Jewish World Review March 5, 2004/ 12 Adar, 5764

Greg Crosby

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America's storyteller | A residual benefit of having spent a couple of days in Hannibal, Missouri this past fall has been a rediscovery of Mark Twain and his writing. After walking the streets of old Hannibal, hearing the sounds of the Mississippi River, and seeing where Samuel Clemens grew up, it's impossible to not want to read the books which were inspired by this small riverfront town.

Hannibal, of course, has been a huge tourist attraction almost from the time Twain first made it famous in his books. Many of the old buildings, stores, and houses (including the Clemens house) are still standing and in fairly good repair.

Considering that, it is quite amazing that the place has somehow managed to avoid becoming a typical tourist trap. While there's never any doubt, as you stroll through town, who the famous writer was that came from there, the place is certainly not "Mark TwainLand," thank goodness. The spirit and lay of the town remain true to what I would imagine Hannibal was like a hundred years ago.

Born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri in 1835, Twain 's formal education was limited. He dropped out of school at the age of twelve to apprentice as a printer and worked on his brother's newspaper. He had, by this time, begun to write occasional short humor pieces while continuing to work as an itinerant printer. He later apprenticed himself to a steamboat pilot and remained on the Mississippi until the Civil War put an end to river traffic. He tried prospecting and mining out west with little success in either. Then he took a position as a feature writer for a newspaper in Virginia City and that's when his writing career really began.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was his first major piece which brought him fame. Twain's other works include "Innocents Abroad," "Roughing it," "The Gilded Age," "A Tramp Abroad," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Prince and the Pauper," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arther's Court."

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Naturally Mark Twain books are sold everywhere throughout Hannibal in every edition imaginable, from paperbacks to leather-bound numbered sets. As me and my wife are avid book collectors it was hard to resist buying something, even though we are fast running out of book space in our house. Mustering up all our courage we managed to get out with only a single purchase - a paperback edition of "Pudd'nhead Wilson."

In the opening sentence of this column I state that I have rediscovered Mark Twain, but that is not entirely true. I must ashamedly admit that I have never read a Mark Twain book up until now. I don't know what took me so long, but as Mark Twain himself once said, "A classic is what everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read." Perhaps there's some truth in that in my case.

Twain also said, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So at long last here I go. Better late than never, as they say.

Once we got back home my wife was the first to tackle Mark Twain. She read "Pudd'nhead Wilson," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in fairly quick order. It took me a bit more time to get around to the Twain stories.

I skipped "Tom Sawyer," and chose as my first Twain book, "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," an odd little story written in 1876 between the completion of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and the start of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Now I am in the middle of reading "Huckleberry Finn" - the book which was the beginning of all modern American literature, as Ernest Hemingway said in 1935 - and undoubtedly Twain's masterpiece.

Told in the first person (Huck's voice), Twain uses several different dialects within the book. Very unusual for its time and not easy to read at first, but soon I got used to it and actually started to enjoy the speech patterns. I'll have to give you the full book report when I'm through.

Once I finish "Huck Finn" I plan on going on to some other Twain stories. And I want to finally get to other classics that I've missed - tittles like "Moby-Dick," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Gulliver's Travels", "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", "Exodus", and "You Can't Go Home Again." I want to read the stories of O'Henry, du Maurier, Maugham, Updike, and Guy de Maupassant. There are probably hundreds of great books I'd love to be able to finally read - our home library is full of them.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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