This is another in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.
Driving around America, one can't help but notice that virtually every town, village, burg and/or hamlet tries to boost its self-esteem by boasting that an iconic historical figure once did something there:
"On Oct. 13, 1858, Abraham Lincoln rested under these trees while preparing for one of his debates with Stephen Douglas."
"This building served as headquarters for General Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863."
"On this spot in July, 1805, during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Sacagawea's baby, Pompey, spit up."
But no American historic personage is more ubiquitous than Mark Twain. You can't swing a cat in this country without hitting some reference to Twain or his alter-ego, Sam Clemens. At Vermont's Monadnock State Park, visitors are told Twain spent a summer there. As you board the tram to ride to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, you're greeted by a life-size cardboard cutout of the man. His signature is the one prominently singled out on an "autograph quilt" in a museum in Lincoln, Neb.
And then there are his residences. George Washington has Mount Vernon; Thomas Jefferson has Monticello, Andrew Jackson has the Hermitage.
But there are three – count 'em, three – museum-shrines to homes once occupied by Mark Twain.
The most architecturally audacious is in Hartford, Conn.
Designed and built for the Clemens family in the early 1870s, the house reflects the author: eclectic, playful and exuding an aura of a peacock that knows it looks a bit silly, but can't help strutting its stuff anyway.
Each of the main rooms has its own décor: The entry hall has a Moorish theme, while the family parlor is distinctly Victorian. In the eaves are corbels carved to look like squirrels about to leap down. And above the bed in the master suite, Clemens had a gas line extended to fuel a lamp so he could read while reclining – and smoking a cigar. Fortunately, he once observed that he made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.
The house served the family well for 17 years and was the base for the most productive period of Twain's career. "It is a home," he wrote, "and the word never had so much meaning before."
Preserved and operated by a local nonprofit group, the Hartford house is viewable only by guided tour. There's an adjacent museum, complete with a Ken Burns film, a life-size Twain made from Legos, and a good Japanese restaurant. As I mentioned, eclectic.
Twain's roots can be seen in the small town of Hannibal, Mo., hard by the banks of the Mississippi River in eastern Missouri. The author lived here from the time he was 4 until he was 17, and his modest boyhood home is part of a multi-building complex that includes his father's justice-of-the-peace office, and the house where "Huckleberry Finn" lived (actually the home of a boy named Tom Blankenship, whom Clemens later said was the model for his most beloved character).
The buildings contain Clemens family memorabilia – a dress of his mother's, his father's drafting set – as well as photos and numerous quotations from Twain's works. It's not overwhelming, but then again, how many museums have you visited that have you laughing out loud every few feet?
The Hannibal house is self-guided, and the admission price includes entry to a two-story, interactive museum that includes tableaus from five Twain books, audio and video exhibits, artifacts such as the gown Twain wore accepting a doctoral degree from Oxford University, and a collection of 15 Norman Rockwell paintings depicting scenes from Twain's works.
While the Hartford house is the most impressive, and the Hannibal house the most nostalgic, the most affecting might be the one preserved in a modernistic building that is part of the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, on the outskirts of what is now essentially the ghost town of Florida, Mo.
The sagging two-room cabin, complete with period furniture, was saved from razing by area businessmen and made the centerpiece of a pretty cool museum, about 40 miles southwest of Hannibal. The museum, the design of which was approved by Clara Clemens, the only one of Sam's children to survive him, includes the original manuscript of "Tom Sawyer."
I suggest it is the most affecting of the three houses because it affords a glimpse of just how far Clemens journeyed in life. A plaque next to the shack reads "November 30, 1835 – Into the narrow limits of this cabin was born Samuel Clemens, who, as Mark Twain, lived to cheer and comfort a tired world."
Of course, Twain himself was a bit more prosaic about it.
"Recently someone in Missouri sent me a picture of the house I was born in," he wrote. "Heretofore I have always stated it was a palace, but I shall be more guarded now."
FAMED MARK TWAIN RESIDENCES
The Hartford house is viewable by tours only, and they can fill up fast in peak season, so you may have a bit of a wait. You can fill it by touring the rather modest museum and watching the short film, or eating at the surprisingly good Japanese restaurant on the third floor. There's a big – and free – parking lot. Go to www.marktwainhouse.org for information.
Hannibal is the Walmart of Mark Twain stuff, from the Mark Twain Riverboat tours to the Mark Twain Cave Complex. But it's not nearly as cheesy as it might sound, and the town itself is picturesquely nestled alongside the Mississippi River. Plus, if you get sick of Twain, you can always visit a museum devoted to the "Unsinkable Molly Brown." She was born in Hannibal, too. See www.visithannibal.com for details.
The Mark Twain Birthplace museum in Florida, Mo., is part of the Missouri State Park system, and conveniently located next to the 18,000-acre Mark Twain Lake. Go to http://mostateparks.com/park/mark-twain-birthplace-state-historic-site for details.