Image from twainquotes.com
It’s been said that before you can truly know Mark Twain, you have to know the Mississippi River. The literary giant was raised on its banks in Hannibal, Missouri. And on this day 156 years ago – April 9, 1859 – the 23-year-old fledgling newspaper man earned his steamboat pilot’s license.
It was a dream he’d held since childhood, and that he wrote about in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi:
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. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
Still known at this time by his given name, Samuel Clemens, he worked as a steamboat pilot for two years, stopping only when the Civil War stopped steamboat travel. It was during this time as a pilot that he adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain”– the term boatmen used to call to each other to warn where the Mississippi was only two fathoms deep, the minimum for safe travel.
Cover of the original U.S. edition, 1883.
As Twain, Clemens lived and wrote in California and Connecticut, among other places. But no matter where he was physically, the 2,300-mile river was never far from his mind. He wrote a series of essays about it for Atlantic Monthly, which later became the book Life on the Mississippi. In “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” it’s clear that, even years later, he is enamored with it:
I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.
As most high school English students know, the Mississippi also plays an essential role in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as Huck and Jim use it, and their handmade raft, to escape to freedom and from the evils of slavery.
For diehard Twain fans, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, is as much a must-see as the Mississippi itself.