“I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or hands on, that was the chief. I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp, wooded point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of me, and go to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and just as I was beginning to succeed to my satisfaction, we would draw up toward it and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and fold back into the bank! If there had been a conspicuous dead tree standing upon the very point of the cape, I would find that tree inconspicuously merged into the general forest, and occupying the middle of a straight shore, when I got abreast of it! No prominent hill would stick to its shape long enough for me to make up my mind what its form really was, but it was as dissolving and changeful as if it had been a mountain of butter in the hottest corner of the tropics. Nothing ever had the same shape when I was coming downstream that it had borne when I went up.”—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)
On this day in 1859, 23-year-old Samuel Clements (later known as Mark Twain), after two years of apprenticeship, received his full steamboat pilot’s license in St. Louis, certifying his navigational mastery of the mighty Mississippi. Or as great a mastery as it was possible for a river as changeable and threatening as the one in this “Quote of the Day.”
In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot memorably likened the Mississippi to a “a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable.” Given the famously tortured relationship that Twain displayed toward the real deity in his writings, it’s not a surprise that he regarded the river with equal ambivalence. It was as capricious as a being who could try to destroy the human race at the time of Noah’s Ark—or change the course of the life of a Missouri boy.
His job even provided him with a new identity: “Mark Twain” is a pseudonym derived from a nautical term for two fathoms, or 12 feet, deep.
Twain spent another two years as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War broke out, closing off river commerce and forcing him to seek another occupation. But the experience completely reshaped his world—a fact you can still view graphically in a visit to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn., a 19-room red mansion whose whimsical design--filled with turrets, balconies, verandas and embrasures--also looks, from a certain angle, like a steamboat.
If the river made an impression on Twain with its beauty and wildness, the mass of humanity who journeyed on it and lined its banks made an entirely different kind on the young man. "In that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with all the familiar types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history.” That included, inevitably, more than a few ruffians and rogues he would later satirize.
All of this would be recorded, in prose as stunning and original as anything America had seen to date, on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which followed on the heels of Life on the Mississippi. Indeed, the rush of inspiration that produced Twain’s picaresque gem of a novel about a river boy and a runaway slave probably would not have resulted if not for the labor of love that was his earlier reminiscence.
Like much of his work, Life on the Mississippi is a travelogue, but it is also one of the first attempts in American literature of the nostalgic commemoration of a once-vital commercial enterprise. Twenty years after the outbreak of hostilities between North and South—a period marked by the coming of an even mightier transportation revolution, the railroad—Twain was shocked and saddened by the changes in riverine life that occurred in the interim. Still, from his deep well of memory, he created an unforgettable picture of the American steamboat of his childhood and how its appearance could transform a sleepy river town:
“Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those remote 'points;' instantly a negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, 'S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!' and the scene changes! The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf. Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time. And the boat IS rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys, with a gilded device of some kind swung between them; a fanciful pilot-house, a glass and 'gingerbread', perched on top of the 'texas' deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat's name; the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with clean white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff; the furnace doors are open and the fires glaring bravely; the upper decks are black with passengers; the captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys-- a husbanded grandeur created with a bit of pitch pine just before arriving at a town.”
Twain’s masterpiece of creative nonfiction—an amalgam of memoir and history, with even a sneak preview of Huckleberry Finn—confirmed the promise of his opening sentence: “The Mississippi is well worth reading about.”