Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XCVIII

“Old Times on the Mississippi”

Howells had been urging Clemens to do something more for the Atlantic, specifically something for the January number. Clemens cudgeled his brains, but finally declared he must give it up:

Mrs. Clemens has diligently persecuted me day by day with urgings to go to work and do that something, but it’s no use. I find I can’t. We are in such a state of worry and endless confusion that my head won’t go.

Two hours later he sent another hasty line:

I take back the remark that I can’t write for the January number, for Twichell and I have had a long walk in the woods, and I got to telling him about old Mississippi days of steam-boating glory and grandeur as I saw them (during four years) from the pilot-house. He said, “What a virgin subject to hurl into a magazine!” I hadn’t thought of that before. Would you like a series of papers to run through three months or six or nine — or about four months, say?

Howells welcomed this offer as an echo of his own thought. He had come from a piloting family himself, and knew the interest that Mark Twain could put into such a series.

Acting promptly under the new inspiration, Clemens forthwith sent the first chapter of that monumental, that absolutely unique, series of papers on Mississippi River life, which to-day constitutes one of his chief claims to immortality.

His first number was in the nature of an experiment. Perhaps, after all, the idea would not suit the Atlantic readers.

“Cut it, scarify it, reject it, handle it with entire freedom,” he wrote, and awaited the result.

The “result” was that Howells expressed his delight:

The piece about the Mississippi is capital. It almost made the water in our ice-pitcher muddy as I read it. I don’t think I shall meddle much with it, even in the way of suggestion. The sketch of the low-lived little town was so good that I could have wished there was more of it. I want the sketches, if you can make them, every month.

Mark Twain was now really interested in this new literary venture. He was fairly saturated with memories. He was writing on the theme that lay nearest to his heart. Within ten days he reported that he had finished three of the papers, and had begun the fourth.

And yet I have spoken of nothing but piloting as a science so far, and I doubt if I ever get beyond that portion of my subject. And I don’t care to. Any Muggins can write about old days on the Mississippi of five hundred different kinds, but I am the only man alive that can scribble about the piloting of that day, and no man has ever tried to scribble about it yet. Its newness pleases me all the time, and it is about the only new subject I know of.

He became so enthusiastic presently that he wanted to take Howells with him on a trip down the Mississippi, with their wives for company, to go over the old ground again and obtain added material enough for a book. Howells was willing enough — agreed to go, in fact — but found it hard to get away. He began to temporize and finally backed out. Clemens tried to inveigle Osgood into the trip, but without success; also John Hay, but Hay had a new baby at his house just then —“three days old, and with a voice beyond price,” he said, offering it as an excuse for non-acceptance. So the plan for revisiting the river and the conclusion of the book were held in abeyance for nearly seven years.

Those early piloting chapters, as they appeared in the Atlantic, constituted Mark Twain’s best literary exhibit up to that time. In some respects they are his best literature of any time. As pictures of an intensely interesting phase of life, they are so convincing, so real, and at the same time of such extraordinary charm and interest, that if the English language should survive a thousand years, or ten times as long, they would be as fresh and vivid at the end of that period as the day they were penned. In them the atmosphere of, the river and its environment — its pictures, its thousand aspects of life — are reproduced with what is no less than literary necromancy. Not only does he make you smell the river you can fairly hear it breathe. On the appearance of the first number John Hay wrote:

“It is perfect; no more nor less. I don’t see how you do it,” and added, “you know what my opinion is of time not spent with you.”

Howells wrote:

You are doing the science of piloting splendidly. Every word interesting, and don’t you drop the series till you’ve got every bit of anecdote and reminiscence into it.

He let Clemens write the articles to suit himself. Once he said:

If I might put in my jaw at this point I should say, stick to actual fact and character in the thing and give things in detail. All that belongs to the old river life is novel, and is now mostly historical. Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear.

Clemens replied that he had no dread of the Atlantic audience; he declared it was the only audience that did not require a humorist to “paint himself striped and stand on his head to amuse it.”

The “Old Times” papers ran through seven numbers of the Atlantic. They were reprinted everywhere by the newspapers, who in that day had little respect for magazine copyrights, and were promptly pirated in book form in Canada. They added vastly to Mark Twain’s literary capital, though Howells informs us that the Atlantic circulation did not thrive proportionately, for the reason that the newspapers gave the articles to their readers from advanced sheets of the magazine, even before the latter could be placed on sale. It so happened that in the January Atlantic, which contained the first of the Mississippi papers, there appeared Robert Dale Owen’s article on “Spiritualism,” which brought such humility both to author and publisher because of the exposure of the medium Katie King, which came along while the magazine was in press. Clemens has written this marginal note on the opening page of the copy at Quarry Farm:

While this number of the Atlantic was being printed the Katie King manifestations were discovered to be the cheapest, wretchedest shams and frauds, and were exposed in the newspapers. The awful humiliation of it unseated Robert Dale Owen’s reason, and he died in the madhouse.

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