Missouri: Life with the real Huck Finn

By Jim Salter

Mark Twain wrote in Huckleberry Finn: "There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." And that applies to Twain himself, says Jim Salter.

The original museum is next door to Mark Twain's white-painted boyhood home.
The original museum is next door to Mark Twain's white-painted boyhood home.

He was "ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had".

That goodhearted boy was Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend of Samuel Clemens - best known under his nom de plume of Mark Twain - and a model for one of the favourite characters in American literary history, Huckleberry Finn.

A replica of the Blankenship family's ramshackle home has been built in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri, 160km north of St Louis.

It is the latest extension to the Mark Twain Museum, one of Missouri's greatest tourist attractions, which already embraces several buildings, including Clemens' whitewashed boyhood home - complete with picket fence.

The Blankenship building will be known as Huck Finn House. But there's no picket fence and no whitewashing, because the Blankenship family was poor and on the low end of society.

Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Museum, says Huck Finn House will be part of an effort to compare and contrast the reality of mid-1800 Hannibal with Twain's fiction.

Twain was born in 1835 in nearby Florida, Missouri, but his family moved to Hill St in Hannibal, barely a stone's throw from the river, when he was four. He left when he was 17.

It was here that Clemens met the people who became fodder for characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Notable among them was Blankenship, whose family were possibly squatters. Sweets has been unable to find any evidence that the Blankenships owned property and believes they moved around, rented, maybe even took over property they didn't own.

Records from the mid-1800s are sketchy, but the Blankenships probably lived for a time in a two-room cabin on North St. The house was demolished in 1911, although old photos helped the reconstruction.

But there was a hitch. A story handed down from a 13-year-old boy who helped tear down the home indicated it was made of logs covered by thin boards. Just as construction was to begin, a photo was discovered showing conclusively that it was a frame home. Construction was delayed as plans were redesigned to make sure the was historically accurate.

Sweets said Twain did not base Huck strictly on Blankenship, but on a combination of childhood friends fleshed out by his imagination.

For example, Huck was alone except for his abusive father, Pap. But Blankenship had a mother, father and siblings.

Yet Twain, in his autobiography, wrote that, "in Huckleberry Finn, I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. 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".

Some critics contend that Twain's focus on an idyllic setting - particularly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - overlooks the harsh reality of the rough-hewn, slave-holding town.

"For far too long, Hannibal has told an all-white story about a world that was 25 per cent African-American and really ignored the most important aspect of Sam Clemens' life," says Terrell Dempsey, a Hannibal lawyer and historian who has written a book about slavery in Hannibal.

"Generally today, Huck Finn and Puddin' Head Wilson are considered Twain's most important works, and they deal with slavery and racism. And it was just ignored in Hannibal, and rather intentionally so."

The Huck Finn House storytelling method aims to change that concept.

Visitors can learn about all levels of society in Hannibal in the 1840s, including the fact that the Clemens family held slaves.

"It's a much more interesting story," says Regina Faden, executive director of the museum foundation. "It's more about what Hannibal was really like."

One display in a building next to the Clemens home points out that Clemens "spent plenty of time around enslaved African-Americans in childhood. He may have had misgivings about their treatment, but his opposition to slavery didn't surface until later in his life".

Huck Finn House provides an opportunity to look at another level of US society from that time.

Mark Twain Museum: 208 Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri, open daily.

- NZ Herald

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