Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXIV

The River Curriculum

He acquired other kinds of knowledge. As the streets of Hannibal in those early days, and the printing-offices of several cities, had taught him human nature in various unvarnished aspects, so the river furnished an added course to that vigorous education. Morally, its atmosphere could not be said to be an improvement on the others. Navigation in the West had begun with crafts of the flat-boat type — their navigators rude, hardy men, heavy drinkers, reckless fighters, barbaric in their sports, coarse in their wit, profane in everything. Steam-boatmen were the natural successors of these pioneers — a shade less coarse, a thought less profane, a veneer less barbaric. But these things were mainly “above stairs.” You had but to scratch lightly a mate or a deck-hand to find the old keel-boatman savagery. Captains were overlords, and pilots kings in this estate; but they were not angels. In Life on the Mississippi Clemens refers to his chief’s explosive vocabulary and tells us how he envied the mate’s manner of giving an order. It was easier to acquire those things than piloting, and, on the whole, quicker. One could improve upon them, too, with imagination and wit and a natural gift for terms. That Samuel Clemens maintained his promise as to drink and cards during those apprentice days is something worth remembering; and if he did not always restrict his profanity to moments of severe pressure or sift the quality of his wit, we may also remember that he was an extreme example of a human being, in that formative stage which gathers all as grist, later to refine it for the uses and delights of men.

He acquired a vast knowledge of human character. He says:

In that brief, sharp schooling I got personally and familiarly acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have, known him before — met him on the river.

Undoubtedly the river was a great school for the study of life’s broader philosophies and humors: philosophies that avoid vague circumlocution and aim at direct and sure results; humors of the rugged and vigorous sort that in Europe are known as “American” and in America are known as “Western.” Let us be thankful that Mark Twain’s school was no less than it was — and no more.

The demands of the Missouri River trade took Horace Bixby away from the Mississippi, somewhat later, and he consigned his pupil, according to custom, to another pilot — it is not certain, now, to just which pilot, but probably to Zeb Leavenworth or Beck Jolly, of the John J. Roe. The Roe was a freight-boat, “as slow as an island and as comfortable as a farm.” In fact, the Roe was owned and conducted by farmers, and Sam Clemens thought if John Quarles’s farm could be set afloat it would greatly resemble that craft in the matter of good-fellowship, hospitality, and speed. It was said of her that up-stream she could even beat an island, though down-stream she could never quite overtake the current, but was a “love of a steamboat” nevertheless. The Roe was not licensed to carry passengers, but she always had a dozen “family guests” aboard, and there was a big boiler-deck for dancing and moonlight frolics, also a piano in the cabin. The young pilot sometimes played on the piano and sang to his music songs relating to the “grasshopper on the sweet-potato vine,” or to an old horse by the name of Methusalem:

Took him down and sold him in Jerusalem,
A long time ago.

There were forty-eight stanzas about this ancient horse, all pretty much alike; but the assembled company was not likely to be critical, and his efforts won him laurels. He had a heavenly time on the John J. Roe, and then came what seemed inferno by contrast. Bixby returned, made a trip or two, then left and transferred him again, this time to a man named Brown. Brown had a berth on the fine new steamer Pennsylvania, one of the handsomest boats on the river, and young Clemens had become a fine steersman, so it is not unlikely that both men at first were gratified by the arrangement.

But Brown was a fault-finding, tyrannical chief, ignorant, vulgar, and malicious. In the Mississippi book the author gives his first interview with Brown, also his last one. For good reasons these occasions were burned into his memory, and they may be accepted as substantially correct. Brown had an offensive manner. His first greeting was a surly question.

“Are you Horace Bigsby’s cub?”

“Bixby” was usually pronounced “Bigsby” on the river, but Brown made it especially obnoxious and followed it up with questions and comments and orders still more odious. His subordinate soon learned to detest him thoroughly. It was necessary, however, to maintain a respectable deportment — custom, discipline, even the law, required that — but it must have been a hard winter and spring the young steersman put in during those early months of 1858, restraining himself from the gratification of slaying Brown. Time would bring revenge — a tragic revenge and at a fearful cost; but he could not guess that, and he put in his spare time planning punishments of his own.

I could imagine myself killing Brown; there was no law against that, and that was the thing I always used to do the moment I was abed. Instead of going over my river in my mind, as was my duty, I threw business aside for pleasure and killed Brown. I killed Brown every night for a month; not in old, stale, commonplace ways, but in new and picturesque ones — ways that were sometimes surprising for freshness of design and ghastly for situation and environment.

Once when Brown had been more insulting than usual his subordinate went to bed and killed him in “seventeen different ways — all of them new.”

He had made an effort at first to please Brown, but it was no use. Brown was the sort of a man that refused to be pleased; no matter how carefully his subordinate steered, he as always at him.

“Here,” he would shout, “where are you going now? Pull her down! Pull her down! Don’t you hear me? Dod-derned mud-cat!”

His assistant lost all desire to be obliging to such a person and even took occasion now and then to stir him up. One day they were steaming up the river when Brown noticed that the boat seemed to be heading toward some unusual point.

“Here, where are you heading for now?” he yelled. “What in nation are you steerin’ at, anyway? Deyned numskull!”

“Why,” said Sam, in unruffled deliberation, “I didn’t see much else I could steer for, and I was heading for that white heifer on the bank.”

“Get away from that wheel! and get outen this pilothouse!” yelled Brown. “You ain’t fit to become no pilot!”

Which was what Sam wanted. Any temporary relief from the carping tyranny of Brown was welcome.

He had been on the river nearly a year now, and, though universally liked and accounted a fine steersman, he was receiving no wages. There had been small need of money for a while, for he had no board to pay; but clothes wear out at last, and there were certain incidentals. The Pennsylvania made a round trip in about thirty-five days, with a day or two of idle time at either end. The young pilot found that he could get night employment, watching freight on the New Orleans levee, and thus earn from two and a half to three dollars for each night’s watch. Sometimes there would be two nights, and with a capital of five or six dollars he accounted himself rich.

“It was a desolate experience,” he said, long afterward, “watching there in the dark among those piles of freight; not a sound, not a living creature astir. But it was not a profitless one: I used to have inspirations as I sat there alone those nights. I used to imagine all sorts of situations and possibilities. Those things got into my books by and by and furnished me with many a chapter. I can trace the effect of those nights through most of my books in one way and another.”

Many of the curious tales in the latter half of the Mississippi book came out of those long night-watches. It was a good time to think of such things.

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