The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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XIII. Learning the River

In that early day, to be a pilot was to be “greater than a king.” The Mississippi River pilot was a law unto himself–there was none above him. His direction of the boat was absolute; he could start or lay up when he chose; he could pass a landing regardless of business there, consulting nobody, not even the captain; he could take the boat into what seemed certain destruction, if he had that mind, and the captain was obliged to stand by, helpless and silent, for the law was with the pilot in everything.

Furthermore, the pilot was a gentleman. His work was clean and physically light. It ended the instant the boat was tied to the landing, and did not begin again until it was ready to back into the stream. Also, for those days his salary was princely–the Vice-President of the United States did not receive more. As for prestige, the Mississippi pilot, perched high in his glass inclosure, fashionably dressed, and commanding all below him, was the most conspicuous and showy, the most observed and envied creature in the world. No wonder Sam Clemens, with his love of the river and his boyish fondness for honors, should aspire to that stately rank. Even at twenty-one he was still just a boy–as, indeed, he was till his death–and we may imagine how elated he was, starting up the great river as a real apprentice pilot, who in a year or two would stand at the wheel, as his chief was now standing, a monarch with a splendid income and all the great river packed away in his head.

In that last item lay the trouble. In the Mississippi book he tells of it in a way that no one may hope to equal, and if the details are not exact, the truth is there–at least in substance.

For a distance above New Orleans Mr. Bixby had volunteered information about the river, naming the points and crossings, in what seemed a casual way, all through his watch of four hours. Their next watch began in the middle of the night, and Mark Twain tells how surprised and disgusted he was to learn that pilots must get up in the night to run their boats, and his amazement to find Mr. Bixby plunging into the blackness ahead as if it had been daylight. Very likely this is mainly fiction, but hardly the following:

Presently he turned to me and said: “What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?”

I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.

“Don’t know!”

His manner jolted me. I was down at the foot again, in a moment. But I had to say just what I had said before.

“Well, you’re a smart one,” said Mr. Bixby. “What’s the name of the next point?”

Once more I didn’t know.

“Well, this beats anything! Tell me the name of any point or place I told you.”

I studied awhile and decided that I couldn’t.

“Look here! What do you start from, above Twelve Mile Point, to cross over?”

“I–I–don’t know.”

“’You–you don’t know,"’ mimicking my drawling manner of speech. “What do you know?”

“I–I–Nothing, for certain.”

Bixby was a small, nervous man, hot and quick-firing. He went off now, and said a number of severe things. Then:

“Look here, what do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?”

I tremblingly considered a moment–then the devil of temptation provoked me to say: “Well–to–to–be entertaining, I thought.”

This was a red flag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judged it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was, because he was brimful, and here were subjects who would talk back. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption followed as I had never heard before . . . . When he closed the window he was empty. Presently he said to me, in the gentlest way:

“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.”

The little memorandum-book which Sam Clemens bought, probably at the next daylight landing, still exists–the same that he says “fairly bristled with the names of towns, points, bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc."; but it made his heart ache to think he had only half the river set down, for, as the watches were four hours off and four hours on, there were the long gaps where he had slept.

It is not easy to make out the penciled notes today. The small, neat writing is faded, and many of them are in an abbreviation made only for himself. It is hard even to find these examples to quote:


One-fourth less 3[3]–run shape of upper bar and go into the low place in the willows about 200 (ft.) lower down than last year.


Six or eight feet more water. Shape bar till high timber on towhead gets nearly even with low willows. Then hold a little open on right of low willows–run ’em close if you want to, but come out 200 yards when you get nearly to head of towhead.

The average mind would not hold a single one of these notes ten seconds, yet by the time he reached St. Louis he had set down pages that to-day make one’s head weary even to contemplate. And those long four-hour gaps where he had been asleep–they are still there; and now, after nearly sixty years, the old heartache is still in them. He must have bought a new book for the next trip and laid this one away.

To the new “cub” it seemed a long way to St. Louis that first trip, but in the end it was rather grand to come steaming up to the big, busy city, with its thronging waterfront flanked with a solid mile of steamboats, and to nose one’s way to a place in that stately line.

At St. Louis, Sam borrowed from his brother-in-law the one hundred dollars he had agreed to pay, and so closed his contract with Bixby. A few days later his chief was engaged to go on a very grand boat indeed–a “sumptuous temple,” he tells us, all brass and inlay, with a pilot-house so far above the water that he seemed perched on a mountain. This part of learning the river was worth while; and when he found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully “sir’d” him, his happiness was complete.

But he was in the depths again, presently, for when they started down the river and he began to take account of his knowledge, he found that he had none. Everything had changed–that is, he was seeing it all from the other direction. What with the four-hour gaps and this transformation, he was lost completely.

How could the easy-going, dreamy, unpractical man whom the world knew as Mark Twain ever have persisted against discouragement like that to acquire the vast, the absolute, limitless store of information necessary to Mississippi piloting? The answer is that he loved the river, the picturesqueness and poetry of a steamboat, the ease and glory of a pilot’s life; and then, in spite of his own later claims to the contrary, Samuel Clemens, boy and man, in the work suited to his tastes and gifts, was the most industrious of persons. Work of the other sort he avoided, overlooked, refused to recognize, but never any labor for which he was qualified by his talents or training. Piloting suited him exactly, and he proved an apt pupil.

Horace Bixby said to the writer of this memoir: “Sam was always good- natured, and he had a natural taste for the river. He had a fine memory and never forgot what I told him.”

Yet there must have been hard places all along, for to learn every crook and turn and stump and snag and bluff and bar and sounding of that twelve hundred miles of mighty, shifting water was a gigantic task. Mark Twain tells us how, when he was getting along pretty well, his chief one day turned on him 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 replied respectfully and 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 that is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn’t got the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime.”

“How on earth am I 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!”

But the reader must turn to Chapter VIII of “Life on the Mississippi” and read, or reread, the pages which follow this extract–nothing can better convey the difficulties of piloting. That Samuel Clemens had the courage to continue is the best proof, not only of his great love of the river, but of that splendid gift of resolution that one rarely fails to find in men of the foremost rank.

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


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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By Albert Bigelow Paine
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