Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXI

The Return of the Native

One day in April, 1902, Samuel Clemens received the following letter from the president of the University of Missouri:

MY DEAR MR. CLEMENS, Although you received the degree of doctor of literature last fall from Yale, and have had other honors conferred upon you by other great universities, we want to adopt you here as a son of the University of Missouri. In asking your permission to confer upon you the degree of LL.D. the University of Missouri does not aim to confer an honor upon you so much as to show her appreciation of you. The rules of the University forbid us to confer the degree upon any one in absentia. I hope very much that you can so arrange your plans as to be with us on the fourth day of next June, when we shall hold our Annual Commencement.

Very truly yours, R. H. JESSE.

Clemens had not expected to make another trip to the West, but a proffered honor such as this from one’s native State was not a thing to be declined.

It was at the end of May when he arrived in St. Louis, and he was met at the train there by his old river instructor and friend, Horace Bixby — as fresh, wiry, and capable as he had been forty-five years before.

“I have become an old man. You are still thirty-five,” Clemens said.

They went to the Planters Hotel, and the news presently got around that Mark Twain was there. There followed a sort of reception in the hotel lobby, after which Bixby took him across to the rooms of the Pilots Association, where the rivermen gathered in force to celebrate his return. A few of his old comrades were still alive, among them Beck Jolly. The same afternoon he took the train for Hannibal.

It was a busy five days that he had in Hannibal. High-school commencement day came first. He attended, and willingly, or at least patiently, sat through the various recitals and orations and orchestrations, dreaming and remembering, no doubt, other high-school commencements of more than half a century before, seeing in some of those young people the boys and girls he had known in that vanished time. A few friends of his youth were still there, but they were among the audience now, and no longer fresh and looking into the future. Their heads were white, and, like him, they were looking down the recorded years. Laura Hawkins was there and Helen Kercheval (Mrs. Frazer and Mrs. Garth now), and there were others, but they were few and scattering.

He was added to the program, and he made himself as one of the graduates, and told them some things of the young people of that earlier time that brought their laughter and their tears.

He was asked to distribute the diplomas, and he undertook the work in his own way. He took an armful of them and said to the graduates:

“Take one. Pick out a good one. Don’t take two, but be sure you get a good one.”

So each took one “unsight and unseen” aid made the more exact distributions among themselves later.

Next morning it was Saturday — he visited the old home on Hill Street, and stood in the doorway all dressed in white while a battalion of photographers made pictures of “this return of the native” to the threshold of his youth.

“It all seems so small to me,” he said, as he looked through the house; “a boy’s home is a big place to him. I suppose if I should come back again ten years from now it would be the size of a birdhouse.”

He went through the rooms and up-stairs where he had slept and looked out the window down in the back yard where, nearly sixty years before, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Joe Harper, and the rest — that is to say, Tom Blankenship, John Briggs, Will Pitts, and the Bowen boys — set out on their nightly escapades. Of that lightsome band Will Pitts and John Briggs still remained, with half a dozen others — schoolmates of the less adventurous sort. Buck Brown, who had been his rival in the spelling contests, was still there, and John Robards, who had worn golden curls and the medal for good conduct, and Ed Pierce. And while these were assembled in a little group on the pavement outside the home a small old man came up and put out his hand, and it was Jimmy MacDaniel, to whom so long before, sitting on the river-bank and eating gingerbread, he had first told the story of Jim Wolfe and the cats.

They put him into a carriage, drove him far and wide, and showed the hills and resorts and rendezvous of Tom Sawyer and his marauding band.

He was entertained that evening by the Labinnah Club (whose name was achieved by a backward spelling of Hannibal), where he found most of the survivors of his youth. The news report of that occasion states that he was introduced by Father McLoughlin, and that he “responded in a very humorous and touchingly pathetic way, breaking down in tears at the conclusion. Commenting on his boyhood days and referring to his mother was too much for the great humorist. Before him as he spoke were sitting seven of his boyhood friends.”

On Sunday morning Col. John Robards escorted him to the various churches and Sunday-schools. They were all new churches to Samuel Clemens, but he pretended not to recognize this fact. In each one he was asked to speak a few words, and he began by saying how good it was to be back in the old home Sunday-school again, which as a boy he had always so loved, and he would go on and point out the very place he had sat, and his escort hardly knew whether or not to enjoy the proceedings. At one place he told a moral story. He said:

Little boys and girls, I want to tell you a story which illustrates the value of perseverance — of sticking to your work, as it were. It is a story very proper for a Sunday-school. When I was a little boy in Hannibal I used to play a good deal up here on Holliday’s Hill, which of course you all know. John Briggs and I played up there. I don’t suppose there are any little boys as good as we were then, but of course that is not to be expected. Little boys in those days were ‘most always good little boys, because those were the good old times when everything was better than it is now, but never mind that. Well, once upon a time, on Holliday’s Hill, they were blasting out rock, and a man was drilling for a blast. He sat there and drilled and drilled and drilled perseveringly until he had a hole down deep enough for the blast. Then he put in the powder and tamped and tamped it down, but maybe he tamped it a little too hard, for the blast went off and he went up into the air, and we watched him. He went up higher and higher and got smaller and smaller. First he looked as big as a child, then as big as a dog, then as big as a kitten, then as big as a bird, and finally he went out of sight. John Briggs was with me, and we watched the place where he went out of sight, and by and by we saw him coming down first as big as a bird, then as big as a kitten, then as big as a dog, then as big as a child, and then he was a man again, and landed right in his seat and went to drilling just persevering, you see, and sticking to his work. Little boys and girls, that’s the secret of success, just like that poor but honest workman on Holliday’s Hill. Of course you won’t always be appreciated. He wasn’t. His employer was a hard man, and on Saturday night when he paid him he docked him fifteen minutes for the time he was up in the air — but never mind, he had his reward.

He told all this in his solemn, grave way, though the Sunday-school was in a storm of enjoyment when he finished. There still remains a doubt in Hannibal as to its perfect suitability, but there is no doubt as to its acceptability.

That Sunday afternoon, with John Briggs, he walked over Holliday’s Hill — the Cardiff Hill of Tom Sawyer. It was jest such a Sunday as that one when they had so nearly demolished the negro driver and had damaged a cooper-shop. They calculated that nearly three thousand Sundays had passed since then, and now here they were once more, two old men with the hills still fresh and green, the river still sweeping by and rippling in the sun. Standing there together and looking across to the low-lying Illinois shore, and to the green islands where they had played, and to Lover’s Leap on the south, the man who had been Sam Clemens said:

“John, that is one of the loveliest sights I ever saw. Down there by the island is the place we used to swim, and yonder is where a man was drowned, and there’s where the steamboat sank. Down there on Lover’s Leap is where the Millerites put on their robes one night to go to heaven. None of them went that night, but I suppose most of them have gone now.”

John Briggs said:

“Sam, do you remember the day we stole the peaches from old man Price and one of his bow-legged niggers came after us with the dogs, and how we made up our minds that we’d catch that nigger and drown him?”

They came to the place where they had pried out the great rock that had so nearly brought them to grief. Sam Clemens said:

“John, if we had killed that man we’d have had a dead nigger on our hands without a cent to pay for him.”

And so they talked on of this thing and that, and by and by they drove along the river, and Sam Clemens pointed out the place where he swam it and was taken with a cramp on the return swim, and believed for a while that his career was about to close.

“Once, near the shore, I thought I would let down,” he said, “but was afraid to, knowing that if the water was deep I was a goner, but finally my knees struck the sand and I crawled out. That was the closest call I ever had.”

They drove by the place where the haunted house had stood. They drank from a well they had always known, and from the bucket as they had always drunk, talking and always talking, fondling lovingly and lingeringly that most beautiful of all our possessions, the past.

“Sam,” said John, when they parted, “this is probably the last time we shall meet on this earth. God bless you. Perhaps somewhere we shall renew our friendship.”

“John,” was the answer, “this day has been worth thousands of dollars to me. We were like brothers once, and I feel that we are the same now. Good-by, John. I’ll try to meet you — somewhere.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00