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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXI. The Return of the Native
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
So each took one "unsight and unseen" and 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
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
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
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."