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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXIV. The River Curriculum
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
"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