October 31, 2017
For a man who didn’t spend the majority of his life on the Mississippi, that river came to define the life and legacy of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Clemens is better known as Mark Twain, and there is the first clue as to how important the Mississippi River was to one of America’s most celebrated writers. “Mark Twain” is a Mississippi riverboat term, meaning the second demarcation on the line that measured depth. It meant two fathoms, or four yards – a safe depth for steamboat navigation.
Clemens used this pen name for the first time while at a newspaper in Arizona, where he went to work in 1862. Given that Clemens was born in November of 1835, he only lived near the river off and on for roughly 26 of his 74 years. Yet it was those years that formed the foundation of his most famous works, and the irascible frontier persona for which he is remembered.
Born in Florida, Missouri (he moved to the more famous Hannibal at age 4), Clemens was forced to drop out of school at age 11 when his father died, and take work as a printer’s apprentice. He started as a typesetter at the Hannibal Journal, a little newspaper his brother Orion owned, eventually becoming a printer.
Along the way, Clemens educated himself at public libraries at night, and began contributing articles and humorous sketches to the Journal. This experience would serve him in good stead later in life, as a journalist and writer. But all along, as he later wrote in the book Life on the Mississippi, he harbored only one permanent ambition: to be a steamboat pilot.
In 1857, he achieved that dream, apprenticing as a “cub” with steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby. “My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book,” Bixby said, according to the Mark Twain letters at the University of California, Berkeley, “and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”
It was no simple thing, after all, to pilot a shallow-draft craft along a river whose depth is never a constant from day to day, whose channels can shift overnight, and whose waters carry debris, snags, and submerged objects of all sorts.
But Twain enjoyed it. “If I have seemed to love my subject,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.”
The money and prestige didn’t hurt, either. The job of steamboat pilot “was exciting, well-paying, and high-status, roughly akin to flying a jetliner today,” according to the Mark Twain entry at biography.com.
But what the river giveth, the river can taketh away. In the case of Samuel Clemens, steamboat life killed his beloved brother.
Clemens had gotten his younger brother Henry a job as an assistant clerk on the Pennsylvania, the boat Sam Clemens was piloting at the time, on a trip to New Orleans. The captain and the Clemenses didn’t see eye to eye, leading to a fistfight, and Sam Clemens taking a different boat for the upriver trip, with Henry Clemens remaining on the Pennsylvania.
That decision saved Sam Clemens’ life – but Henry wasn’t so lucky. The Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded, fatally injuring the younger brother. Henry was taken to a makeshift hospital in Memphis, where Sam Clemens stayed at his bedside for the several days it took Henry to die.
Sam Clemens, the man who would be known someday as Mark Twain, was crushed.
“ … lost and ruined sinner as I am,” Clemens wrote in a letter on display at Berkeley to Orion’s wife after Henry’s death, “I, even I, have humbled myself to the ground and prayed as never man prayed before, that the great God might let this cup pass from me – that he would strike me to the earth, but spare my brother – that he would pour out the fulness [sic] of his just wrath upon my wicked head, but have mercy, mercy, mercy upon that unoffending boy. The horrors of three days have swept over me – they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie, there are grey hairs in my head to-night. For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised, but uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair. Then poor wretched me, that was once so proud, was humbled to the very dust – lower than the dust – for the vilest beggar in the streets of Saint Louis could never conceive of a humiliation like mine. Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me ‘lucky’ because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! My God forgive them, for they know not what they say.”
Clemens was so distraught, the locals were worried.
“When Sam [Clemens] reached his bedside,” according to a 2014 article on Smithsonian.com, “the sheer pathos of the meeting moved a newspaper reporter to single out the pair of brothers by name. The sympathetic citizens of Memphis – which [Sam] Clemens would later call ‘the Good Samaritan City of the Mississippi’ – worried that Sam [Clemens] was unhinged by grief and sent a companion to accompany him when he took Henry’s body north to St. Louis.”
The good and the bad of steamboat life was then cut short by the Civil War, which ended all traffic on the Mississippi from 1861 to 1865. That was how Sam Clemens found himself in Arizona, beginning a career as a writer, lecturer, and humorist that would make him one of the most famous people of his time.
And, while Twain wrote on a variety of topics – including a biography of Ulysses S. Grant – his most famous works were based on what he soaked up in his youth from the mud and clay of the Mississippi valley.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is about a young boy growing up in St. Petersburg (a stand-in for Hannibal), Missouri, in the 1840s, as Clemens did himself. Life on the Mississippi (1883) is a memoir by Clemens of his days as a steamboat pilot, and a travelogue, recounting a trip down the river from St. Louis to New Orleans. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is narrated by another antebellum youngster, describing colorful people and events on the Mississippi.
They are regarded as American classics.
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” declared Ernest Hemingway in 1935, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
That seems like hyperbole. But what isn’t debatable is how important the Mississippi River and Memphis were to Mark Twain – and vice versa.
So if you ever wondered why there’s a Mark Twain figure in the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island … well, now you know.