Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXVII

The Pilot

The young pilot returned to the river as steersman for George Ealer, whom he loved, and in September of that year obtained a full license as Mississippi River pilot.18 Bixby had returned by this time, and they were again together, first on the Crescent City, later on a fine new boat called the New Falls City. Clemens was still a steersman when Bixby returned; but as soon as his license was granted (September 9, 1858) his old chief took him as full partner.

18 [In Life on the Mississippi he gives his period of learning at from two to two and a half years; but documentary evidence as well as Mr. Bixby’s testimony places the apprenticeship at eighteen months]

He was a pilot at last. In eighteen months he had packed away in his head all the multitude of volatile statistics and acquired that confidence and courage which made him one of the elect, a river sovereign. He knew every snag and bank and dead tree and reef in all those endless miles between St. Louis and New Orleans, every cut-off and current, every depth of water — the whole story — by night and by day. He could smell danger in the dark; he could read the surface of the water as an open page. At twenty-three he had acquired a profession which surpassed all others for absolute sovereignty and yielded an income equal to that then earned by the Vice-President of the United States. Boys generally finish college at about that age, but it is not likely that any boy ever finished college with the mass of practical information and training that was stored away in Samuel Clemens’s head, or with his knowledge of human nature, his preparation for battle with the world.

“Not only was he a pilot, but a good one.” These are Horace Bixby’s words, and he added:

“It is the fashion to-day to disparage Sam’s piloting. Men who were born since he was on the river and never saw him will tell you that Sam was never much of a pilot. Most of them will tell you that he was never a pilot at all. As a matter of fact, Sam was a fine pilot, and in a day when piloting on the Mississippi required a great deal more brains and skill and application than it does now. There were no signal-lights along the shore in those days, and no search-lights on the vessels; everything was blind, and on a dark, misty night in a river full of snags and shifting sand — bars and changing shores, a pilot’s judgment had to be founded on absolute certainty.”

He had plenty of money now. He could help his mother with a liberal hand, and he did it. He helped Orion, too, with money and with advice. From a letter written toward the end of the year, we gather the new conditions. Orion would seem to have been lamenting over prospects, and the young pilot, strong and exalted in his new estate, urges him to renewed consistent effort:

What is a government without energy? [he says]. And what is a man without energy? Nothing — nothing at all. What is the grandest thing in “Paradise Lost”— the Arch-Fiend’s terrible energy! What was the greatest feature in Napoleon’s character? His unconquerable energy! Sum all the gifts that man is endowed with, and we give our greatest share of admiration to his energy. And to-day, if I were a heathen, I would rear a statue to Energy, and fall down and worship it!

I want a man to — I want you to — take up a line of action, and follow it out, in spite of the very devil.

Orion and his wife had returned to Keokuk by this time, waiting for something in the way of a business opportunity.

His pilot brother, wrote him more than once letters of encouragement and council. Here and there he refers to the tragedy of Henry’s death, and the shadow it has cast upon his life; but he was young, he was successful, his spirits were naturally exuberant. In the exhilaration of youth and health and success he finds vent at times in that natural human outlet, self-approval. He not only exhibits this weakness, but confesses it with characteristic freedom.

Putting all things together, I begin to think I am rather lucky than otherwise — a notion which I was slow to take up. The other night I was about to “round to” for a storm, but concluded that I could find a smoother bank somewhere. I landed five miles below. The storm came, passed away and did not injure us. Coming up, day before yesterday, I looked at the spot I first chose, and half the trees on the bank were torn to shreds. We couldn’t have lived 5 minutes in such a tornado. And I am also lucky in having a berth, while all the other young pilots are idle. This is the luckiest circumstance that ever befell me. Not on account of the wages — for that is a secondary consideration-but from the fact that the City of Memphis is the largest boat in the trade, and the hardest to pilot, and consequently I can get a reputation on her, which is a thing I never could accomplish on a transient boat. I can “bank” in the neighborhood of $100 a month on her, and that will satisfy me for the present (principally because the other youngsters are sucking their fingers). Bless me! what a pleasure there is in revenge! — and what vast respect Prosperity commands! Why, six months ago, I could enter the “Rooms,” and receive only the customary fraternal greeting now they say, “Why, how are you, old fellow — when did you get in?”

And the young pilots who use to tell me, patronizingly, that I could never learn the river cannot keep from showing a little of their chagrin at seeing me so far ahead of them. Permit me to “blow my horn,” for I derive a living pleasure from these things, and I must confess that when I go to pay my dues, I rather like to let the d —-d rascals get a glimpse of a hundred-dollar bill peeping out from amongst notes of smaller dimensions whose face I do not exhibit! You will despise this egotism, but I tell you there is a “stern joy” in it.

We are dwelling on this period of Mark Twain’s life, for it was a period that perhaps more than any other influenced his future years. He became completely saturated with the river its terms, its memories, its influence remained a definite factor in his personality to the end of his days. Moreover, it was his first period of great triumph. Where before he had been a subaltern not always even a wage-earner — now all in a moment he had been transformed into a high chief. The fullest ambition of his childhood had been realized — more than realized, for in that day he had never dreamed of a boat or of an income of such stately proportions. Of great personal popularity, and regarded as a safe pilot, he had been given one of the largest, most difficult of boats. Single-handed and alone he had fought his way into the company of kings.

And we may pardon his vanity. He could hardly fail to feel his glory and revel in it and wear it as a halo, perhaps, a little now and then in the Association Rooms. To this day he is remembered as a figure there, though we may believe, regardless of his own statement, that it was not entirely because of his success. As the boys of Hannibal had gathered around to listen when Sam Clemens began to speak, so we may be certain that the pilots at St. Louis and New Orleans laid aside other things when he had an observation to make or a tale to tell.

He was much given to spinning yarns [writes one associate of those days] so funny that his hearers were convulsed, and yet all the time his own face was perfectly sober. If he laughed at all, it must have been inside. It would have killed his hearers to do that. Occasionally some of his droll yarns would get into the papers. He may have written them himself.

Another riverman of those days has recalled a story he heard Sam Clemens tell:

We were speaking of presence of mind in accidents — we were always talking of such things; then he said:

“Boys, I had great presence of mind once. It was at a fire. An old man leaned out of a four-story building calling for help. Everybody in the crowd below looked up, but nobody did anything. The ladders weren’t long enough. Nobody had any presence of mind — nobody but me. I came to the rescue. I yelled for a rope. When it came I threw the old man the end of it. He caught it and I told him to tie it around his waist. He did so, and I pulled him down.”

This was one of the stories that got into print and traveled far. Perhaps, as the old pilot suggests, he wrote some of them himself, for Horace Bixby remembers that “Sam was always scribbling when not at the wheel.”

But if he published any work in those river-days he did not acknowledge it later — with one exception. The exception was not intended for publication, either. It was a burlesque written for the amusement of his immediate friends. He has told the story himself, more than once, but it belongs here for the reason that some where out of the general circumstance of it there originated a pseudonym, one day to become the best-known in the hemispheres the name Mark Twain.

That terse, positive, peremptory, dynamic pen-name was first used by an old pilot named Isaiah Sellers — a sort of “oldest inhabitant” of the river, who made the other pilots weary with the scope and antiquity of his reminiscent knowledge. He contributed paragraphs of general information and Nestorian opinions to the New Orleans Picayune, and signed them “Mark Twain.” They were quaintly egotistical in tone, usually beginning: “My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans,” and reciting incidents and comparisons dating as far back as 1811.

Captain Sellers naturally was regarded as fair game by the young pilots, who amused themselves by imitating his manner and general attitude of speech. But Clemens went further; he wrote at considerable length a broadly burlesque imitation signed “Sergeant Fathom,” with an introduction which referred to the said Fathom as “one of the oldest cub pilots on the river.” The letter that followed related a perfectly impossible trip, supposed to have been made in 1763 by the steamer “the old first Jubilee” with a “Chinese captain and a Choctaw crew.” It is a gem of its kind, and will bear reprint in full today.19

19 [See Appendix B.]

The burlesque delighted Bart Bowen, who was Clemens’s pilot partner on the Edward J. Gay at the time. He insisted on showing it to others and finally upon printing it. Clemens was reluctant, but consented. It appeared in the True Delta (May 8 or 9, 1859), and was widely and boisterously enjoyed.

It broke Captain Sellers’s literary heart. He never contributed another paragraph. Mark Twain always regretted the whole matter deeply, and his own revival of the name was a sort of tribute to the old man he had thoughtlessly wounded. If Captain Sellers has knowledge of material matters now, he is probably satisfied; for these things brought to him, and to the name he had chosen, what he could never himself have achieved — immortality.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05