Mark Twain on “Coming Home”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in skmurphy

In the later chapters of Life on the Mississippi,  Mark Twain wrote about returning to his home town of Hannibal after many years. In this excerpt he offers a number of insights about coming home.

“During my three days’ stay in the town, I woke up every morning with the impression that I was a boy–for in my dreams the faces were all young again, and looked as they had looked in the old times– but I went to bed a hundred years old, every night–for meantime I had been seeing those faces as they are now.

Of course I suffered some surprises, along at first, before I had become adjusted to the changed state of things. I met young ladies who did not seem to have changed at all; but they turned out to be the daughters of the young ladies I had in mind–sometimes their grand-daughters. When you are told that a stranger of fifty is a grandmother, there is nothing surprising about it; but if, on the contrary, she is a person whom you knew as a little girl, it seems impossible. You say to yourself, ‘How can a little girl be a grandmother.’ It takes some little time to accept and realize the fact that while you have been growing old, your friends have not been standing still, in that matter.

I noticed that the greatest changes observable were with the women, not the men. I saw men whom thirty years had changed but slightly; but their wives had grown old. These were good women; it is very wearing to be good.”
from “Chapter 55: A vendetta and other things” in Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

I am not yet to the stage of mistaking the grandchild of a friend for the friend, but it’s surprising how many of the high school and college age children of my friends resemble my memories of them than their current appearance. More than one Christmas card has arrived with just the children in a photograph and it’s sometimes taken me a minute or two to realize that it’s not my friends or relatives.

It’s also a little scary how much my brother and I have come to resemble my father. When I look at pictures of my brother smiling I see simultaneously a boy in his early teens and my father, the two impressions flickering back and forth like a figure/ground optical illusion where you cannot tell if you are looking at a vase or two people having a conversation.

Twain was born in 1835 and finished “Life on the Mississippi” in 1883 which means he wrote it in his 40’s (the first part was published as a series of seven short stories in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875). He would live another thirty years and experience much heartache–bankruptcy, prolonged illness, the death of his daughter and then his wife. In a speech he gave two decades he reflected on this briefly before stressing the need to persevere.

“When a man stands on the verge of seventy-two you know perfectly well that he never reached that place without knowing what this life is–heartbreaking bereavement. And so our reverence is for our dead. We do not forget them; but our duty is toward the living; and if we can be cheerful in spirit, cheerful in speech and in hope, that is a benefit to those who are around us.”
Mark Twain in a speech in London on June 25, 1907 called “Books, Authors, and Hats” (see Mark Twain’s Speeches)

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