Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXII

The Old Call of the River

When spring came, with budding life and quickening impulses; when the trees in the parks began to show a hint of green, the Amazonian idea developed afresh, and the would-be coca-hunter prepared for his expedition. He had saved a little money — enough to take him to New Orleans — and he decided to begin his long trip with a peaceful journey down the Mississippi, for once, at least, to give himself up to that indolent luxury of the majestic stream that had been so large a part of his early dreams.

The Ohio River steamers were not the most sumptuous craft afloat, but they were slow and hospitable. The winter had been bleak and hard. “Spring fever” and a large love of indolence had combined in that drowsy condition which makes one willing to take his time.

Mark Twain tells us in Life on the Mississippi that he “ran away,” vowing never to return until he could come home a pilot, shedding glory. This is a literary statement. The pilot ambition had never entirely died; but it was coca and the Amazon that were uppermost in his head when he engaged passage on the Paul Jones for New Orleans, and so conferred immortality on that ancient little craft. He bade good-by to Macfarlane, put his traps aboard, the bell rang, the whistle blew, the gang-plank was hauled in, and he had set out on a voyage that was to continue not for a week or a fortnight, but for four years — four marvelous, sunlit years, the glory of which would color all that followed them.

In the Mississippi book the author conveys the impression of being then a boy of perhaps seventeen. Writing from that standpoint he records incidents that were more or less inventions or that happened to others. He was, in reality, considerably more than twenty-one years old, for it was in April, 1857, that he went aboard the Paul Jones; and he was fairly familiar with steamboats and the general requirements of piloting. He had been brought up in a town that turned out pilots; he had heard the talk of their trade. One at least of the Bowen boys was already on the river while Sam Clemens was still a boy in Hannibal, and had often been home to air his grandeur and dilate on the marvel of his work. That learning the river was no light task Sam Clemens very well knew. Nevertheless, as the little boat made its drowsy way down the river into lands that grew ever pleasanter with advancing spring, the old “permanent ambition” of boyhood stirred again, and the call of the far-away Amazon, with its coca and its variegated zoology, grew faint.

Horace Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones, then a man of thirty-two, still living (1910) and at the wheel,13 was looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a slow, pleasant voice say:

13 [The writer of this memoir interviewed Mr. Bixby personally, and has followed his phrasing throughout.]

“Good morning.”

Bixby was a clean-cut, direct, courteous man.

“Good morning, sir,” he said, briskly, without looking around.

As a rule Mr. Bixby did not care for visitors in the pilot-house. This one presently came up and stood a little behind him.

“How would you like a young man to learn the river?” he said.

The pilot glanced over his shoulder and saw a rather slender, loose-limbed young fellow with a fair, girlish complexion and a great tangle of auburn hair.

“I wouldn’t like it. Cub pilots are more trouble than they’re worth. A great deal more trouble than profit.”

The applicant was not discouraged.

“I am a printer by trade,” he went on, in his easy, deliberate way. “It doesn’t agree with me. I thought I’d go to South America.”

Bixby kept his eye on the river; but a note of interest crept into his voice.

“What makes you pull your words that way?” (“pulling” being the river term for drawling), he asked.

The young man had taken a seat on the visitors’ bench.

“You’ll have to ask my mother,” he said, more slowly than ever. “She pulls hers, too.”

Pilot Bixby woke up and laughed; he had a keen sense of humor, and the manner of the reply amused him. His guest made another advance.

“Do you know the Bowen boys?” he asked —“pilots in the St. Louis and New Orleans trade?”

“I know them well — all three of them. William Bowen did his first steering for me; a mighty good boy, too. Had a Testament in his pocket when he came aboard; in a week’s time he had swapped it for a pack of cards. I know Sam, too, and Bart.”

“Old schoolmates of mine in Hannibal. Sam and Will especially were my chums.”

“Come over and stand by the side of me,” he said. “What is your name?”

The applicant told him, and the two stood looking at the sunlit water.

“Do you drink?”


“Do you gamble?”

“No, Sir.”

“Do you swear?”

“Not for amusement; only under pressure.”

“Do you chew?”

“No, sir, never; but I must smoke.”

“Did you ever do any steering?” was Bixby’s next question.

“I have steered everything on the river but a steamboat, I guess.”

“Very well; take the wheel and see what you can do with a steamboat. Keep her as she is — toward that lower cottonwood, snag.”

Bixby had a sore foot and was glad of a little relief. He sat down on the bench and kept a careful eye on the course. By and by he said:

“There is just one way that I would take a young man to learn the river: that is, for money.”

“What do you charge?”

“Five hundred dollars, and I to be at no expense whatever.”

In those days pilots were allowed to carry a learner, or “cub,” board free. Mr. Bixby meant that he was to be at no expense in port, or for incidentals. His terms looked rather discouraging.

“I haven’t got five hundred dollars in money,” Sam said; “I’ve got a lot of Tennessee land worth twenty-five cents an acre; I’ll give you two thousand acres of that.”

Bixby dissented.

“No; I don’t want any unimproved real estate. I have too much already.”

Sam reflected upon the amount he could probably borrow from Pamela’s husband without straining his credit.

“Well, then, I’ll give you one hundred dollars cash and the rest when I earn it.”

Something about this young man had won Horace Bixby’s heart. His slow, pleasant speech; his unhurried, quiet manner with the wheel, his evident sincerity of purpose — these were externals, but beneath them the pilot felt something of that quality of mind or heart which later made the world love Mark Twain. The terms proposed were agreed upon. The deferred payments were to begin when the pupil had learned the river and was receiving pilot’s wages. During Mr. Bixby’s daylight watches his pupil was often at the wheel, that trip, while the pilot sat directing him and nursing his sore foot. Any literary ambitions Samuel Clemens may have had grew dim; by the time they had reached New Orleans he had almost forgotten he had been a printer, and when he learned that no ship would be sailing to the Amazon for an indefinite period the feeling grew that a directing hand had taken charge of his affairs.

From New Orleans his chief did not return to Cincinnati, but went to St. Louis, taking with him his new cub, who thought it fine, indeed, to come steaming up to that great city with its thronging water-front; its levee fairly packed with trucks, drays, and piles of freight, the whole flanked with a solid mile of steamboats lying side by side, bow a little up-stream, their belching stacks reared high against the blue — a towering front of trade. It was glorious to nose one’s way to a place in that stately line, to become a unit, however small, of that imposing fleet. At St. Louis Sam borrowed from Mr. Moffett the funds necessary to make up his first payment, and so concluded his contract. Then, when he suddenly found himself on a fine big boat, in a pilot-house so far above the water that he seemed perched on a mountain — a “sumptuous temple”— his happiness seemed complete.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00