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)