Allow me to take you on a journey to a literary place! This is the second “Thoughts from Literary Places” post I’ve done (read the first one here about Jane Austen in Bath), inspired by the Vlogbrothers’ “Thoughts from Places” videos. I love visiting places that are significant to literary history, and I just so happen to live right by one: Hannibal, Missouri.
Hannibal is famous for being the hometown of Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. Situated right on the Mississippi River, Hannibal is a small town of about 20,000 people. It’s just a short drive down the river from where I currently live in Quincy, Illinois, so I visit often.
I’m actually getting ready to leave Quincy to move back up to the Chicago area, so this time of year is getting me extra thoughtful and nostalgic, and if there is any one word to describe Hannibal, it is “nostalgic.” Waking down Main Street in Hannibal feels like a trip back in time. The entire town is an homage to Mark Twain, and just about every business is named after either him of one of his characters. Main Street is lined with adorable shops and restaurants. Most of the shops sell antiques, crafts, and/or “one-man’s-trash” type memorabilia. There is also the “first coffee shop west of the Mississippi,” Java Jive, which is probably my favorite coffee shop in the entire world. Here are some photos I’ve taken from the last 2 years:
Mark Twain’s boyhood home, as well as his father’s law office, Grant’s Drug Store, and the home of Laura Hawkins, who inspired the character of Becky Thatcher, are all still standing around a little brick square off Main Street. In front of his home is the famous whitewashed fence (pictured above). A quick drive up the bluff offers a stunning view of town from Lover’s Leap (pictured above), and Hannibal hosts multiple festivals throughout the year. Every Labor Day weekend they have a Steampunk Festival, which I’ve attended the last 2 years in a row. It is absolutely fantastic. (Steampunks, take note!)
However, despite all these things, the town is by no means economically flourishing. Driving around the residential streets makes that clear – many of the homes in Hannibal are stunning, Victorian originals, but unfortunately most of them are in a sad state of decay. Besides Main Street, the remainder of the town is visible only as a ghost of its former glory.
This gets me thinking about small town American life every time I visit. It represents an archaic style of living, and it makes you wonder how long towns like this will last. You sense the spirit of pioneers like Twain, and being there is truly like stepping into one of his novels. (They even have Tom and Becky actors who walk around, and if you ask them to do the engagement scene, they will act it out for you!). But when you step away from Main Street you realize that it is in fact the 21st century, and towns like these are struggling.
It doesn’t help that Hannibal is situated literally in the middle of nowhere. The biggest town nearby is Quincy, where I live, and we only have about 40,000 people. The rest of the surrounding land is farmland and very tiny farming communities. So it’s definitely an off-the-beaten path place to visit. This is why the feeling of nostalgia permeates so heavily throughout Hannibal – it’s a town from another time, and it’s not necessarily keeping up.
However, I love it. It’s nice to know that places like Hannibal still exist, especially if you come from a big city, or like me, from the sprawls of suburbia. I’m enchanted and charmed every time I go. The people are friendly, the atmosphere warm and welcoming. You easily understand how Mark Twain based Tom Sawyer off of this little piece of hometown America. Fans of Mark Twain and/or American folk life in general will fall in love and be on the lookout for their favorite characters walking the streets. Even walking around on a non-festival weekend you might see the occasional banjo player on the sidewalk. It is a place from another time, and a place that deserves better.