February 21, 2018

Twain's Life on the Mississippi

On this day in 1883 Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi was published. Much of the book had been printed as a series of articles in The Atlantic eight years earlier. These reminiscences had been popular -- they "made the ice-water in my pitcher turn muddy," said William Dean Howells -- and Twain decided to expand them, seeing an opportunity to bring another high-volume subscription book to market. Because he would need to gather research, he also saw an opportunity to revisit the world of his youth after twenty-one years away, "to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left."

In his autobiography Twain says that his career as a river-boat pilot began in the mid-1850s: "I made up my mind that I would go to the head-waters of the Amazon and collect coca and trade in it and make a fortune.... When I got to New Orleans I inquired about ships leaving for Para and discovered that there weren't any and learned that there probably wouldn't be any during that century." He signed on as an apprentice with Horace Bixby, the pilot who had brought him to New Orleans; on the nostalgia and research trip of 1882, Twain arranged to travel upriver with Bixby. The riverbank was so different that when given a chance to pilot his old route Twain couldn't find any of his remembered landmarks. As a boy he would see a dozen steamboats an hour; now there were maybe a half-dozen a day -- one day he saw only one, though it was called "The Mark Twain." The end of his trip was a three-day stay in hometown Hannibal, Missouri; here he reports bursting into tears because of the changes, because of the familiar look and smell of the mud, because he was no longer Sam Clemens but Mark Twain, the famous author who now traveled with a secretary hired to take down notes so that no profitable impression might be lost.

The following is from Chapter 24, "My Incognito is Exploded." At this point Twain is back in the steamboat's pilot-house for the first time; he is passing himself off as an ordinary tourist, and being treated as one by the pilot:
    Once, when an odd-looking craft, with a vast coal-scuttle slanting aloft on the end of a beam, was steaming by in the distance, he indifferently drew attention to it, as one might to an object grown wearisome through familiarity, and observed that it was an "alligator boat."

    "An alligator boat? What's it for?"
    "To dredge out alligators with."
    "Are they so thick as to be troublesome?"
    "Well, not now, because the Government keeps them down. But they used to be...."
    "Did they actually impede navigation?"
    "Years ago, yes, in very low water; there was hardly a trip, then, that we didn't get aground on alligators."

    It seemed to me that I should certainly have to get out my tomahawk. However, I restrained myself....

    "I should think that dredging out the alligators wouldn't have done much good, because they could come back again right away."
    "If you had had as much experience of alligators as I have, you wouldn't talk lik' that. You dredge an alligator once and he's CONVINCED. It's the last you hear of HIM. He wouldn't come back for pie. If there's one thing that an alligator is more down on than another, it's being dredged....
After another tale about a steamboat pilot who was a consummate liar, the pilot finally explodes the incognito, as promised:
    "Here!" (calling me by name), "YOU take her and lie a while -- you're handier at it than I am. Trying to play yourself for a stranger and an innocent! -- why, I knew you before you had spoken seven words; and I made up my mind to find out what was your little game. It was to DRAW ME OUT. Well, I let you, didn't I? Now take the wheel and finish the watch; and next time play fair, and you won't have to work your passage."

    Thus ended the fictitious-name business. And not six hours out from St. Louis! but I had gained a privilege, any way, for I had been itching to get my hands on the wheel, from the beginning. I seemed to have forgotten the river, but I hadn't forgotten how to steer a steamboat, nor how to enjoy it, either.

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