Childhood haunts of a Missouri legend. Mark Twain's imagination and youth still live in Hannibal, however faintly

Pity poor Samuel Clemens. The man spent a good chunk of his life looking for a get-rich-quick scheme that would solve his dogged money troubles. Now the town of Hannibal, Mo., where he grew up -- and the surrounding area -- have turned his childhood into a gold mine. His mustache droops from every billboard, his name looms over every attraction.

With the 150th anniversary of his birth upon us, the trade in things Twainish promises to enjoy a season of even greater prosperity.

Surprisingly, in the midst of all this commercialization, you can catch glimpses of the way of life that gave birth to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

The center of this rendezvous is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex. In fact, this is the home where he lived only until his father's chronic failures in business drove the family across the street to the Pilaster House above a pharmacy, where today you see talking dioramas of a dentist, a pharmacist, and the like. None of this, however, is nearly as evocative of Twain's boyhood as the little house across the street.

One refers to it as ``little.'' And with reason. The low ceilings and narrow walls give a feeling of hugging you tightly in. Twain himself returned to it late in life and said, ``It all seems so small to me. I suppose if I should come back here ten years from now it would be the size of a birdhouse.''

That visit was a triumphant one. He had become a literary lion and the country's premier humorist. He had also written the novel, ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' which Ernest Hemingway would call the fountainhead of all other great American novels. What he was known as then -- and the thing that probably draws most people to this small town on the Mississippi -- was the spinner of tales of childhood and imagination, the man who had created the fence-painting swindle and the frog-jumping contest.

Well here, beside the small house of his childhood, stands the short picket fence. And every year they paint it. Every year, too, they hold frog-jumping contests. All of this happens from June 29 to July 4, along with a veritable jamboree of things American and Twainish.

I came to the town one late afternoon in August, however, with things all settled and quiet. There were few extravagant celebrations to beguile the eye and ear. But then, there were few crowds, either. So I could slip into the Twain home toward closing time. The museum and shop downstairs had a few patrons browsing among daguerreotypes; an old bicycle with comically large front wheel; original editions of the writer's works. None of this interested me much, and I made quickly for the stairs leading up to Twain's boyhood bedroom. It was on the way up these stairs that I entered that peculiar frame of mind one sometimes happens upon in such places.

Turning up the homely wooden steps and looking up at the decidedly unfancy wallpaper, I suddenly saw the place as one who was living there in Twain's day, a feeling that prevailed up into the bedrooms and across the outside walk to the small garden in back. It was out of these windows that Twain sneaked at night for secret meetings that would become scenes in my own imagination. More important to me were the fleeting images of all the ordinary living that took place here: the sickly young Sam Clemens, the distraught father, the cooking, climbing the stairs, and tending to family needs.

I suppose this kind of thing happens elsewhere, and that is why such houses are built, but this was Mark Twain, and for a few precious moments I had the feeling I'd stepped into the cradle of his mind.

`` `Desouthernized' as he was,'' Justin Kaplan wrote of the aged Sam Clemens in his landmark biography, ``his imagination and his youth still lived down there in Hannibal.'' The thing I saw briefly in that house was that they still do live down there, however faintly. And that spurred me on to roam around a bit in search of another nimbus or two bearing light from Twain's past.

The field for such a search is especially fertile in these parts. Which is not to say that it is abundantly fruitful. And, certainly, it's confusing to sort out. One travels -- from the Injun Joe Campground to the Huck Finn Shopping Center to the Mark Twain Cave & Campground to the Twainland Express Depot to the Haunted House -- a full country mile from commerce to history in this bouquet of tourist attractions. I have not personally explored them all, not by half. But what I have seen runs the gamut from matters of only nodding interest to some articles with the genuine feel.

In the latter category, I would place the Mark Twain Cave, which is full of lore, much having little to do with Sam Clemens or his books. Like many caves of the Midwest, it is a thing of much mystery, except that here some of the mystery has been varnished over in the interests of accommodating heavy traffic from the curious. But it still echoes with the romance of Mark Twain, Jesse James, and dozens of other, less legendary figures.

Closer to town, the house of Laura Hawkins (on whom Becky Thatcher was modeled) contains a bookshop; it faintly echoes the time of Twain's childhood. The aforementioned apothecary, Pilaster House/Grant's Drug Store, is of more than passing interest, as is Clemens' Law Office.

In the way of living artifacts, an outdoor drama, which I have not seen, unfolds from May through September near Injun Joe's campgrounds. There are, as well, a sightseeing wagon, a Mississippi riverboat, and other festive ornaments to attract those seeking some inkling of how things may have looked in the days when Twain was here.

My own impression is that, despite several opportune pockets of remembrance, by and large the place does not re-create the world it points to. Maybe it's asking a bit much to want it to do so.

But shambling along these streets leading down to the Mississippi, I got the feeling Mark Twain expressed when he wrote of St. Louis in the wake of its Mississippi heyday -- that things had gone dull and ordinary with humdrum business as we know it in most places. Added to this, the steady jingle of the cash register makes you think a lot about how much money is turned over here in the name of Samuel Clemens. And how dearly he would have longed to feel it in his own pocket.

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