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This Monday, November 30, is the 180th anniversary of the day Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) arrived in the world, and the occasion is being celebrated at two literary sites associated with the writer.

Mark TwainTwain’s distinctive facial feature is being touted during a birthday bash at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum (above left) in Hannibal, Missouri. Part of the festivities include a Mustache Contest with categories such as the “Mark Twain” for the one that bears the greatest resemblance to the writer’s own (dubbed the Walrus) and the “Dapper Stache,” the one most full of character and originality (styling aids are encouraged). November 28, 1 p.m. There is a $5 fee to enter the contest, and prizes will be awarded to the winners.

The Mark Twain House & Museum (above right) in Hartford, Connecticut, is hosting a reading of “Colonel Sellers: Reanimated,” based on one of the writer’s forgotten pieces—with a twist. Steampunk and zombie stories like The Walking Dead are currently in vogue, but Twain was well ahead of the trend. In 1883, he and a friend penned a play, Colonel Sellers as a Scientist, that contained elements of both but was panned by critics. In “Colonel Sellers: Reanimated,” playwright and Mark Twain House staffer Jacques Lamarre has refashioned the original into a Steampunk-zombie mash-up comedy. November 30, 7 p.m. Tickets are $10; $5 for members.

At both events, revelers will be served birthday cake and given a sneak peek at the designs of Mark Twain commemorative coins in gold and silver to be released by the U.S. Mint in early 2016. A portion of the purchase price of the coins will benefit four sites: The Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, New York; the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley; the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford; and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal. We’ll share more details about the coins soon.

If you love Mark Twain, food or American history, look no further for your summer beach read than the newly published book Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. The author uses the palate of America’s great humorist to celebrate and explore native foodstuffs. Naturally, Twain was a very well-traveled person–but having eaten his way through France, England, Germany and other places on his Grand European Tour, Twain professed himself thoroughly bored with local fare and composed a wish list of American foods his palate most missed.

A few of those dishes such as steak, turkey, and corn on the cob continue to appeal to contemporary palates, but others on the list, such as possum, frogs, and turtles, shock our modern sensibilities. Though the author follows Twain’s life and literary works along loosely chronological lines, he intersperses his own firsthand experiences, such as observing Illinois prairie chickens in mating season and attending an Arkansas raccoon supper. The result is an engaging look at food, history, storytelling and of course the work of Mark Twain.

pilaster_houseOne of our readers, Gary Wyatt, wrote in to tell us the unfortunate news that Grant’s Drugstore, where Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) once lived, has been placed on Missouri Preservation’s “Most Endangered Buildings” list.  The writer’s father died there while the family resided in rooms over the pharmacy and  he mentions it several times in his autobiography. The building, which currently houses a recreation of a period drug store and is a part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex in Hannibal, was discovered to be in danger of collapse. Donations are being solicited to undertake critical restoration work. Among the many ways you can support the Twain legacy and the historic boyhood sites associated with him are by applying for a Mark Twain VISA card (a portion of all sales will be donated to the museum at no cost to the consumer), by signing a petition to designate 2010 as “The Year of Mark Twain” (2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the author’s death), or by simply donating a dollar for each Twain book you have read to contribute to the museum’s “One Book, One Buck” program.

becky_thatcher_homeThanks in part to the previous donations of Twain fans, restoration work is proceeding on another important site within the Hannibal historic complex–the Becky Thatcher home. The little white frame house (which last week was revealed to have been painted beige during Becky’s time) was once the home of Laura Hawkins, Mark Twain’s childhood sweetheart and the model for Becky. The house is expected to reopen to visitors this fall.

buildingIn the meantime, visitors to Hannibal can still see  the many other wonderful sites within the museum complex, including the Twain family’s small frame house at 208 Hill Street , which has been recreated with period furniture, and the Museum Gallery, originally an 1850s department store that is now home to many fascinating exhibits about Twain’s life.  On display in Hannibal are many Twain artifacts like one of his famous white jackets (believed to be the only one still in existence), his writing desk, chair and typewriter.

Appearing on the cover of the July 14th issue of Time magazine is Mark Twain. Several articles explore Twain’s literary legacy and how a century ago he addressed still-familiar issues like race, religion, and war — and why it’s especially fitting to remember his acerbic honesty and deadly wit during an election year.

In a piece titled “The Seriously Funny Man,” Richard Lacayo writes that by the late 19th century Twain was “the first writer to enjoy the kind of fame reserved until then for Presidents, generals and barn-burning preachers.” Lacayo then goes on to explain why today’s political humorists owe a nod to Twain: “Not quite a century after his death, in 1910, we get a lot of our news from people like him — funnymen (and -women) who talk about things that are not otherwise funny at all. This is an election year in which some of the most closely followed commentators are comedians like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and the cast of Saturday Night Live. All of them are descended from that man in the white suit.”

The issue also includes a two-page spread highlighting Twain’s success as a travel writer. A map traces his voyages around the world and listed are his travel narratives, which include The Innocents Abroad (his first full-length book and the bestselling of his works during his lifetime), Roughing It (his adventures in the American West and Hawaii), Life on the Mississippi (his tenure as a riverboat pilot, a profession he claimed to love “far better than any I have followed since”), and Following the Equator (a record of the round-the-world lecture tour he undertook to pay off his debts).

Briefly mentioned in the article “Mark Twain: Our Original Superstar” by Roy Blount Jr. is the fact that Twain’s mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, is facing foreclosure due to financial difficulties. It’s shameful that a place where people can go to learn about the life of “our original superstar” might no longer exist. It’s certainly no laughing matter. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

It wasn’t difficult for me to decide which book to take along on vacation last week. Mark Twain’s Roughing It seemed fitting reading for the adventure my husband, Brian, and I undertook: rafting some 240 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

In his travelogue Twain recounts some colorful escapades, among them working as a reporter in Carson City, Nevada, where he began using his famous pseudonym (he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and visiting the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) where he stayed at a hotel perched on the edge of a volcano on the Big Island.

Twain also recalls a 200-mile trek on foot through Nevada to prospect for silver, and he writes, “We all confess to a gratified thrill at the thought of ‘camping out.’” My own adventure included camping out for six nights — most of which were spent sleeping under the stars — and traversing some of the biggest white water in North America. The trip was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done and quite a feat for two people who had never before been rafting or camping.

Twain’s spirit of adventure was prevalent throughout the trip, from rafting down the river to making camp on a different stretch of beach each night to taking in the dramatic and varied canyon scenery. Our group of twenty-seven passengers (a terrific bunch!) voyaged with Canyoneers, and the excellent crew not only knew how to navigate the waters but how to make delicious prime rib and homemade brownies in such a rustic setting.

And somehow I think intrepid traveler Mark Twain would approve of our guide Brandon’s motto for riding the rapids: Go big or go home. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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