Two hundred years after its discovery, a cave made famous by Mark Twain’s cultural masterpiece, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, has finally revealed its greatest secret, and I had to see it for myself.
My family and I are driving from South Florida to the Pacific Northwest. My hair is still matted from camping overnight at an obscure but immaculate state park in Southern Illinois. I spend breakfast people watching at the town gas station where the unexpected rural hubbub is a new spectacle for this East-Coast traveler more comfortable in Asia than the Heartland. After two years abroad, my hope for this trip is to rediscover Americana—to see past divisive differences through to what makes America.
I’m sent a CNN article about discovering Mark Twain’s lost signature inside a cave. The nineteenth century American novelist easily places among the country’s favorite and most influential writers. Many of Twain’s tales of youthful mischief are set along the Mississippi River where he grew up. Mark Twain came of age in Hannibal, Missouri where he’s now the town hero. Businesses are named after his characters. Seventh graders compete to represent the town as official Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher ambassadors. And the bedrock of the town’s historical pride is the Mark Twain Cave.
Needle in a Haystack
Twain describes this cave in remarkable detail several times, most notably in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For decades, visitors have searched for the author’s autograph among the estimated 250,000 names and inscriptions collected since a hunter stumbled on the cave chasing a cougar in 1819. And now, it seems, Mark Twain’s boyhood signature has been found at last. Seeing the discovery for myself feels like a good place to continue my quest for the soul of my country.
Preface, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
MOST of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.
The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story—that is to say, thirty or forty years ago.
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
What Makes a Great American Novel?
With my GPS set, my thoughts wander to all the other Americans who’ve made this overland trek across the continent. There were railroaders and 49ers, cowboys and dust bowl farmers. Field after field whiz by, and I feel I’m on some modern Oregon Trail under the same big skies. I turn on a LibriVox audiobook of Tom Sawyer, which I haven’t read since my own school days. I want to listen with adult ears and understand what makes Tom Sawyer’s journey a great American novel.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer captures an era. The Midwest’s pre-Civil War period is an important patch in America’s quilt, and Twain’s witty prose relates vivid details about what life was like. The dialog enshrines local sayings and accents with phonetic spellings. Twain describes cultural markers like faith and superstition with an honest exploration of folks’ reverence and hypocrisy. He explores relatable childhood memories, such as playground economics, young love, and behavioral discipline. The contrast between these tales and readers’ experiences down through history illuminate what made Twain’s time unique. Controversially, the story also captures prevailing prejudices of the day. And Tom Sawyer is accessible to everyone from academics exploring the zeitgeist of the age to children learning how to dupe their friends into doing their chores.
Ultimately, Mark Twain’s most powerful tool is nostalgia. The narrator is a retrospective adult telling an old story. The youthful emotions he describes are powerful and timeless. It’s one reason a book published in 1876 can still feel so relevant. And like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the town of Hannibal and the Mark Twain Cave have nostalgia in spades.
Visiting Mark Twain Cave
The U.S. interstate system is a billboard contest. Shops, inns, produce stands, museums, and myriad other tourist traps vie to host a traveler’s next rest stop. Roadside kitsch is as predictable as it is American. I generally do my best to avoid campy side trips, but in the interest of exploration, I’m willing to tolerate one or two on this trip. I’m surprised and happy to find that the Mark Twain Cave is less a gimmick than it is a time capsule.
The site has been a national natural registered landmark since 1972. A young, knowledgeable, and well-spoken guide leads the last tour of the day into the cave. The passageways are tastefully illuminated, revealing thousands upon thousands of names and dates etched and scrawled onto the primordial limestone. It’s a fascinating guestbook chronicling multitudinous American visitors to the cave, many of whom were Twain devotees paying homage to his favorite natural wonder.
The tour pauses about a dozen times at various places of interest. There’s a spot where fallout rations were stored during the Cuban Missile Crisis and a formation that Norman Rockwell used in his painting of Tom and Becky in the cave. Several tour stops give shape to scenes in the book, and it’s clear that Twain’s story is grounded in real experiences.
We also pause where Jesse James may have had a hideout. His signature is cordoned off to protect it, but a photo at the end of the tour and the testimony of some historians confirm that one of America’s most infamous outlaws sought refuge here. But it’s not Jesse James’s autograph that I’ve come to see.
Face to Face with Mark Twain’s Signature
For now, the location of Twain’s signature is a closely guarded secret. Rediscovered only two months before my visit, and reviewed by historians even more recently than that, the Mark Twain Cave is still planning its preservation strategy. Twain’s signature is expected to go on public display sometime during the Fall of 2019. Nevertheless, after the tour was over and the mineral-rich gift shop was closed, my tour guide kindly brought me back inside the cave to see where Samuel Langhorne Clemens had signed his name. At the time of writing, I’ve been asked not to publish exactly where the signature is, but I can attest to having walked within inches of it during the tour.
It is a deeply humanizing moment.
My guide shines his flashlight into a cozy crevice at eye level on the wall. The name “Clemens” is unmistakeable. Upon closer inspection, it looks like the writer first tried to etch “Sam Clemens” into the rock, but reverted to ink or graphite for greater contrast. It is a deeply humanizing moment. I’m standing in the spot where Mark Twain signed his real name. I imagine the adolescent Clemens wrapped in chilly darkness and silence, holding a candle, leaning into the rock face, scraping his pen over the rough rock. I sense his young ambition—the desire to leave his mark on the world. And I realize, that in a small way, the cave helped him do just that. And this, too, is part of the American spirit.
The American Spirit
We Americans want to leave a legacy. We want the next generation to be happier than our own. Our industry and creativity help us solve problems, whether we are painting fences, wooing a lover, making our way in the world, or even bringing criminals to justice. Being American, I’ve decided, is investing our hard work and ingenuity into leaving our mark on a better world.
I want to thank Mark Twain Cave for giving me special access to see the Sam Clemens inscription. This article is not sponsored.