The paint peeled and the old bricks disintegrated and the wood splintered and the heat cooked the patched pavement.
This was Hannibal, Missouri.
Betty and I ventured there on our recent jaunt from Boise to Nashville, Tennessee. Going to Hannibal is something I’ve desired since I was a kid and read some of Mark Twain’s stories. All about whitewashing fences and rafts on the Mississippi, piloting down the river, sounding the channels to fathom the depth. All of this has been imprinted on my mind for decades. But much to my chagrin, downtown Hannibal where Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was really named) spent his boyhood looked battered, neglected, forgotten.
Some of the buildings where Twain lived as a youngster cannot be entered because they are too dangerous for visits. Outside of downtown, the structures and the lives of the residents may be dandy, but the old town where Mark Twain played and snookered his compadres à la Tom Sawyer is like an old man on his death bed.
And I must say that surprised me. Hannibal, the surrounding locale, and a lot of eastern Missouri play off Twain’s fame to draw interest and tourists. There are schools named after the man, and a national forest and a Missouri State park. The list of Twain namesakes is somewhat exhaustive, not to mention all the hotels, motels, restaurants, insurance agencies, and other businesses that have chosen to use Twain’s moniker for…for…for what? Does that name give a business some kind of cred, some familiarity, some notion of stability and honesty and strength? I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems strange to me that a region that plays on a famous man’s name might not recognize that they have some interest in keeping in good condition the actual environs where young Twain romped.
This is not to say that the general Mississippi River area is not a magical place with all the water and the green and the history and the red headed wood peckers and the kettles of turkey vultures and the endless railroad tracks, the bridges over the river and the old river towns with their what I imagine to be hankerings for river boats steaming along, gamblers and cotton brokers lining the deck railings waving their wide Panama hats at the folks packed on the levees and the docks waiting for the mail, the lover, the banjo and tambourine bands.
But all the quaint and soiled elegance of a bygone age doesn’t, for me, overcome my fear…is it fear?…that Twain and all he stands for…history, humor, great literature, satire and sarcasm and more…will soon be forgotten.
All the meandering on toward Nashville and the stimuli, visual and otherwise…memory and literary…lead me to further cogitate about Twain, Hannibal, Twain’s history and his books.
Over the last century and more, this country has had an interesting relationship with Twain. We made him a rich man and his books, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been considered to be masterpieces of creative writing. Yet in our history that particular book was banned in 1885 for being “trash and only suitable for the slums.” It has been banned at certain locations at certain times (and still is) in this country since then because it is “oppressive” and keeps alive “racism.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does employ some provocative scenes and language, most notably the “n” word that totes so much freight in our society.
And certainly that word, for African Americans and for a lot of other folks, is anathema and should never be uttered and probably never thought. I certainly understand how the use of that pejorative causes folks to cringe. It can make me cringe. But banning a book with all the virtues that the story of Huck Finn brings the reader is something I rue. Yes, we could alter the diction to eliminate the “n” word, but do we have the authority, morally and intellectually speaking, to make that decision? When Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the use of that nefarious word was quite common. The text of the book is what it is. In the portrayal of the story’s main African American, Jim, Twain does not appear to want to denigrate Jim’s character, but portrays him instead as wise and good, and in this way the paradox of good character and vicious word creates a contrast that to my thinking helps illuminate the character of Jim.
Of course, I am one who reads books about how things are, or were, and not books about how things ought to be. And yes, like so many words such as Nazi and Hitler and Communist, the “n” word comes at us like an overloaded freight train out of control. The past, slavery, lynchings, get to the back of the bus, freedom riders, Martin Luther King, the Civil War, Nat Turner…the list is extensive, exhaustive, and all of it comes click-clacking down the track at us when that word is written and spoken. Words often carry a load of context that can create a brouhaha much bigger than the simple letters and sounds that are used to create that utterance.
My father was a man who used the “n” word more than once. I can recall my mother scolding him for saying it in front of my sister and me. He came from a family with southern roots that I am sure was involved in some association with slavery. Yet my father worked with black men back before civil rights was much of a reality and I remember him always speaking with respect to those men, not demeaning. When he hired men for his own company, race had little to do with his decision. He was more interested in results than color or in a person’s religion or ethnic background or sexual orientation, for that matter. His best friend was a black man. So it seems to me that words, even though they carry freight, are not always the measure of a man who uses them. Sometimes I think we forget that…that humans are complicated, good and bad, and we need to be careful not to forget that most of us are 90% good and only 10% bad.
But I don’t want to come off as an apologist for racists, racism, apartheid or any other nefarious activities or attitudes directed at specific segments of humanity, because judging folks and groups of folks based on color, creed, religion, sex undermines the fact that we are what we do, not necessarily what we believe, think or look like. I’ve seen racism in Malaysia and Mexico and France and Italy. I’ve seen it in Arizona and Washington, DC, and Texas, New Mexico, California and Idaho. Racism is something that won’t go away. Prejudice is as ancient as the human race. And I hate to say this, but in my life I’ve had moments when prejudicial thoughts and comments have spurted into my mind or blurted out of my mouth and I suspect most folks would have to admit likewise if they were honest.
For me, in terms of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the “n” word is just a word, and one that we might consider putting in its place, in its time, as we read the bigger message of Twain’s story. And I’d like to see the folks in Hannibal, in Missouri, in the US, fix up the structures that are all that is physically left to speak to us about Twain and his youth on the Big Muddy. Somehow I can’t get the desolation of the old downtown Hannibal out of my head. The cracks and busted pavement, the peeled paint, for me, all work as a metaphor, for the abrasive affair we have with race in this country. Busted and cracked. And never-ending.