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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
XCVIII. "Old Times on the Mississippi"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
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."
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
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.