Answer Man

August 27, 2014

Reports of Mark Twain's visit to Belleville are greatly exaggerated

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

I recently finished reading an autobiography of Mark Twain. I know he traveled the Mississippi as a young man. Is there any record of him coming to Belleville? -- Mike Oexner

Apparently not, according to David H. Fears -- and if anyone would know, he would.

Starting in 2004, Fears spent eight years poring over every record he could find detailing Mark Twain's every move.

The seed was planted in 1971, when Fears learned that Twain had traveled through his hometown near Portland, Ore., in 1895 en route to starting a world tour to get out of debt. The result is what he calls the ultimate Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain reference -- an exhaustive four-volume, 5,000-plus-page set that tracks Twain's life day by day.

Fears tells me it's logical for you to have expected him to make a quick visit or two to Belleville. After all, Twain, who grew up in Hannibal, Mo., made several stops in St. Louis and even lived there for a time in his younger years. His sister, Pamela, married and settled there.

But after a computerized search of his epic opus, he found no reference to any Belleville. In fact, he found just one mention showing that Clemens, or "Sam" as he refers to him, visited East St. Louis.

It was April 20, 1882, when Sam, then 46 years old, made this observation in Chapter 22 of his "Life on the Mississippi":

"Next morning we drove around (St. Louis) in the rain. The city seemed but little changed. It was greatly changed, but it did not seem so; because in St. Louis, as in London and Pittsburgh, you can't persuade a thing to look new; the coal-smoke turns it into an antiquity the moment you take your hand off it. The place had just about doubled its size since I was a resident of it, and was now become a city of 400,000 inhabitants."

According to Fears, Samuel Clemens noticed "melancholy" and "woeful" changes on the riverfront, too, as railroads were continuing to kill off the steamboat trade. "Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones!" he wrote. "Here was desolation indeed."

But his return to St. Louis also brought pleasant surprises.

"There was another change -- the Forest Park," he wrote. "This was new to me. It is beautiful and very extensive and has the excellent merit of having been made mainly by nature. There are other parks, and fine ones, notably Tower Grove and the Botanical Gardens; for St. Louis interested herself in such improvements at an earlier day than did the most of our cities.

"The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six million dollars," he concluded. "And it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it. It was so bitter now to look abroad over this domed and steepled metropolis, this solid expanse of bricks and mortar stretching away on ever hand into dim, measure-defying distances, and remember that I had allowed that opportunity to go by."

In any case, Sam boarded the Gold Dust, a "Vicksburg packet ... neat, clean and comfortable." It backed away from the dock at 8 p.m. but somehow was still delayed in East St. Louis two hours later

He finally sailed off at 2 a.m. and wound up having a great time in New Orleans, where he and publisher James Osgood met up with fellow writers George Washington Cable and Joel Chandler Harris, who compiled the Uncle Remus stories.

By the way, I also checked the WPA file at the Belleville Public Library and found no mention of Twain or Clemens in any Belleville newspaper. For those interested in Fears, who recently released a bigger and better Volume 1, go to marktwaindaybyday.webs.com. He says it's going to be his last contribution to Twain scholars.

Today's trivia

According to Sigmund Freud, which president had an unresolved Oedipal complex?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: At about 2 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1492, sleeping sailors aboard La Pinta may have been awakened to the cry they had been waiting to hear for more than two months. "Tierra! Tierra! (Land! Land!)" cried Rodrigo de Triana, who is now usually credited for being the first European since the Vikings to see the New World. In his journal, Christopher Columbus mentions that he had seen "light" a few hours before, "but it was so indistinct that he did not dare to affirm it was land." In his lifetime, Triana was never credited for his keen eye and, perhaps as a result, he later moved to Africa and converted from Christianity to Islam. However, he was nearly honored 500 years later when then-Vice President Al Gore proposed a satellite that would provide a nearly continuous view of the entire Earth. Initially called the Triana, it has been renamed the Deep Space Climate Observatory -- or DSCOVR for short. At last word, it is set to launch in January and will provide early warning of solar storms.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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