The Value of First-Hand Book Research – Norman Rockwell & Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer Whitewashing Fence

I plan to write a post about the places I’ve visited as background research for my memoir.  However, I decided to write about my trip to Hannibal, Missouri first.  I visited the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum last week.  Like every Twain lover, I just had to make the pilgrimage to the home of one of America’s greatest authors.  While my visit was purely for interest, it turns out that Norman Rockwell made the same trip for professional reasons.

The famous artist was commissioned to illustrate special editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  The museum contains a great deal of Rockwell’s spectacular work in both sketch and final form.  More interesting, was the fact that Rockwell was the only illustrator of Twain’s literature to have visited Hannibal (at the time of his commission).  I recently picked up a book called Normal Rockwell Illustrator by Arthur L. Guptill.  It contains the following quote by Rockwell.

“I’m the only illustrator of the Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn stories who ever went to Hannibal, Missouri, to see the place.  I wondered before I went there if I could absorb the feeling of Mark Twain had put into his writing.  I certainly tried!  The whole town of Hannibal lives in the memories of Tom and Huck–or rather, of Mark Twain.  He depicted things just as they actually were.”

The museum indicates that Rockwell discovered a number of inconsistencies between his preconceived thoughts and the actual places in Hannibal.  Most notably, he visited the famous cave, which is described in Tom Sawyer where Tom and Becky got lost, and found that the stalagmites were growing horizontally rather than vertically (I arrived too late for the cave tour, so cannot offer my first-hand knowledge).

Norman Rockwell completed a chapter heading, eight paintings in full color and a drawing for the binding of both books to complete his commission.  Rockwell said “Every illustrator appreciates the opportunity afforded by a fine book written by a great author.”  I think it’s safe to say that in the case of the Twain special editions, Twain lovers are all thankful for a great illustrator as well!

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