"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Part 1

Just like the great river bisects the country, this combination memoir/travel book by Mark Twain bifurcates in many ways.  It is shaped as a contrast of opposites, a dualism in perspective.  I had intended for this exploration of Life on the Mississippi to be held to one post, but the complexity of the work stretched this into two posts.  It may just be a memoir and a travel log, but it captures the life and times of two moments in the history of the country, that of pre and post Civil War America.  The work is not as simple as it appears on the surface.

The memoir was written in two distinct moments.  The first part of the novel was written in 1876, the second in 1883, where the two parts were married together.  Second there are a multitude of contrasting perspectives: the inexperienced versus the skilled; the innocent versus the jaundiced; the child versus the adult; the virtuous versus the reprobate; the rural versus the industrial; the north versus the south; the pre-civil war versus the post; the upstream versus the downstream, as Twain voyages aboard Mississippi riverboats. 

That first part, the first twenty-one chapters, is a look back to his childhood growing up on a riverside town and of his initiation into the piloting of river steamboats.  Desire and Romanticism shapes the young boy, and the elder Twain looking back feels nostalgia of an innocent time.  He becomes a trainee pilot, a cub pilot.   

WHAT with lying on the rocks four days at Louisville, and some other delays, the poor old 'Paul Jones' fooled away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to New Orleans.  This gave me a chance to get acquainted with one of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus made the fascination of river life more potent than ever for me.

It also gave me a chance to get acquainted with a youth who had taken deck passage--more's the pity; for he easily borrowed six dollars of me on a promise to return to the boat and pay it back to me the day after we should arrive. But he probably died or forgot, for he never came.  It was doubtless the former, since he had said his parents were wealthy, and he only traveled deck passage because it was cooler.  ['Deck' Passage, i.e. steerage passage.]

I soon discovered two things. One was that a vessel would not be likely to sail for the mouth of the Amazon under ten or twelve years; and the other was that the nine or ten dollars still left in my pocket would not suffice for so imposing an exploration as I had planned, even if I could afford to wait for a ship.  Therefore it followed that I must contrive a new career.  The 'Paul Jones' was now bound for St. Louis. I planned a siege against my pilot, and at the end of three hard days he surrendered.  He agreed to teach me the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, payable out of the first wages I should receive after graduating. I entered upon the small enterprise of 'learning' twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi River with the easy confidence of my time of life.  If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.

The boat backed out from New Orleans at four in the afternoon, and it was 'our watch' until eight. Mr. Bixby, my chief, 'straightened her up,' plowed her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the Levee, and then said, 'Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you'd peel an apple.'  I took the wheel, and my heart-beat fluttered up into the hundreds; for it seemed to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in the line, we were so close.  I held my breath and began to claw the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the pilot who had known no better than to get us into such peril, but I was too wise to express it.  In half a minute I had a wide margin of safety intervening between the 'Paul Jones' and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in disgrace, and Mr. Bixby was going into danger again and flaying me alive with abuse of my cowardice.  I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy confidence with which my chief loafed from side to side of his wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed ceaselessly imminent.  When he had cooled a little he told me that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside, and therefore we must hug the bank, up-stream, to get the benefit of the former, and stay well out, down-stream, to take advantage of the latter.  In my own mind I resolved to be a down-stream pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.
            -from Chpt VI, “A Cub Pilot’s Experience”

All excerpts taken from Literature Network.  

But later we find he has become a fine upstream pilot as well.  Here he finds details the splendor and magnificence of a pilot’s life in the golden age of Mississippi river steam boating. 

By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred miles up the river,  I had learned to be a tolerably plucky up-stream steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I had made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle.  I had a note-book that fairly bristled with the names of towns, 'points,' bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but the information was to be found only in the notebook--none of it was in my head.  It made my heart ache to think I had only got half of the river set down; for as our watch was four hours off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-hour gap in my book for every time I had slept since the voyage began.

My chief was presently hired to go on a big New Orleans boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far above the water that I seemed perched ona mountain; and her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that I wondered how I could ever have considered the little 'Paul Jones' a large craft. There were other differences, too. The 'Paul Jones's 'pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and 'look at the river;' bright, fanciful 'cuspadores' instead of abroad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor;a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black 'texas-tender,' to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night.  Now this was 'something like,' and so I began to take heart once more to believe that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all.  The moment we were under way I began to prowl about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk's office was elegant, the bar was marvelous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible cost.  The boiler deck (i.e. the second story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of deckhands, firemen, and roustabouts down there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers!  This was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines--but enough of this.  I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully 'sir'd' me, my satisfaction was complete.
            -from Chpt VI, “A Cub Pilot’s Experience”

The second part of the work, Twain decides to return to the river a couple of decades later and journey incognito.  He wants to see what is changed on the river from the pre-Civil War days to the industrialized Gilded Age.   

AFTER twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there.  I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down, 'and started westward about the middle of April.

As I proposed to make notes, with a view to printing, I took some thought as to methods of procedure.  I reflected that if I were recognized, on the river, I should not be as free to go and come, talk, inquire, and spy around, as I should be if unknown; I remembered that it was the custom of steam boatmen in the old times to load up the confiding stranger with the most picturesque and admirable lies, and put the sophisticated friend off with dull and ineffectual facts: so I concluded, that, from a business point of view, it would be an advantage to disguise our party with fictitious names.  The idea was certainly good, but it bred infinite bother; for although Smith, Jones, and Johnson are easy names to remember when there is no occasion to remember them, it is next to impossible to recollect them when they are wanted.  How do criminals manage to keep a brand-new ALIAS in mind?  This is a great mystery. I was innocent; and yet was seldom able to lay my hand on my new name when it was needed; and it seemed to me that if I had had a crime on my conscience to further confuse me, I could never have kept the name by meat all.

We left per Pennsylvania Railroad, at 8 A.M. April 18.
            -from Chpt XXII, “I Return to My Muttons”

And so he is going incognito since in the interim years he had become world famous as a writer.  The fact that he left by railroad is germane.  What in the 1850s was the most natural way to head down the center of the country, that is by river boat, was now outdated.  The industrial revolution had created better, more efficient means of traversing the huge country, railroad. 

The further we drove in our inspection-tour, the more sensibly I realized how the city had grown since I had seen it last; changes in detail became steadily more apparent and frequent than at first, too: changes uniformly evidencing progress, energy, prosperity.

But the change of changes was on the 'levee.' This time, a departure from the rule. Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones!  This was melancholy, this was woeful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steam boatman from the billiard-saloon was explained.  He was absent because he is no more. His occupation is gone,
his power has passed away, he is absorbed into the common herd, he grinds at the mill, a shorn Samson and inconspicuous.  Half a dozen lifeless steamboats, a mile of empty wharves, a negro fatigued with whiskey stretched asleep, in a wide and soundless vacancy, where the serried hosts of commerce used to contend!  Here was desolation, indeed.

'The old, old sea, as one in tears,
Comes murmuring, with foamy lips,
And knocking at the vacant piers,
Calls for his long-lost multitude of ships.'

The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and completely. The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads, had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation.
Remains of former steamboat men told me, with wan satisfaction, that the bridge doesn't pay. Still, it can be no sufficient compensation to a corpse, to know that the dynamite that laid him
out was not of as good quality as it had been supposed to be.

The pavements along the river front were bad: the sidewalks were rather out of repair; there was a rich abundance of mud.  All this was familiar and satisfying; but the ancient armies of drays, and struggling throngs of men, and mountains of freight, were gone; and Sabbath reigned in their stead. The immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries remained, but business was dull with them; the multitudes of poison-swilling Irishmen had departed, and in their places were a few scattering handfuls of ragged negroes, some drinking, some drunk, some nodding, others asleep.  St. Louis is a great and prosperous and advancing city; but the river-edge of it seems dead past resurrection.

Mississippi steam boating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.  Of course it is not absolutely dead, neither is a crippled octogenarian who could once jump twenty-two feet on level ground; but as contrasted with what it was in its prime vigor, Mississippi steam boating maybe called dead.

It killed the old-fashioned keel-boating, by reducing the freight-trip to New Orleans to less than a week.  The railroads have killed the steamboat passenger traffic by doing in two or three days what the steamboats consumed a week in doing; and the towing-fleets have killed the through-freight traffic by dragging six or seven steamer-loads of stuff down the river at a time, at an expense so trivial that steamboat competition was out of the question.
            -from Chpt XXII, “I Return to My Muttons”

In that interim period, Twain had also left living in the south and became a northerner.  The return to southern culture certainly pulls him back into his roots, providing a divide between who he was and who he is now.  As one might expect with Twain, language is part of the dichotomy.  Here he has traveled down to New Orleans and starts hearing distinctions.

I found the half-forgotten Southern intonations and elisions as pleasing to my ear as they had formerly been.  A Southerner talks music. At least it is music to me, but then I was born in the South. The educated Southerner has no use for an r, except at the beginning of a word.  He says 'honah,' and 'dinnah,' and 'Gove'nuh,' and 'befo' the waw,' and so on. The words may lack charm to the eye, in print, but they have it to the ear. When did the r disappear from Southern speech, and how did it come to disappear?  The custom of dropping it was not borrowed from the North, nor inherited from England. Many Southerners--most Southerners--put a y into occasional words that begin with the k sound.  For instance, they say Mr. K'yahtah (Carter) and speak of playing k'yahds or of riding in the k'yahs. And they have the pleasant custom--long ago fallen into decay in the North--of frequently employing the respectful 'Sir.'  Instead of the curt Yes, and the abrupt No, they say 'Yes, Suh', 'No, Suh.'

But there are some infelicities. Such as 'like' for 'as,' and the addition of an 'at' where it isn't needed.  I heard an educated gentleman say, 'Like the flag-officer did.'  His cook or his butler would have said, 'Like the flag-officer done.'  You hear gentlemen say, 'Where have you been at?' And here isthe aggravated form--heard a ragged street Arab say it to a comrade:'  I was a-ask'n'  Tom whah you was a-sett'n' at.' The very elect carelessly say 'will' when they mean 'shall'; and many of them say, 'I didn't go to do it,' meaning 'I didn't mean to do it.'  The Northern word 'guess'--imported from England, where it used to be common, and now regarded by satirical Englishmen as a Yankee original--is but little used among Southerners.  They say 'reckon.' They haven't any 'doesn't' in their language; they say 'don't' instead. The unpolished often use 'went' for 'gone.'  It is nearly as bad as the Northern 'hadn't ought.' This reminds me that a remark of a very peculiar nature was made here in my neighborhood (in the North) a few days ago: 'He hadn't ought to have went.  'How is that? Isn't that a good deal of a triumph?  One knows the orders combined in this half-breed's architecture without inquiring: one parent Northern, the other Southern.  To-day I heard a schoolmistress ask, 'Where is John gone?'This form is so common--so nearly universal, in fact--that if she had used 'whither' instead of 'where,' I think it would have sounded like an affectation.
                        -from Chpt XLIV, “City Sights” 

For Twain the sound of a language, its nuances, are just as much a locator of time and place than is the rugged landscape. 


  1. His writing is so evocative. Makes you feel like you are there. Loved the bit about Northern and Southern language, too.

  2. I found the pat about language interesting as well. No one probably understood the American version of English of his time better than Twain. Didn't you say you were originally from the south? You must also be sensitive to northern and southern accents.

  3. No, I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb.I did go to college in Michigan, and though I lack a strong Philly accent, the midwesterners sure thought I talked funny!