Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXIII

The Supreme Science

In his Mississippi book Mark Twain has given us a marvelous exposition of the science of river-piloting, and of the colossal task of acquiring and keeping a knowledge requisite for that work. He has not exaggerated this part of the story of developments in any detail; he has set down a simple confession.

Serenely enough he undertook the task of learning twelve hundred miles of the great changing, shifting river as exactly and as surely by daylight or darkness as one knows the way to his own features. As already suggested, he had at least an inkling of what that undertaking meant. His statement that he “supposed all that a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river” is not to be accepted literally. Still he could hardly have realized the full majesty of his task; nobody could do that — not until afterward.

Horace Bixby was a “lightning” pilot with a method of instruction as direct and forcible as it was effective. He was a small man, hot and quick-firing, though kindly, too, and gentle when he had blown off. After one rather pyrotechnic misunderstanding as to the manner of imparting and acquiring information he said:

“My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you a thing put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”

So Sam Clemens got the little book, and presently it “fairly bristled” with the names of towns, points, bars, islands, bends, and reaches, but it made his heart ache to think that he had only half of the river set down; for, as the “watches” were four hours off and four hours on, there were long gaps during which he had slept.

The little note-book still exists — thin and faded, with black water-proof covers — its neat, tiny, penciled notes still, telling, the story of that first trip. Most of them are cryptographic abbreviations, not readily deciphered now. Here and there is an easier line:


1/4 less 3 14 — run shape of upper bar and go into the low place in willows about 200(ft.) lower down than last year.

14 [Depth of water. One-quarter less than three fathoms.]

One simple little note out of hundreds far more complicated. It would take days for the average mind to remember even a single page of such statistics. And those long four-hour gaps where he had been asleep, they are still there, and somehow, after more than fifty years, the old heart-ache is still in them. He got a new book, maybe, for the next trip, and laid this one away.

There is but one way to account for the fact that the man whom the world knew as Mark Twain — dreamy, unpractical, and indifferent to details — ever persisted in acquiring knowledge like that — in the vast, the absolutely limitless quantity necessary to Mississippi piloting. It lies in the fact that he loved the river in its every mood and aspect and detail, and not only the river, but a steam boat; and still more, perhaps, the freedom of the pilot’s life and its prestige. Wherever he has written of the river — and in one way or another he was always writing of it we feel the claim of the old captivity and that it still holds him. In the Huckleberry Finn book, during those nights and days with Huck and Nigger Jim on the raft — whether in stormlit blackness, still noontide, or the lifting mists of morning — we can fairly “smell” the river, as Huck himself would say, and we know that it is because the writer loved it with his heart of hearts and literally drank in its environment and atmosphere during those halcyon pilot days.

So, in his love lay the secret of his marvelous learning, and it is recorded (not by himself, but by his teacher) that he was an apt pupil. Horace Bixby has more than once declared:

“Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river. He had a fine memory and never forgot anything I told him.”

Mark Twain himself records a different opinion of his memory, with the size of its appalling task. It can only be presented in his own words. In the pages quoted he had mastered somewhat of the problem, and had begun to take on airs. His chief was a constant menace at such moments:

One day he turned on me suddenly with this settler:

“What is the shape of Walnut Bend?”

He might as well have asked me my grandmother’s opinion of protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn’t know it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives. . . . I waited. By and by he said:

“My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn’t the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime.”

“How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?”

“How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the shape of it. You can’t see it.”

“Do you mean to say that I’ve got to know all the million trifling variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well as I know the shape of the front hall at home?”

“On my honor, you’ve got to know them better than any man ever did know the shapes of the halls in his own house.”

“I wish I was dead!”

“Now, I don’t want to discourage you, but ——”

“Well, pile it on me; I might as well have it now as another time.”

“You see, this has got to be learned; there isn’t any getting around it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that, if you didn’t know the shape of a shore perfectly, you would claw away from every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it for a solid cape; and, you see, you would be getting scared to death every fifteen minutes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from shore all the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it. You can’t see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know exactly where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when you are coming to it. Then there’s your pitch-dark night; the river is a very different shape on a pitch-dark night from what it is on a starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and mighty dim ones, too; and you’d run them for straight lines, only you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems to be a solid, straight wall (you know very well that in reality there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for you. Then there’s your gray mist. You take a night when there’s one of these grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn’t any particular shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of the oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways. You see ——”

“Oh, don’t say any more, please! Have I got to learn the shape of the river according to all these five hundred thousand different ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make me stoop-shouldered.”

“No! you only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.”

“Very well, I’ll try it; but, after I have learned it, can I depend on it? Will it keep the same form, and not go fooling around?”

Before Mr. Bixby could answer, Mr. W. came in to take the watch, and he said:

“Bixby, you’ll have to look out for President’s island, and all that country clear away up above the Old Hen and Chickens. The banks are caving and the shape of the shores changing like everything. Why, you wouldn’t know the point about 40. You can go up inside the old sycamore snag now.”

So that question was answered. Here were leagues of shore changing shape. My spirits were down in the mud again. Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was that in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.

I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or hands on, that was the chief. I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp, wooded point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of me and go to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and just as I was beginning to succeed to my satisfaction we would draw up to it, and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and fold back into the bank!

It was plain that I had got to learn the shape of the river in all the different ways that could be thought of — upside down, wrong end first, inside out, fore-and-aft, and “thort-ships,”— and then know what to do on gray nights when it hadn’t any shape at all. So I set about it. In the course of time I began to get the best of this knotty lesson, and my self-complacency moved to the front once more. Mr. Bixby was all fixed and ready to start it to the rear again. He opened on me after this fashion:

“How much water did we have in the middle crossing at Hole-in-The-Wall, trip before last?”

I considered this an outrage. I said:

“Every trip down and up the leadsmen are singing through that tangled place for three-quarters of an hour on a stretch. How do you reckon I can remember such a mess as that?”

“My boy, you’ve got to remember it. You’ve got to remember the exact spot and the exact marks the boat lay in when we had the shoalest water, in every one of the five hundred shoal places between St. Louis and New Orleans; and you mustn’t get the shoal soundings and marks of one trip mixed up with the shoal soundings and marks of another, either, for they’re not often twice alike. You must keep them separate.”

When I came to myself again, I said:

“When I get so that I can do that, I’ll be able to raise the dead, and then I won’t have to pilot a steamboat to make a living. I want to retire from this business. I want a slush-bucket and a brush; I’m only fit for a roustabout. I haven’t got brains enough to be a pilot; and if I had I wouldn’t have strength enough to carry them around, unless I went on crutches.”

“Now drop that! When I say I’ll learn a man the river I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.”

We have quoted at length from this chapter because it seems of very positive importance here. It is one of the most luminous in the book so far as the mastery of the science of piloting is concerned, and shows better than could any other combination of words something of what is required of the learner. It does not cover the whole problem, by any means — Mark Twain himself could not present that; and even considering his old-time love of the river and the pilot’s trade, it is still incredible that a man of his temperament could have persisted, as he did, against such obstacles.

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