The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XII. Renewing an Old Ambition

A reader of Mark Twain’s Mississippi book gets the impression that the author was a boy of about seventeen when he started to learn the river, and that he was painfully ignorant of the great task ahead. But this also is the fiction side of the story. Samuel Clemens was more than twenty-one when he set out on the “Paul Jones,” and in a way was familiar with the trade of piloting. Hannibal had turned out many pilots. An older brother of the Bowen boys was already on the river when Sam Clemens was rolling rocks down Holliday’s Hill. Often he came home to air his grandeur and hold forth on the wonder of his work. That learning the river was no light task Sam Clemens would know as well as any one who had not tried it.

Nevertheless, as the drowsy little steamer went puffing down into softer, sunnier lands, the old dream, the “permanent ambition” of boyhood, returned, while the call of the far-off Amazon and cocoa drew faint.

Horace Bixby,[2] pilot of the “Paul Jones,” a man of thirty-two, was looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a slow, pleasant voice say, “Good morning.”

Bixby was a small, clean-cut man. “Good morning, sir,” he said, rather briskly, without looking around.

He did not much care for visitors in the pilothouse. This one entered and stood a little behind him.

“How would you like a young man to learn the river?” came to him in that serene, deliberate speech.

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

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

“I am a printer by trade,” the easy voice went on. “It doesn’t agree with me. I thought I’d go to South America.”

Bixby kept his eye on the river, but there was interest in his voice when he spoke. “What makes you pull your words that way?” he asked–"pulling" being the river term for drawling.

The young man, now seated comfortably on the visitors’ bench, said more slowly than ever: “You’ll have to ask my mother–she pulls hers, too.”

Pilot Bixby laughed. The manner of the reply amused him. His guest was encouraged.

“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. I know Sam, too, and Bart.”

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

Bixby’s tone became friendly. “Come over and stand by me,” he said. “What is your name?”

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

“Do you drink?”


“Do you gamble?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you swear?”

“N-not for amusement; only under pressure.”

“Do you chew?”

“No, sir, never; but I must–smoke.”

“Did you ever do any steering?”

“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 on the bench where he could keep a careful eye on the course. By and by he said “There is just one way 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 seemed discouraging.

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

Bixby shook his head. “No,” he said, “I don’t want any unimproved real estate. I have too much already.”

Sam reflected. He thought he might be able to borrow one hundred dollars from William Moffett, Pamela’s husband, without straining his credit.

“Well, then,” he proposed, “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 at the wheel, his evident simplicity and sincerity–the inner qualities of mind and heart which would make the world love Mark Twain. The terms proposed were accepted. The first payment was to be in cash; the others were to begin when the pupil had learned the river and was earning wages. During the rest of the trip to New Orleans the new pupil was often at the wheel, while Mr. Bixby nursed his sore foot and gave directions. Any literary ambitions that Samuel Clemens still nourished waned rapidly. By the time he had reached New Orleans he had almost forgotten he had ever been a printer. As for the Amazon and cocoa, why, there had been no ship sailing in that direction for years, and it was unlikely that any would ever sail again, a fact that rather amused the would-be adventurer now, since Providence had regulated his affairs in accordance with his oldest and longest cherished dream.

At New Orleans Bixby left the “Paul Jones” for a fine St. Louis boat, taking his cub with him. This was a sudden and happy change, and Sam was a good deal impressed with his own importance in belonging to so imposing a structure, especially when, after a few days’ stay in New Orleans, he stood by Bixby’s side in the big glass turret while they backed out of the line of wedged-in boats and headed up the great river.

This was glory, but there was sorrow ahead. He had not really begun learning the river as yet he had only steered under directions. He had known that to learn the river would be hard, but he had never realized quite how hard. Serenely he had undertaken the task of mastering 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. Nobody could realize the full size of that task–not till afterward.

[2] Horace Bixby lived until 1912 and remained at the wheel until within a short time of his death, in his eighty-seventh year. The writer of this memoir visited him in 1910 and took down from his dictation the dialogue that follows.


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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The boys' life of Mark Twain: The story of a man who made the world laugh and love him
By Albert Bigelow Paine
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