said Colonel Robards. “ It’s time to go to dinner.”