Twain Scholars Celebrate The Career of Henry Sweets, Director of Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum

Earlier this summer, Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri announced that he would stepping down at the end of the year, entering a partial retirement while still continuing to act as the museum’s curator and no doubt an invaluable resource for the new director. Shortly after this announcement, Cindy Lovell wrote a thoughtful summary of Henry’s career. As she put it, “Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed paths with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets.”

Many of those enthusiasts were also scholars. At the Clemens Conference in July, the Center for Mark Twain Studies joined with the Mark Twain Circle to present Henry with the Thomas A. Tenney Award for service to Mark Twain Studies. We also wanted to give individuals scholars a platform to offer their thoughts on Henry’s long and distinguished career. We hope you enjoy the following testimonials.


In the opening chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway ponders the truth of an observation his father made to him as a child—that is, “A sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.”  This line epitomizes my perception of Henry Sweets, who is, without question, one of the most fundamentally decent human beings I have ever met. He is unfailingly kind (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him raise his voice or speak a harsh word about anyone or anything), generous to a fault, and admirably steadfast in his commitment to advancing the legacy of Mark Twain.  His vision and leadership have been instrumental in shaping the Boyhood Home and Museum. As Twainians, we are most fortunate to have Henry in our midst.

Kerry Driscoll, Professor Emerita of English at University of St. Joseph, Author of Mark Twain Among The Indians (2018)


Henry Sweets is perhaps the most aptly named person ever. He is amazingly nice—but he is also very focused on his work. In his long tenure with the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, he has successfully overseen the preservation of important historic sites and the updating of the museum. Especially impressive is the way he has dealt with criticism of the museum and the way it represents the history of African Americans and slavery. Henry did not run from controversy; instead, he found ways to incorporate this troubling but important aspect of Mark Twain’s life and works. When I think of Mark Twain in Hannibal, I think of Henry Sweets. His devotion to Mark Twain and to his and Henry’s hometown have made him one of the most important people in the Twain legacy and in the legacy of the town. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement, Henry!

John Bird, Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University, Author of Mark Twain & Metaphor (2007)


Before Henry Sweets took the lead, the Mark Twain legacy in his home town was paltry and literally on the verge of collapse. The house needed expensive work to stop it from crumbling into the Hill Street mud; exhibits and memorabilia were packed into one cramped building next door; the street outside was a jumble of in-and-out sedans and milling visitors; and beyond that, a heavy dose of imagination prior knowledge were required to see Sam’s formative years on a visit to the Hannibal downtown. With Henry, all of that has changed – so dramatically and successfully that everyone in our trade, and thousands of other people, know it without a recap. In light of that, just a couple of sidelights: 

In the spring of 1993, rebelling against a century of big-scale work to turn it into a sequence of regulated lakes, the Mississippi River system rose up and flooded hundreds of square miles in the upper Midwest, washing away farms, landings, railroad tracks, city waterfronts, bluffs and bends, hill-top cemeteries, you name it. The damage was enormous. Assisted by National Guard troops and volunteers from all over the region, the people of Hannibal plunged into building ramparts of sandbags and moving everything they could to higher and safer ground. This went on for weeks. Already more than dozen years into his Directorship, Henry had overseen the complete restoration of the boyhood house only a few months before the River topped the levees, and now he was at the center of saving not only the Clemens historical fabric but also the heart of the town he grew up in.

Along with everything else he looked after, Henry had to deal with the national and international media, calling in or sending reporters and film crews to ask inane questions and get in the way.  Two hundred miles off, in the dry flats of central Illinois, I was getting calls like that, but only a paltry fraction of what Henry had to deal with in the heart of the action. Often they wanted to know what we thought Mark Twain would have thought of all this – and true to form, Henry responded with his famously unshakable tact, substance, and good humor. If any crisis has rattled him – finances, local politics, scholastic fussiness, or outbreaks of crackpot fandom (Mark Twain being, as far as I know, the only classic American author who’s liable to that) -I’ve never seen or heard of it.  

And we mustn’t forget the special duty of coping with those crackpots. One instance: few years back, another genius who fancied himself a medium of sorts for the Great Man began roving around Hannibal in the standard getup (mustache, bushy wig, white linen suit, cigar stump), ventilating whatever nonsense came into his head (sometimes flat-out offensive) and fostering the impression that these were Words of the Master. This had to be stopped, and after tactful efforts to set this charlatan straight, Henry and the Museum secured a court order to keep him away from the properties. And true to form, one of the news outlets tried to stir up outrage about this move: “Mark Twain Banned in His Own Home Town!” – something contorted like that.  Anyway, you can think of a dozen Twain scholars who would have dived for the phones, condemning the story, flaming the idiots behind it, and making things worse. But also true to form: reason, patience, and honest geniality were what Henry offered instead. In better times and in crazy ones, he has done so much to strengthen and clarify the Mark Twain presence in the heartland, and in such an indefatigably positive spirit.  No one could have done it better.

Bruce Michelson, Professor Emeritus of English at University of Illinois, Author of Mark Twain On The Loose (1995) & Printer’s Devil (2006)


Alliteratively speaking, I’ve always thought of Henry Sweets as a wonderfully wise, warm, and welcoming ambassador for Mark Twain and that ever-expanding realm of scholarship that has grown up around the earlier son of Hannibal, Missouri. It would be quite impossible to count the number of people Henry has touched and guided and encouraged – scholars and schoolchildren, teachers and tourists, academics and even some actors who enjoy crawling into a white suit and trying their best approximation of Samuel Clemens.

But, of late, I realized that I’ve shortchanged Henry. That happens with people who go about their business in such a calm and understated way, showing up each day and making a difference. He merits a higher title than ambassador. Can anyone doubt or dispute that here is a true prince of the realm (and a prince of a fellow, as everyone sharing their thoughts on Henry has pointed out)? I don’t want to be the fifty-third Twain devotee to point out how splendidly he lives up to his last name, but doggone it, Henry, it has become a cliché for a mighty good reason, and you have only yourself to blame.

Henry’s accomplishments have been enumerated and properly celebrated (anyone who has not read Cindy Lovell’s marvelous tribute should stop right here, find it, then circle back . . . I’ll wait). OK, now, I suspect that Henry also is the type to be bit embarrassed by all the praise and attention, but, once again, he has only himself to blame.

Henry won’t remember this, but we talked long before we met. That was just a little more than twenty-six years ago. The shape of the river was uncertain during that summer of 1993. I spent a good deal of that July in a Hollywood hotel, on business for the newspaper. Periodically, my thoughts drifted about 1,800 miles east to Hannibal, Missouri, and daily reports about the rising Mississippi waters. The copy of USA Today delivered to the hotel room door contained a story wondering if the sandbagging and floodgates would be enough. Levees had been failing along the river, and the devastation was beyond alarming. Finally, I could take it no longer. I found the number for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and called it. Henry answered. “We’re fine,” he said, ever the steady presence in the pilot house. “We’re dry.” And then he took the time to explain just how close a call it had been for his hometown.

There was a State of Mark Twain Studies Conference that summer in Elmira, and, although I had joined the Mark Twain Circle, I didn’t go. I felt as if I hadn’t earned a place at such a gathering. Four years later, Tom Tenney convinced me of two things: how foolish this thinking was and how welcome I would be. One of the people who most engagingly drove home that point in 1997 was Henry Sweets. How fortunate Hannibal, Mark Twain, and Mark Twain Studies are to have such an ambassador. I realized that from the start, yet I failed to recognize royalty . . . and the genuine article, too, not the Duke-and-the-King variety. Mark Twain told an audience in 1907, “Praise is well, compliment is well, but affection – that is the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win, whether by character or achievement.” It is an exercise in understatement to point out that Henry has won our affection by character and achievement.

Mark Dawidziak, TV Critic at Cleveland Plain Dealer, Editor of Mark Twain for Cat Lovers (2016) & Mark My Words (1996)


Henry has had a steady hand on the wheel up in Hannibal for many years now, and I admire his tenacity and wisdom. It’s not always been an easy job, nor pleasant. For one thing, academics usually forget all about fundraising and budgets unless they are in the administration. I know that paying the bills and salaries has always been a top priority for the Boyhood Home & Museum, and that Henry has done a splendid job with that. As such, he has been an effective ambassador for the Mark Twain community at large. 

Despite all these priorities and responsibilities, however, the most striking thing about Henry has been how welcoming he always is to members of the Twain scholarly family. More than once I have brought out-of-town visitors up to Hannibal to see the sites. During those visits, Henry has always made special time to talk and show people around, and often enjoy a meal together. I’m sure he had many other things to attend to, but he made it a priority to honor scholars in the field, and make them feel special in their visit. So for me, it’s been the personal touch that has meant a lot. Henry genuinely cares about other people, and it shows.

Hal Bush, Professor of English at St. Louis University, Author of Mark Twain & The Spiritual Crisis of His Age (2007)


I’ve heard several Twain folks say that we behave differently than other single-author groups do. Our group tends to be open-minded and receptive, willing to accept new thinking even when it is difficult and threatens well-established views. Our group does not belittle or castigate. We disagree with each other. We think critically about boldly unconventional assertions, but when faced with these our folks do not make ad hominem attacks. We’re tough, but we’re not mean. This inspires fresh ideas and new methods, and it encourages a refreshing diversity of participants. Usually responses are not to reject, but to ask pointed questions that will make new ideas clearer and stronger.

Much of this “culture” comes from Mark Twain – the respect the group has for the author himself who was admirable, but not perfect. The group thinks critically and behaves civilly, even under pressure. 

And this serves as a testimony to Henry Sweets, who embodies this sense of decency and respect. The friendship and esteem our group has for Henry reflects the cohesiveness and intellectual camaraderie of the Twain folks. It does our group well to honor one who has contributed much to this identity. We don’t merely take his hard work and dedication for granted, ho hum, but we praise it and acknowledge our gratitude for it. We are the better for Henry’s commitment and high personal conduct. He is us at our best.

Terry Oggel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Author of numerous articles on Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine, & American Literature


Henry Sweets: an epitome of learned and gracious decency.  Enjoy retirement.

Tom Quirk, Professor Emeritus at University of Missouri, Author of Mark Twain & Human Nature (1997)

Author of Award-Winning Novel “Flood” Continues the Fall Trouble Begins Series

The fall portion of the 2018-2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, October 24 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

“Writing from Roots in ‘America’s Hometown’: Flood, a Novel” by Melissa Scholes Young, American University

Literature and life often claim you can’t go home again, but what happens if you have to? In this book talk and author reading, Melissa Scholes Young will chronicle how Mark Twain’s own exodus from Hannibal parallels Laura Brooks’, the protagonist of her debut novel, Flood, who like the Mississippi River, once ran in the wrong direction in order to recalibrate. She’ll share her historical research and creative writing process as well as explore whyTwain’s origin in rural America is more relevant than ever.

“Filled with pithy dialogue and cultural references, Scholes Young’s writing ties Laura’s journey of self-discovery squarely to Hannibal and its famous young troublemakers. As Laura reckons with her past, Scholes Young reckons with Twain’s influence on the region. This debut is a wonderful story of home, hope, and the ties that bind us to family.” – Publishers Weekly

Melissa Scholes Young is an associate professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. and a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of the anthology Grace in Darkness. Her debut novel, Flood, set in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown she shares with Mark Twain, was the winner in Literary Fiction for the 2017 Best Book Award.

Here is Kevin Mac Donnell’s review of Flood: A Novel from the Mark Twain Forum Reviews.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

The Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri (July 25-27, 2019)

THE CLEMENS CONFERENCE July 25-27, 2019
HANNIBAL, MISSOURI

Click here for the 2019 Clemens Conference Schedule

Click here to register for the 2019 Clemens Conference

Who: Mark Twain fans, friends, and scholars gathering to celebrate Mark Twain’s legacy and to share experiences.

What: Jam-packed three days including 30 Mark Twain paper presentations, special speakers, field trips to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, Jim’s Journey Museum, a riverboat ride on the Mississippi River, cave exploration, and a trip to Florida, Missouri for the Mark Twain Birthplace and the John Quarles farm site. The full schedule will be available soon on our web site.

Where: Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home. The conference is centered on the campus of Hannibal-LaGrange University, a four-year Christian university affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention (Southern Baptist). Hannibal-LaGrange University is a smoke and alcohol-free campus.

Where to stay: Hannibal-LaGrange University has air-conditioned dormitory rooms available at $20/$30 per night. Contact [email protected]. Hannibal has a variety of motels and bed & breakfast options. A listing is available at www.visithannibal.com.

When: Attend an opening reception in the Mark Twain Museum Gallery Thursday evening, July 24. The conference begins Thursday morning, July 25 and runs through the evening riverboat dinner cruise Saturday night, July 27.

Why: To bring together kindred minds to share scholarship and tall tales related to Mark Twain and to advance Mark Twain scholarship through the papers being presented.

How Much? The full registration is $325. This includes –

            Wednesday evening reception at the Mark Twain Museum Gallery

            Choice of 30 research presentations

            Special speakers and keynote address

            All field trips

            Three meals Thursday, Friday and Saturday and breakfast Sunday

If you cannot attend the full conference, contact Henry Sweets with your anticipated attendance and pro-rated fees will be available.

How to Get to Hannibal: Driving is an option and directions for orienting one to Hannibal are available. The closest large airport is St. Louis, Missouri, about two hours driving time from Hannibal. Car rentals are available as well as shuttles (that can be expensive). An alternative is Sky West (United Express) with flights from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Quincy, Illinois. We will arrange to pick up conference attendees at the Quincy airport at no charge.

More Information or Questions – contact

            Henry Sweets, Executive Director

            Mark Twain Museum

            120 North Main Street

            Hannibal  MO  63401 U.S.A.

            573-221-9010

            [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Twain Forum Reviews – Flood: A Novel by Melissa Scholes Young

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Flood: A Novel. Melissa Scholes Young. Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2017. Pp. 321. Hardcover $26.00. ISBN 978-1-4789-7078 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4789-7076-7 (ebook).

There is a homeplace in nearly every American novel. Sometimes it’s the focus of the story; other times it’s in the background. But every protagonist has fled their homeplace, or fled and returned–or else never left at all. Those who flee take some of their homeplace with them. Homeplaces haunt, choke, nourish, comfort, and extinguish the spirit, often all at once. They are populated with family we did not choose, including some we’d never choose. They swarm with friends we didn’t choose either; we just grew up with them as they revealed their flaws a little at a time, and we adjusted and forgave along the way. Even the dead and the absent are alive in the homeplace, insisting on remembrance.

Homeplaces have gravitational pulls that are barely escaped, and which never fully subside. If your life founders on a rocky foreign shore, the homeplace is where you return to heal. They offer strength and loyalty and faith and acceptance–or convincing illusions of these all-American virtues. If our homeplaces are flawed, so are we, and we can hardly face life without one, whether we left one, never left, or have returned to one. Homeplaces are mythic, and yet we all have one.

Hannibal, Missouri is the homeplace of Laura Brooks, the Huck-like heroine of Melissa Young’s debut novel, Flood, and Laura’s life as a nurse in Florida has unexpectedly faltered ten years after she fled Hannibal during a great flood on July 4th, 1993. Home was confining and suffocating, and populated with the sort of family and friends who tear you down and hold you back. The town is preoccupied with Tom and Becky and has yet to come to grips with Huck and Jim. There are haves and have-nots. The haves make money off the swarms of tourists and never get flooded, but if you are a have-not you get flooded and you spend what money you have at the local Walmart “where half your social life happens in the parking lot” (147). But the have-nots do have style–even their babies have mullets (265).

Floods define the place, and so does the lottery if you are a have-not. After driving twenty-two hours non-stop to get home, Laura learns that the Mississippi River is rising toward another major flood, and finds her mother dozing in her recliner in front of the TV waiting for an update on the flood stages and her Lotto numbers. “When you can see the Mississippi out your windows, flood stages are your religion. And when you can’t imagine how to dig yourself out of your hole, you put your faith in the Powerball” Laura muses (2-3). Young knows her people and captures them with the right words, and she also knows her homeplace bugs. When Laura opens a “dirty window to let in some fresh air” she notices that a “parade of dead flies rests belly-up on the sill, their legs reaching toward freedom” (7-8). Emily Dickinson knew the metaphoric value of one live fly, and Young knows the value of a bunch of dead ones with their eyes on the prize. She knows her Mark Twain too. No sooner is Laura home that she is thinking of leaving again: “Anywhere but here. Sometimes being stuck is worse than staying put. What we need is a signal, a mark twain, to show us that the water is deep enough for us to get out” (82). And she knows that “the only thing harder in Hannibal’s hierarchy than being poor and white was being respectable and black” (112).

So, what could possibly keep her home? Friends and family? She and her mother have a dysfunctional relationship. Her best friend Rose is going through a divorce from her husband Josh (aka “The Bastard”) who has money for booze but not for the antibiotics needed by his son Bobby. He marks the heel of his boots with crossed nails to keep away the Devil. It doesn’t work. To make ends meet, Rose, who is not the model of stability, embezzles from her employer, and must borrow the last of Laura’s savings to avoid jail and losing her son. Laura’s father puts in a brief appearance to steal something from her mother. His stomach is a fish-belly white. Laura’s Aunt Betty is dependable and “when in doubt, she feeds people” (231). Every Laura should have an Aunt Betty. Laura’s brother Trey is a drug-addict who dreams of a better life. Finally, there’s Laura’s old boyfriend, Sammy, the reason she left in the first place because he was the only reason she had for staying, but he disappointed her. Yet the very sight of him, his touch, his smell, just the thought of him, sends Laura into spasms of yearning and confusion. Twainians will by now have recognized some allusions to Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Josh, Sammy, Laura, an absent thieving father, crossed nails in boots, fish-belly white, and an aunt who plays a much-needed maternal role.

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

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The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.