Since this is an historical and autobiographical work, I will first supply the
history of my relationship with Mark Twain. The first book of his I read was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
which is pretty goofy. Tom Sawyer was next, and that was OK. I liked it much better the second time through. Next came Huckleberry Finn,
and that one is great. Each one continued to improve, and by the time I read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, I had fallen in love with his writing.
With this one, well, I think I have fallen in love with him. I have always said that though I like the writings of many authors, there are few authors I
would have probably liked as a person, with Charles Dickens being the exception. I now officially add Mark Twain to the list. This exceptionally fine
history tells the story, not only of the Mighty Mississippi River and her towns and cities, but gives us a magnificent portrait of the man, Samuel Clemens, to
the core of his heart and soul. And a very beautiful heart and soul he must have had. For a complete listing of all Mark Twain's books I have reviewed
on this site, please see his Index Page.
I have a whole page of page numbers with quotes I wanted to include in this review. I will most likely trim that or it will equal a short book, but much of what I say here will be in Twain's own words. I really should call him Clemens, as he did not adopt his pen name until after he had left steamboating. Incidentally, "mark twain" refers to depth soundings before the government stepped in and made the Mississippi "safe.""Twain" referred to two fathoms deep, or twelve feet. Anyways, here's a brief summary of what's in the book, then on to the particulars.
Twain begins with a couple chapters on the discovery of the Mississippi, and some fascinating facts, which I must include here, and I'll bet you'll be surprised. It is the longest river in the world, if one counts its tributaries: 4,300 miles, and is also the crookedest, using 1,300 miles to cover 675, as the crow flies. (Although those figures may differ now, because, at least in Twain's time, before government manipulation set in, its length could shorten by thirty miles or more when it decided to overflow its banks and create a new route, which happened quite frequently.) The image below gives you an idea of what I mean. In Twain's time, it drew water from twenty eight states and fifty-four subordinate rivers, plus hundreds of lesser ones. Get the idea? I'l let you read the book to find out more on that.
Now, a bit about her explorers: De Soto, the first white man to glimpse the Mississippi, did it in 1542. But he didn't think that much of it, and it was 130 years later before another explorer came along. Twain says, "In our day we don't allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel." La Salle, under the French flag of Louis XIV, finally recognized the value of this mighty river, but it was 1681 before he could get together all that he needed for his cruise. Meanwhile, in 1673, Joliet, the merchant, and Marquette, the priest, beat him to it. And, as they say, the rest is history, because white men eventually realized the importance of this fluid monstrosity running the length of our country, but even then, populating its banks was a slow job. But enough. Now on to Twain.
Samuel Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and he and every other boy in town had one dream, and that was to be a steamboat pilot. He says:
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient.
Clemens realized his, but not until he was twenty-one, though in the book he talks as if he were much younger. He left school in fifth grade to work as a printer's apprentice after his father died, although he doesn't speak much about his life outside the river. He worked as a printer in several cities, and then took the plunge, becoming a cub (apprentice) under Horace Bixby, whom he seems to have held in a sort of god-like reverence. Of course, the thought of being a steamboat pilot was purely romantic. Twain says:
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 keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.
Obviously, this book is full of typical Twain humor. At one point, I got to
laughing so hard I had to close the book. But not all of it is humorous, in fact there are some downright tragedies. And, needless to say, Twain soon
recovered from his romantic notions and set to work. There comes a point where all the romance leaves him, in fact, and it becomes a purely scientific
endeavor. But he loves it all the more.
Unfortunately, the war came, then afterwards, the railroads and barges, which quickly put the steamboats pretty much out of business, and historically speaking, they enjoyed a very short heyday. Twain went on to do other things, like traveling, mining, and of course, writing. One wonders if we today would be enjoying his great works if history had dealt a different hand to the steamboats.
In the first part of the book, Twain tells his mostly humorous stories of learning to be a pilot. The second part is more poignant, bittersweet at times. After over two decades of absence, he tours the River again, and the changes, some good and some not so good, are amazing. During this period, he experienced the River in one of the worst floods in civilized history. In some places, the River expanded to 70 miles wide!! OMG! It is interesting that I finished the book here in April, 2017, at the time when yet another flood hit the River, especially in Missouri, although with what we know now about the government, chemtrails, and weather manipulation, this weather system that moved through the entire eastern half of the U.S. was anything but natural. Still, the Mississippi has a history of flooding, which was never a problem until humans took possession of it. Human manipulation of nature always makes the problem more disastrous.
Twain soon feared that his capacity for memory would not be wide enough to contain all the information required to navigate his vessel. Back then, there were no lights, no charts, no marks upon the River to enable one to be at ease while at command. Soundings informed the pilot of the River's depth, but the worst thing was, she was constantly changing shape. What was an island on one trip, might be part of the bank by next trip, and a prosperous farm might be underwater, while someone else suddenly found themselves with fertile land. What was Illinois at one point, became Missouri at another, depending on the whims of the great River, and how she ran her path. The pilot had to know all of this.
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and set aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.
But when the language was mastered, the romance died:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!
Later, he sets it straight, just how much a pilot was required to know:
To know the Old and New Testaments by heart, and be able to recite them glibly, forward or backwards, or begin at random anywhere in the book and recite both ways and never trip or make a mistake, is no extravagant mass of knowledge, and no marvelous facility, compared to a pilot's massed knowledge of the Mississippi and his marvelous facility in the handling of it. I make this comparison deliberately, and believe I am not expanding the truth when I do it. Many will think my figure too strong, but pilots will not.
When Twain returned after his absence, he was amazed at how much easier the whole navigation
thing was. The government had installed lights for night travel, and navigation charts had been made. Bixby was one of the developers of that project.
Twain speaks of the respect and authority of the pilots, which was even above the captain:
His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions. Indeed the law of the United States forbade him to listen to commands or suggestions, rightly considering the pilot necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell him.
He spends a whole chapter, "The Pilot's Monopoly,"
speaking of a pilot's union that was a sort of joke at first, but then became one of the most powerful organizations that had ever been, at least at that time.
Of course there is always Twains humor. Here, he talks about a very slow boat on which he once worked:
For a long time, I was on a boat that was so slow we used to forget what year it was we left port in. But of course that was at rare intervals. Ferry-boats used to lose valuable trips because their passengers grew old and died, waiting for us to get by.
Though Twain worked with Bixby while he was training, he occasionally worked with other pilots, too. One of the worst, meanest, cruel, and insulting was Brown. He tells of having to suffer through dealing with this pilot from hell, but when his shift was over, he could take his revenge.
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 months; not in old, stale, commonplace ways, but in new and picturesque ones—ways that were sometimes surprising for freshness of design and ghastliness of situation and environment.
But a disaster was in the making, and the situation that ensued was one of the most
heartbreaking in the whole book. Twain's younger brother Henry was on the Pennsylvania
during this trip, with Brown and Twain. He was an under-clerk, and had come to the hurricane-deck with an order to stop at the next landing, but Brown
pretended not to hear. When the captain came to the deck when Brown didn't land at the plantation, Brown denied Henry had told him. Of course,
Twain had to admit he had heard him, and Brown's answer
was, "Shut your mouth! You never heard anything of the kind." Then he accused Henry of lying. When Brown ordered
Henry out of the pilot house, he also picked up a ten pound lump of coal to throw at him. But here Twain had enough. He picked up a stool and laid him flat.
Of course, he assumed he would be going to the penitentiary, but when the captain called him in to question him, he ended up laughing, and told him to give him a good sound thrashing when they landed. Then Brown came to the captain and said he refused to stay on the boat unless Twain was removed, and the captain told him he could be the one to leave. However, at New Orleans, the captain was unable to secure another pilot, so he had Twain take another boat to St. Louis, where Brown would be released and Twain could come aboard again. But on the way, a disaster happened. The boilers blew up and there was a terrible fire. Brown was killed. And so was Henry. In the Wikipedia article about Twain, it states that he was the one that convinced his brother to work with him, and felt responsible for his death the rest of his life.
Twain really doesn't talk much about his years as a licensed pilot, but goes into his trip down the Mississippi after a long hiatus. Here, each chapter is more like a little essay, and he speaks not only of the River, but the towns they visit and how so much has changed. He looks up old friends and meets new ones, and watches first hand, the efforts to help those devastated by the flood by bringing relief and relocating people and livestock.
As I am noticing, my word count continues to climb, so I will end here this review, and highly recommend that everyone make a point to read this wonderful, informative, and entertaining first-hand account of an important era in our county's history, by one of our most important American authors.
Below, a picture of the twisty Mississippi, and an historic steamboat, the Mark Twain.
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