Mark Twain, A Biography, 1835-1866
Albert Bigelow Paine
Part 2 out of 5
to what was called "Bird Slough." There trying to cross a drift he was
In the book, the author makes Huck's struggle a psychological one between
conscience and the law, on one side, and sympathy on the other. With Ben
Blankenship the struggle--if there was a struggle--was probably between
sympathy and cupidity. He would care very little for conscience and
still less for law. His sympathy with the runaway, however, would be
large and elemental, and it must have been very large to offset the lure
of that reward.
There was a gruesome sequel to this incident. Some days following the
drowning of the runaway, Sam Clemens, John Briggs, and the Bowen boys
went to the spot and were pushing the drift about, when suddenly the
negro rose before them, straight and terrible, about half his length out
of the water. He had gone down feet foremost, and the loosened drift had
released him. The boys did not stop to investigate. They thought he was
after them and flew in wild terror, never stopping until they reached
How many gruesome experiences there appear to have been in those early
days! In 'The Innocents Abroad' Mark Twain tells of the murdered man he
saw one night in his father's office. The man's name was McFarlane. He
had been stabbed that day in the old Hudson-McFarlane feud and carried in
there to die. Sam Clemens and John Briggs had run away from school and
had been sky larking all that day, and knew nothing of the affair. Sam
decided that his father's office was safer for him than to face his
mother, who was probably sitting up, waiting. He tells us how he lay on
the lounge, and how a shape on the floor gradually resolved itself into
the outlines of a man; how a square of moonlight from the window
approached it and gradually revealed the dead face and the ghastly
"I went out of there," he says. "I do not say that I went away in any
sort of a hurry, but I simply went; that is sufficient. I went out of
the window, and I carried the sash along with me. I did not need the
sash, but it was handier to take it than to, leave it, and so I took it.
I was not scared, but I was considerably agitated."
He was not yet twelve, for his father was no longer alive when the boy
reached that age. Certainly these were disturbing, haunting things.
Then there was the case of the drunken tramp in the calaboose to whom the
boys kind-heartedly enough carried food and tobacco. Sam Clemens spent
some of his precious money to buy the tramp a box of Lucifer matches--a
brand new invention then, scarce and high. The tramp started a fire with
the matches and burned down the calaboose, himself in it. For weeks the
boy was tortured, awake and in his dreams, by the thought that if he had
not carried the man the matches the tragedy could not have happened.
Remorse was always Samuel Clemens's surest punishment. To his last days
on earth he never outgrew its pangs.
What a number of things crowded themselves into a few brief years! It is
not easy to curtail these boyhood adventures of Sam Clemens and his
scapegrace friends, but one might go on indefinitely with their mad
doings. They were an unpromising lot. Ministers and other sober-minded
citizens freely prophesied sudden and violent ends for them, and
considered them hardly worth praying for. They must have proven a
disappointing lot to those prophets. The Bowen boys became fine river-
pilots; Will Pitts was in due time a leading merchant and bank director;
John Briggs grew into a well-to-do and highly respected farmer; even Huck
Finn--that is to say, Tom Blankenship--is reputed to have ranked as an
honored citizen and justice of the peace in a Western town. But in those
days they were a riotous, fun-loving band with little respect for order
and even less for ordinance.
THE GENTLER SIDE
His associations were not all of that lawless breed. At his school (he
had sampled several places of learning, and was now at Mr. Cross's on the
Square) were a number of less adventurous, even if not intrinsically
better playmates. There was George Robards, the Latin scholar, and John,
his brother, a handsome boy, who rode away at last with his father into
the sunset, to California, his golden curls flying in the wind. And
there was Jimmy McDaniel, a kind-hearted boy whose company was worth
while, because his father was a confectioner, and he used to bring candy
and cake to school. Also there was Buck Brown, a rival speller, and John
Meredith, the doctor's son, and John Garth, who was one day to marry
little Helen Kercheval, and in the end would be remembered and honored
with a beautiful memorial building not far from the site of the old
Furthermore, there were a good many girls. Tom Sawyer had an
impressionable heart, and Sam Clemens no less so. There was Bettie
Ormsley, and Artemisia Briggs, and Jennie Brady; also Mary Miller, who
was nearly twice his age and gave him his first broken heart.
"I believe I was as miserable as a grown man could be," he said once,
Tom Sawyer had heart sorrows too, and we may imagine that his emotions at
such times were the emotions of Sam Clemens, say at the age of ten.
But, as Tom Sawyer had one faithful sweetheart, so did he. They were one
and the same. Becky Thatcher in the book was Laura Hawkins in reality.
The acquaintance of these two had begun when the Hawkins family moved
into the Virginia house on the corner of Hill and Main streets.--[The
Hawkins family in real life bore no resemblance to the family of that
name in The Gilded Age. Judge Hawkins of The Gilded Age, as already
noted, was John Clemens. Mark Twain used the name Hawkins, also the name
of his boyhood sweetheart, Laura, merely for old times' sake, and because
in portraying the childhood of Laura Hawkins he had a picture of the real
Laura in his mind.]--The Clemens family was then in the new home across
the way, and the children were soon acquainted. The boy could be tender
and kind, and was always gentle in his treatment of the other sex. They
visited back and forth, especially around the new house, where there were
nice pieces of boards and bricks for play-houses. So they played
"keeping house," and if they did not always agree well, since the
beginning of the world sweethearts have not always agreed, even in
Arcady. Once when they were building a house--and there may have been
some difference of opinion as to its architecture--the boy happened to
let a brick fall on the little girl's finger. If there had been any
disagreement it vanished instantly with that misfortune. He tried to
comfort her and soothe the pain; then he wept with her and suffered most
of the two, no doubt. So, you see, he was just a little boy, after all,
even though he was already chief of a red-handed band, the "Black
Avengers of the Spanish Main."
He was always a tender-hearted lad. He would never abuse an animal,
unless, as in the Pain-killer incident, his tendency to pranking ran away
with him. He had indeed a genuine passion for cats; summers when he went
to the farm he never failed to take his cat in a basket. When he ate, it
sat in a chair beside him at the table. His sympathy included inanimate
things as well. He loved flowers--not as the embryo botanist or
gardener, but as a personal friend. He pitied the dead leaf and the
murmuring dried weed of November because their brief lives were ended,
and they would never know the summer again, or grow glad with another
spring. His heart went out to them; to the river and the sky, the sunlit
meadow and the drifted hill. That his observation of all nature was
minute and accurate is shown everywhere in his writing; but it was never
the observation of a young naturalist it was the subconscious observation
of sympathetic love.
We are wandering away from his school-days. They were brief enough and
came rapidly to an end. They will not hold us long. Undoubtedly Tom
Sawyer's distaste for school and his excuses for staying at home--usually
some pretended illness--have ample foundation in the boyhood of Sam
Clemens. His mother punished him and pleaded with him, alternately. He
detested school as he detested nothing else on earth, even going to
church. "Church ain't worth shucks," said Tom Sawyer, but it was better
As already noted, the school of Mr. Cross stood in or near what is now
the Square in Hannibal. The Square was only a grove then, grown up with
plum, hazel, and vine--a rare place for children. At recess and the noon
hour the children climbed trees, gathered flowers, and swung in grape-
vine swings. There was a spelling-bee every Friday afternoon, for Sam
the only endurable event of the school exercises. He could hold the
floor at spelling longer than Buck Brown. This was spectacular and
showy; it invited compliments even from Mr. Cross, whose name must have
been handed down by angels, it fitted him so well. One day Sam Clemens
wrote on his slate:
Cross by name and cross by nature
Cross jumped over an Irish potato.
He showed this to John Briggs, who considered it a stroke of genius. He
urged the author to write it on the board at noon, but the poet's
ambition did not go so far.
"Oh, pshaw!" said John. "I wouldn't be afraid to do it.
"I dare you to do it," said Sam.
John Briggs never took a dare, and at noon, when Mr. Cross was at home at
dinner, he wrote flamingly the descriptive couplet. When the teacher
returned and "books" were called he looked steadily at John Briggs. He
had recognized the penmanship.
"Did you do that?" he asked, ominously.
It was a time for truth.
"Yes, sir," said John.
"Come here!" And John came, and paid for his exploitation of genius
heavily. Sam Clemens expected that the next call would be for "author,"
but for some reason the investigation ended there. It was unusual for
him to escape. His back generally kept fairly warm from one "frailing"
to the next.
His rewards were not all of a punitive nature. There were two medals in
the school, one for spelling, the other for amiability. They were
awarded once a week, and the holders wore them about the neck
conspicuously, and were envied accordingly. John Robards--he of the
golden curls--wore almost continuously the medal for amiability, while
Sam Clemens had a mortgage on the medal for spelling. Sometimes they
traded, to see how it would seem, but the master discouraged this
practice by taking the medals away from them for the remainder of the
week. Once Sam Clemens lost the medal by leaving the first "r" out of
February. He could have spelled it backward, if necessary; but Laura
Hawkins was the only one on the floor against him, and he was a gallant
The picture of that school as presented in the book written thirty years
later is faithful, we may believe, and the central figure is a tender-
hearted, romantic, devil-may-care lad, loathing application and longing
only for freedom. It was a boon which would come to him sooner even than
he had dreamed.
THE PASSING OF JOHN CLEMENS
Judge Clemens, who time and again had wrecked or crippled his fortune by
devices more or less unusual, now adopted the one unfailing method of
achieving disaster. He endorsed a large note, for a man of good repute,
and the payment of it swept him clean: home, property, everything
vanished again. The St. Louis cousin took over the home and agreed to
let the family occupy it on payment of a small interest; but after an
attempt at housekeeping with a few scanty furnishings and Pamela's piano
--all that had been saved from the wreck--they moved across the street
into a portion of the Virginia house, then occupied by a Dr. Grant. The
Grants proposed that the Clemens family move over and board them, a
welcome arrangement enough at this time.
Judge Clemens had still a hope left. The clerkship of the Surrogate
Court was soon to be filled by election. It was an important
remunerative office, and he was regarded as the favorite candidate for
the position. His disaster had aroused general sympathy, and his
nomination and election were considered sure. He took no chances; he
made a canvass on horseback from house to house, often riding through
rain and the chill of fall, acquiring a cough which was hard to overcome.
He was elected by a heavy majority, and it was believed he could hold the
office as long as he chose. There seemed no further need of worry. As
soon as he was installed in office they would live in style becoming
their social position. About the end of February he rode to Palmyra to
be sworn in. Returning he was drenched by a storm of rain and sleet,
arriving at last half frozen. His system was in no condition to resist
such a shock. Pneumonia followed; physicians came with torments of
plasters and allopathic dosings that brought no relief. Orion returned
from St. Louis to assist in caring for him, and sat by his bed,
encouraging him and reading to him, but it was evident that he grew daily
weaker. Now and then he became cheerful and spoke of the Tennessee land
as the seed of a vast fortune that must surely flower at last. He
uttered no regrets, no complaints. Once only he said:
"I believe if I had stayed in Tennessee I might have been worth twenty
thousand dollars to-day."
On the morning of the 24th of March, 1847, it was evident that he could
not live many hours. He was very weak. When he spoke, now and then, it
was of the land. He said it would soon make them all rich and happy.
"Cling to the land," he whispered. "Cling to the land, and wait. Let
nothing beguile it away from you."
A little later he beckoned to Pamela, now a lovely girl of nineteen, and,
putting his arm about her neck, kissed her for the first time in years.
"Let me die," he said.
He never spoke after that. A little more, and the sad, weary life that
had lasted less than forty-nine years was ended: A dreamer and a
moralist, an upright man honored by all, he had never been a financier.
He ended life with less than he had begun.
A YOUNG BEN FRANKLIN
For a third time death had entered the Clemens home: not only had it
brought grief now, but it had banished the light of new fortune from the
very threshold. The disaster seemed complete.
The children were dazed. Judge Clemens had been a distant, reserved man,
but they had loved him, each in his own way, and they had honored his
uprightness and nobility of purpose. Mrs. Clemens confided to a neighbor
that, in spite of his manner, her husband had been always warm-hearted,
with a deep affection for his family. They remembered that he had never
returned from a journey without bringing each one some present, however
trifling. Orion, looking out of his window next morning, saw old Abram
Kurtz, and heard him laugh. He wondered how anybody could still laugh.
The boy Sam was fairly broken down. Remorse, which always dealt with him
unsparingly, laid a heavy hand on him now. Wildness, disobedience,
indifference to his father's wishes, all were remembered; a hundred
things, in themselves trifling, became ghastly and heart-wringing in the
knowledge that they could never be undone. Seeing his grief, his mother
took him by the hand and led him into the room where his father lay.
"It is all right, Sammy," she said. "What's done is done, and it does
not matter to him any more; but here by the side of him now I want you to
He turned, his eyes streaming with tears, and flung himself into her
"I will promise anything," he sobbed, "if you won't make me go to school!
His mother held him for a moment, thinking, then she said:
"No, Sammy; you need not go to school any more. Only promise me to be a
better boy. Promise not to break my heart."
So he promised her to be a faithful and industrious man, and upright,
like his father. His mother was satisfied with that. The sense of honor
and justice was already strong within him. To him a promise was a
serious matter at any time; made under conditions like these it would be
That night--it was after the funeral--his tendency to somnambulism
manifested itself. His mother and sister, who were sleeping together,
saw the door open and a form in white enter. Naturally nervous at such a
time, and living in a day of almost universal superstition, they were
terrified and covered their heads. Presently a hand was laid on the
coverlet, first at the foot, then at the head of the bed. A thought
struck Mrs. Clemens:
"Sam!" she said.
He answered, but he was sound asleep and fell to the floor. He had risen
and thrown a sheet around him in his dreams. He walked in his sleep
several nights in succession after that. Then he slept more soundly.
Orion returned to St. Louis. He was a very good book and job printer by
this time and received a salary of ten dollars a week (high wages in
those frugal days), of which he sent three dollars weekly to the family.
Pamela, who had acquired a considerable knowledge of the piano and
guitar, went to the town of Paris, in Monroe County, about fifty miles
away, and taught a class of music pupils, contributing whatever remained
after paying for her board and clothing to the family fund. It was a
hard task for the girl, for she was timid and not over-strong; but she
was resolute and patient, and won success. Pamela Clemens was a noble
character and deserves a fuller history than can be afforded in this
Mrs. Clemens and her son Samuel now had a sober talk, and, realizing that
the printing trade offered opportunity for acquiring further education as
well as a livelihood, they agreed that he should be apprenticed to Joseph
P. Ament, who had lately moved from Palmyra to Hannibal and bought a
weekly Democrat paper, the Missouri Courier. The apprentice terms were
not over-liberal. They were the usual thing for that time: board and
clothes--"more board than clothes, and not much of either," Mark Twain
used to say.
"I was supposed to get two suits of clothes a year, like a nigger, but I
didn't get them. I got one suit and took the rest out in Ament's old
garments, which didn't fit me in any noticeable way. I was only about
half as big as he was, and when I had on one of his shirts I felt as if I
had on a circus tent. I had to turn the trousers up to my ears to make
them short enough."
There was another apprentice, a young fellow of about eighteen, named
Wales McCormick, a devilish fellow and a giant. Ament's clothes were too
small for Wales, but he had to wear them, and Sam Clemens and Wales
McCormick together, fitted out with Ament's clothes, must have been a
picturesque pair. There was also, for a time, a boy named Ralph; but he
appears to have presented no features of a striking sort, and the memory
of him has become dim.
The apprentices ate in the kitchen at first, served by the old slave-cook
and her handsome mulatto daughter; but those printer's "devils" made it
so lively there that in due time they were promoted to the family table,
where they sat with Mr. and Mrs. Ament and the one journeyman, Pet
McMurry--a name that in itself was an inspiration. What those young
scamps did not already know Pet McMurry could teach them. Sam Clemens
had promised to be a good boy, and he was, by the standards of boyhood.
He was industrious, regular at his work, quick to learn, kind, and
truthful. Angels could hardly be more than that in a printing-office;
but when food was scarce even an angel--a young printer angel--could
hardly resist slipping down the cellar stairs at night for raw potatoes,
onions, and apples which they carried into the office, where the boys
slept on a pallet on the floor, and this forage they cooked on the office
stove. Wales especially had a way of cooking a potato that his associate
It is unfortunate that no photographic portrait has been preserved of Sam
Clemens at this period. But we may imagine him from a letter which, long
years after, Pet McMurry wrote to Mark Twain. He said:
If your memory extends so far back, you will recall a little sandy-
haired boy--[The color of Mark Twain's hair in early life has been
variously referred to as red, black, and brown. It was, in fact, as
stated by McMurry, "sandy" in boyhood, deepening later to that rich,
mahogany tone known as auburn.]--of nearly a quarter of a century
ago, in the printing-office at Hannibal, over the Brittingham
drugstore, mounted upon a little box at the case, pulling away at a
huge cigar or a diminutive pipe, who used to love to sing so well
the expression of the poor drunken man who was supposed to have
fallen by the wayside: "If ever I get up again, I'll stay up--if I
kin." . . . Do you recollect any of the serious conflicts that
mirth-loving brain of yours used to get you into with that
diminutive creature Wales McCormick--how you used to call upon me to
hold your cigar or pipe, whilst you went entirely through him?
This is good testimony, without doubt. When he had been with Ament
little more than a year Sam had become office favorite and chief standby.
Whatever required intelligence and care and imagination was given to Sam
Clemens. He could set type as accurately and almost as rapidly as Pet
McMurry; he could wash up the forms a good deal better than Pet; and he
could run the job-press to the tune of "Annie Laurie" or "Along the Beach
at Rockaway," without missing a stroke or losing a finger. Sometimes, at
odd moments, he would "set up" one of the popular songs or some favorite
poem like "The Blackberry Girl," and of these he sent copies printed on
cotton, even on scraps of silk, to favorite girl friends; also to Puss
Quarles, on his uncle's farm, where he seldom went now, because he was
really grown up, associating with men and doing a man's work. He had
charge of the circulation--which is to say, he carried the papers.
During the last year of the Mexican War, when a telegraph-wire found its
way across the Mississippi to Hannibal--a long sagging span, that for
some reason did not break of its own weight--he was given charge of the
extras with news from the front; and the burning importance of his
mission, the bringing of news hot from the field of battle, spurred him
to endeavors that won plaudits and success.
He became a sort of subeditor. When the forms of the paper were ready to
close and Ament was needed to supply more matter, it was Sam who was
delegated to find that rather uncertain and elusive person and labor with
him until the required copy was produced. Thus it was he saw literature
in the making.
It is not believed that Sam had any writing ambitions of his own. His
chief desire was to be an all-round journeyman printer like Pet McMurry;
to drift up and down the world in Pet's untrammeled fashion; to see all
that Pet had seen and a number of things which Pet appeared to have
overlooked. He varied on occasion from this ambition. When the first
negro minstrel show visited Hannibal and had gone, he yearned for a brief
period to be a magnificent "middle man" or even the "end-man" of that
combination; when the circus came and went, he dreamed of the day when, a
capering frescoed clown, he would set crowded tiers of spectators
guffawing at his humor; when the traveling hypnotist arrived, he
volunteered as a subject, and amazed the audience by the marvel of his
In later life he claimed that he had not been hypnotized in any degree,
but had been pretending throughout--a statement always denied by his
mother and his brother Orion. This dispute was never settled, and never
could be. Sam Clemens's tendency to somnambulism would seem to suggest
that he really might have taken on a hypnotic condition, while his
consummate skill as an actor, then and always, and his early fondness of
exhibition and a joke, would make it not unlikely that he was merely
"showing off" and having his fun. He could follow the dictates of a
vivid imagination and could be as outrageous as he chose without
incurring responsibility of any sort. But there was a penalty: he must
allow pins and needles to be thrust into his flesh and suffer these
tortures without showing discomfort to the spectators. It is difficult
to believe that any boy, however great his exhibitory passion, could
permit, in the full possession of his sensibilities, a needle to be
thrust deeply into his flesh without manifestations of a most unmesmeric
sort. The conclusion seems warranted that he began by pretending, but
that at times he was at least under semi-mesmeric control. At all
events, he enjoyed a week of dazzling triumph, though in the end he
concluded to stick to printing as a trade.
We have said that he was a rapid learner and a neat workman. At Ament's
he generally had a daily task, either of composition or press-work, after
which he was free. When he had got the hang of his work he was usually
done by three in the afternoon; then away to the river or the cave, as in
the old days, sometimes with his boy friends, sometimes with Laura
Hawkins gathering wild columbine on that high cliff overlooking the
river, Lover's Leap.
He was becoming quite a beau, attending parties on occasion, where old-
fashioned games--Forfeits, Ring-around-a-Rosy, Dusty Miller, and the
like--were regarded as rare amusements. He was a favorite with girls of
his own age. He was always good-natured, though he played jokes on them,
too, and was often a severe trial. He was with Laura Hawkins more than
the others, usually her escort. On Saturday afternoons in winter he
carried her skates to Bear Creek and helped her to put them on. After
which they skated "partners," holding hands tightly, and were a likely
pair of children, no doubt. In The Gilded Age Laura Hawkins at twelve is
pictured "with her dainty hands propped into the ribbon-bordered pockets
of her apron . . . a vision to warm the coldest heart and bless and
cheer the saddest." The author had the real Laura of his childhood in
his mind when he wrote that, though the story itself bears no resemblance
to her life.
They were never really sweethearts, those two. They were good friends
and comrades. Sometimes he brought her magazines--exchanges from the
printing--office--Godey's and others. These were a treat, for such
things were scarce enough. He cared little for reading, himself, beyond
a few exciting tales, though the putting into type of a good deal of
miscellaneous matter had beyond doubt developed in him a taste for
general knowledge. It needed only to be awakened.
There came into his life just at this period one of those seemingly
trifling incidents which, viewed in retrospect, assume pivotal
proportions. He was on his way from the office to his home one afternoon
when he saw flying along the pavement a square of paper, a leaf from a
book. At an earlier time he would not have bothered with it at all, but
any printed page had acquired a professional interest for him now. He
caught the flying scrap and examined it. It was a leaf from some history
of Joan of Arc. The "maid" was described in the cage at Rouen, in the
fortress, and the two ruffian English soldiers had stolen her clothes.
There was a brief description and a good deal of dialogue--her reproaches
and their ribald replies.
He had never heard of the subject before. He had never read any history.
When he wanted to know any fact he asked Henry, who read everything
obtainable. Now, however, there arose within him a deep compassion for
the gentle Maid of Orleans, a burning resentment toward her captors, a
powerful and indestructible interest in her sad history. It was an
interest that would grow steadily for more than half a lifetime and
culminate at last in that crowning work, the Recollections, the loveliest
story ever told of the martyred girl.
The incident meant even more than that: it meant the awakening of his
interest in all history--the world's story in its many phases--a passion
which became the largest feature of his intellectual life and remained
with him until his very last day on earth. From the moment when that
fluttering leaf was blown into his hands his career as one of the world's
mentally elect was assured. It gave him his cue--the first word of a
part in the human drama. It crystallized suddenly within him sympathy
with the oppressed, rebellion against tyranny and treachery, scorn for
the divine rights of kings. A few months before he died he wrote a paper
on "The Turning-point of My Life." For some reason he did not mention
this incident. Yet if there was a turning-point in his life, he reached
it that bleak afternoon on the streets of Hannibal when a stray leaf from
another life was blown into his hands.
He read hungrily now everything he could find relating to the French
wars, and to Joan in particular. He acquired an appetite for history in
general, the record of any nation or period; he seemed likely to become a
student. Presently he began to feel the need of languages, French and
German. There was no opportunity to acquire French, that he could
discover, but there was a German shoemaker in Hannibal who agreed to
teach his native tongue. Sam Clemens got a friend--very likely it was
John Briggs--to form a class with him, and together they arranged for
lessons. The shoemaker had little or no English. They had no German.
It would seem, however, that their teacher had some sort of a "word-
book," and when they assembled in his little cubby-hole of a retreat he
began reading aloud from it this puzzling sentence:
"De hain eet flee whoop in de hayer."
"Dere!" he said, triumphantly; "you know dose vord?"
The students looked at each other helplessly.
The teacher repeated the sentence, and again they were helpless when he
asked if they recognized it.
Then in despair he showed them the book. It was an English primer, and
the sentence was:
"The hen, it flies up in the air."
They explained to him gently that it was German they wished to learn, not
English--not under the circumstances. Later, Sam made an attempt at
Latin, and got a book for that purpose, but gave it up, saying:
"No, that language is not for me. I'll do well enough to learn English."
A boy who took it up with him became a Latin scholar.
His prejudice against oppression he put into practice. Boys who were
being imposed upon found in him a ready protector. Sometimes, watching a
game of marbles or tops, he would remark in his slow, impressive way:
"You mustn't cheat that boy." And the cheating stopped. When it didn't,
there was a combat, with consequences.
THE HANNIBAL "JOURNAL"
Orion returned from St. Louis. He felt that he was needed in Hannibal
and, while wages there were lower, his expenses at home were slight;
there was more real return for the family fund. His sister Pamela was
teaching a class in Hannibal at this time. Orion was surprised when his
mother and sister greeted him with kisses and tears. Any outward display
of affection was new to him.
The family had moved back across the street by this time. With Sam
supporting himself, the earnings of Orion and Pamela provided at least a
semblance of comfort. But Orion was not satisfied. Then, as always, he
had a variety of vague ambitions. Oratory appealed to him, and he
delivered a temperance lecture with an accompaniment of music, supplied
chiefly by Pamela. He aspired to the study of law, a recurring
inclination throughout his career. He also thought of the ministry, an
ambition which Sam shared with him for a time. Every mischievous boy has
it, sooner or later, though not all for the same reasons.
"It was the most earnest ambition I ever had," Mark Twain once remarked,
thoughtfully. "Not that I ever really wanted to be a preacher, but
because it never occurred to me that a preacher could be damned. It
looked like a safe job."
A periodical ambition of Orion's was to own and conduct a paper in
Hannibal. He felt that in such a position he might become a power in
Western journalism. Once his father had considered buying the Hannibal
Journal to give Orion a chance, and possibly to further his own political
ambitions. Now Orion considered it for himself. The paper was for sale
under a mortgage, and he was enabled to borrow the $500 which would
secure ownership. Sam's two years at Ament's were now complete, and
Orion induced him to take employment on the Journal. Henry at eleven was
taken out of school to learn typesetting.
Orion was a gentle, accommodating soul, but he lacked force and
"I followed all the advice I received," he says in his record. "If two
or more persons conflicted with each other, I adopted the views of the
He started full of enthusiasm. He worked like a slave to save help:
wrote his own editorials, and made his literary selections at night. The
others worked too. Orion gave them hard tasks and long hours. He had
the feeling that the paper meant fortune or failure to them all; that all
must labor without stint. In his usual self-accusing way he wrote
I was tyrannical and unjust to Sam. He was as swift and as clean as a
good journeyman. I gave him tasks, and if he got through well I
begrudged him the time and made him work more. He set a clean proof, and
Henry a very dirty one. The correcting was left to be done in the form
the day before publication. Once we were kept late, and Sam complained
with tears of bitterness that he was held till midnight on Henry's dirty
Orion did not realize any injustice at the time. The game was too
desperate to be played tenderly. His first editorials were so brilliant
that it was not believed he could have written them. The paper
throughout was excellent, and seemed on the high road to success. But
the pace was too hard to maintain. Overwork brought weariness, and
Orion's enthusiasm, never a very stable quantity, grew feeble. He became
still more exacting.
It is not to be supposed that Sam Clemens had given up all amusements to
become merely a toiling drudge or had conquered in any large degree his
natural taste for amusement. He had become more studious; but after the
long, hard days in the office it was not to be expected that a boy of
fifteen would employ the evening--at least not every evening--in reading
beneficial books. The river was always near at hand--for swimming in the
summer and skating in the winter--and once even at this late period it
came near claiming a heavy tribute. That was one winter's night when
with another boy he had skated until nearly midnight. They were about in
the middle of the river when they heard a terrific and grinding noise
near the shore. They knew what it was. The ice was breaking up, and
they set out for home forthwith. It was moonlight, and they could tell
the ice from the water, which was a good thing, for there were wide
cracks toward the shore, and they had to wait for these to close. They
were an hour making the trip, and just before they reached the bank they
came to a broad space of water. The ice was lifting and falling and
crunching all around them. They waited as long as they dared and decided
to leap from cake to cake. Sam made the crossing without accident, but
his companion slipped in when a few feet from shore. He was a good
swimmer and landed safely, but the bath probably cost him his hearing.
He was taken very ill. One disease followed another, ending with scarlet
fever and deafness.
There was also entertainment in the office itself. A country boy named
Jim Wolfe had come to learn the trade--a green, good-natured, bashful
boy. In every trade tricks are played on the new apprentice, and Sam
felt that it was his turn to play them. With John Briggs to help him,
tortures for Jim Wolfe were invented and applied.
They taught him to paddle a canoe, and upset him. They took him sniping
at night and left him "holding the bag" in the old traditional fashion
while they slipped off home and went to bed.
But Jim Wolfe's masterpiece of entertainment was one which he undertook
on his own account. Pamela was having a candy-pull down-stairs one
night--a grown-up candy-pull to which the boys were not expected. Jim
would not have gone, anyway, for he was bashful beyond belief, and always
dumb, and even pale with fear, in the presence of pretty Pamela Clemens.
Up in their room the boys could hear the merriment from below and could
look out in the moonlight on the snowy sloping roof that began just
beneath their window. Down at the eaves was the small arbor, green in
summer, but covered now with dead vines and snow. They could hear the
candymakers come out, now and then, doubtless setting out pans of candy
to cool. By and by the whole party seemed to come out into the little
arbor, to try the candy, perhaps the joking and laughter came plainly to
the boys up-stairs. About this time there appeared on the roof from
somewhere two disreputable cats, who set up a most disturbing duel of
charge and recrimination. Jim detested the noise, and perhaps was
gallant enough to think it would disturb the party. He had nothing to
throw at them, but he said:
"For two cents I'd get out there and knock their heads off."
"You wouldn't dare to do it," Sam said, purringly.
This was wormwood to Jim. He was really a brave spirit.
"I would too," he said, "and I will if you say that again."
"Why, Jim, of course you wouldn't dare to go out there. You might catch
"You wait and see," said Jim Wolfe.
He grabbed a pair of yarn stockings for his feet, raised the window, and
crept out on the snowy roof. There was a crust of ice on the snow, but
Jim jabbed his heels through it and stood up in the moonlight, his legs
bare, his single garment flapping gently in the light winter breeze.
Then he started slowly toward the cats, sinking his heels in the snow
each time for a footing, a piece of lath in his hand. The cats were on
the corner of the roof above the arbor, and Jim cautiously worked his way
in that direction. The roof was not very steep. He was doing well
enough until he came to a place where the snow had melted until it was
nearly solid ice. He was so intent on the cats that he did not notice
this, and when he struck his heel down to break the crust nothing
yielded. A second later Jim's feet had shot out from under him, and he
vaulted like an avalanche down the icy roof out on the little vine-clad
arbor, and went crashing through among those candypullers, gathered there
with their pans of cooling taffy. There were wild shrieks and a general
flight. Neither Jim nor Sam ever knew how he got back to their room, but
Jim was overcome with the enormity of his offense, while Sam was in an
agony of laughter.
"You did it splendidly, Jim," he drawled, when he could speak. "Nobody
could have done it better; and did you see how those cats got out of
there? I never had any idea when you started that you meant to do it
that way. And it was such a surprise to the folks down-stairs. How did
you ever think of it?"
It was a fearful ordeal for a boy like Jim Wolfe, but he stuck to his
place in spite of what he must have suffered. The boys made him one of
them soon after that. His initiation was thought to be complete.
An account of Jim Wolfe and the cats was the first original story Mark
Twain ever told. He told it next day, which was Sunday, to Jimmy
McDaniel, the baker's son, as they sat looking out over the river, eating
gingerbread. His hearer laughed immoderately, and the story-teller was
proud and happy in his success.
THE BEGINNING OF A LITERARY LIFE
Orion's paper continued to go downhill. Following some random counsel,
he changed the name of it and advanced the price--two blunders. Then he
was compelled to reduce the subscription, also the advertising rates. He
was obliged to adopt a descending scale of charges and expenditures to
keep pace with his declining circulation--a fatal sign. A publisher must
lead his subscription list, not follow it.
"I was walking backward," he said, "not seeing where I stepped."
In desperation he broke away and made a trip to Tennessee to see if
something could not be realized on the land, leaving his brother Sam in
charge of the office. It was a journey without financial results; yet it
bore fruit, for it marked the beginning of Mark Twain's literary career.
Sam, in his brother's absence, concluded to edit the paper in a way that
would liven up the circulation. He had never done any writing--not for
print--but he had the courage of his inclinations. His local items were
of a kind known as "spicy"; his personals brought prompt demand for
satisfaction. The editor of a rival paper had been in love, and was said
to have gone to the river one night to drown himself. Sam gave a
picturesque account of this, with all the names connected with the
affair. Then he took a couple of big wooden block letters, turned them
upside down, and engraved illustrations for it, showing the victim wading
out into the river with a stick to test the depth of the water. When
this issue of the paper came out the demand for it was very large. The
press had to be kept running steadily to supply copies. The satirized
editor at first swore that he would thrash the whole journal office, then
he left town and did not come back any more. The embryo Mark Twain also
wrote a poem. It was addressed "To Mary in Hannibal," but the title was
too long to be set in one column, so he left out all the letters in
Hannibal, except the first and the last, and supplied their place with a
dash, with a startling result. Such were the early flickerings of a
smoldering genius. Orion returned, remonstrated, and apologized. He
reduced Sam to the ranks. In later years he saw his mistake.
"I could have distanced all competitors even then," he said, "if I had
recognized Sam's ability and let him go ahead, merely keeping him from
offending worthy persons."
Sam was subdued, but not done for. He never would be, now. He had got
his first taste of print, and he liked it. He promptly wrote two
anecdotes which he thought humorous and sent them to the Philadelphia
Saturday Evening Post. They were accepted--without payment, of course,
in those days; and when the papers containing them appeared he felt
suddenly lifted to a lofty plane of literature. This was in 1851.
"Seeing them in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that
line I have ever experienced since," he said, nearly sixty years later.
Yet he did not feel inspired to write anything further for the Post.
Twice during the next two years he contributed to the Journal; once
something about Jim Wolfe, though it was not the story of the cats, and
another burlesque on a rival editor whom he pictured as hunting snipe
with a cannon, the explosion of which was said to have blown the snipe
out of the country. No contributions of this time have been preserved.
High prices have been offered for copies of the Hannibal journal
containing them, but without success. The Post sketches were unsigned
and have not been identified. It is likely they were trivial enough.
His earliest work showed no special individuality or merit, being mainly
crude and imitative, as the work of a boy--even a precocious boy--is
likely to be. He was not especially precocious--not in literature. His
literary career would halt and hesitate and trifle along for many years
yet, gathering impetus and equipment for the fuller, statelier swing
which would bring a greater joy to the world at large, even if not to
himself, than that first, far-off triumph.--[In Mark Twain's sketch "My
First Literary Venture" he has set down with characteristic embroideries
some account of this early authorship.]
Those were hard financial days. Orion could pay nothing on his mortgage
--barely the interest. He had promised Sam three dollars and a half a
week, but he could do no more than supply him with board and clothes--
"poor, shabby clothes," he says in his record.
"My mother and sister did the housekeeping. My mother was cook. She
used the provisions I supplied her. We therefore had a regular diet of
bacon, butter, bread, and coffee."
Mrs. Clemens again took a few boarders; Pamela, who had given up teaching
for a time, organized another music class. Orion became despondent. One
night a cow got into the office, upset a typecase, and ate up two
composition rollers. Orion felt that fate was dealing with a heavy hand.
Another disaster quickly followed. Fire broke out in the office, and the
loss was considerable. An insurance company paid one hundred and fifty
dollars. With it Orion replaced such articles as were absolutely needed
for work, and removed his plant into the front room of the Clemens
dwelling. He raised the one-story part of the building to give them an
added room up-stairs; and there for another two years, by hard work and
pinching economies, the dying paper managed to drag along. It was the
fire that furnished Sam Clemens with his Jim Wolfe sketch. In it he
stated that Jim in his excitement had carried the office broom half a
mile and had then come back after the wash-pan.
In the meantime Pamela Clemens married. Her husband was a well-to-do
merchant, William A. Moffett, formerly of Hannibal, but then of St.
Louis, where he had provided her with the comforts of a substantial home.
Orion tried the experiment of a serial story. He wrote to a number of
well-known authors in the East, but was unable to find one who would
supply a serial for the price he was willing to pay. Finally he obtained
a translation of a French novel for the sum offered, which was five
dollars. It did not save the sinking ship, however. He made the
experiment of a tri-weekly, without success. He noticed that even his
mother no longer read his editorials, but turned to the general news.
This was a final blow.
"I sat down in the dark," he says, "the moon glinting in at the open
door. I sat with one leg over the chair and let my mind float."
He had received an offer of five hundred dollars for his office--the
amount of the mortgage--and in his moonlight reverie he decided to
dispose of it on those terms. This was in 1853.
His brother Samuel was no longer with him. Several months before, in
June, Sam decided he would go out into the world. He was in his
eighteenth year now, a good workman, faithful and industrious, but he had
grown restless in unrewarded service. Beyond his mastery of the trade he
had little to show for six years of hard labor. Once when he had asked
Orion for a few dollars to buy a second-hand gun, Orion, exasperated by
desperate circumstances, fell into a passion and rated him for thinking
of such extravagance. Soon afterward Sam confided to his mother that he
was going away; that he believed Orion hated him; that there was no
longer a place for him at home. He said he would go to St. Louis, where
Pamela was. There would be work for him in St. Louis, and he could send
money home. His intention was to go farther than St. Louis, but he dared
not tell her. His mother put together sadly enough the few belongings of
what she regarded as her one wayward boy; then she held up a little
"I want you to take hold of the other end of this, Sam," she said, "and
make me a promise."
If one might have a true picture of that scene: the shin, wiry woman of
forty-nine, her figure as straight as her deportment, gray-eyed, tender,
and resolute, facing the fair-cheeked, auburn-haired youth of seventeen,
his eyes as piercing and unwavering as her own. Mother and son, they
were of the same metal and the same mold.
"I want you to repeat after me, Sam, these words," Jane Clemens said.
"I do solemnly swear that I will not throw a card or drink a drop of
liquor while I am gone."
He repeated the oath after her, and she kissed him.
"Remember that, Sam, and write to us," she said.
"And so," Orion records, "he went wandering in search of that comfort and
that advancement and those rewards of industry which he had failed to
find where I was--gloomy, taciturn, and selfish. I not only missed his
labor; we all missed his bounding activity and merriment."
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FRANKLIN
He went to St. Louis by the night boat, visited his sister Pamela, and
found a job in the composing-room of the Evening News. He remained on
the paper only long enough to earn money with which to see the world.
The "world" was New York City, where the Crystal Palace Fair was then
going on. The railway had been completed by this time, but he had not
traveled on it. It had not many comforts; several days and nights were
required for the New York trip; yet it was a wonderful and beautiful
experience. He felt that even Pet McMurry could hardly have done
anything to surpass it. He arrived in New York with two or three dollars
in his pocket and a ten-dollar bill concealed in the lining of his coat.
New York was a great and amazing city. It almost frightened him. It
covered the entire lower end of Manhattan Island; visionary citizens
boasted that one day it would cover it all. The World's Fair building,
the Crystal Palace, stood a good way out. It was where Bryant Park is
now, on Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue. Young Clemens classed it
as one of the wonders of the world and wrote lavishly of its marvels.
A portion of a letter to his sister Pamela has been preserved and is
given here not only for what it contains, but as the earliest existing
specimen of his composition. The fragment concludes what was doubtless
an exhaustive description.
From the gallery (second floor) you have a glorious sight--the flags
of the different countries represented, the lofty dome, glittering
jewelry, gaudy tapestry, etc., with the busy crowd passing to and
fro 'tis a perfect fairy palace--beautiful beyond description.
The machinery department is on the main floor, but I cannot
enumerate any of it on account of the lateness of the hour (past 1
o'clock). It would take more than a week to examine everything on
exhibition; and I was only in a little over two hours to-night.
I only glanced at about one-third of the articles; and, having a
poor memory, I have enumerated scarcely any of even the principal
objects. The visitors to the Palace average 6,000 daily--double the
population of Hannibal. The price of admission being 50 cents, they
take in about $3,000.
The Latting Observatory (height about 280 feet) is near the Palace-
from it you can obtain a grand view of the city and the country
around. The Croton Aqueduct, to supply the city with water, is the
greatest wonder yet. Immense sewers are laid across the bed of the
Hudson River, and pass through the country to Westchester County,
where a whole river is turned from its course and brought to New
York. From the reservoir in the city to the Westchester County
reservoir the distance is thirty-eight miles and, if necessary, they
could easily supply every family in New York with one hundred
barrels of water per day!
I am very sorry to learn that Henry has been sick. He ought to go
to the country and take exercise, for he is not half so healthy as
Ma thinks he is. If he had my walking to do, he would be another
boy entirely. Four times every day I walk a little over a mile; and
working hard all day and walking four miles is exercise. I am used
to it now, though, and it is no trouble. Where is it Orion's going
to? Tell Ma my promises are faithfully kept; and if I have my
health I will take her to Ky. in the spring--I shall save money for
this. Tell Jim (Wolfe) and all the rest of them to write, and give
me all the news ....
(It has just struck 2 A.M., and I always get up at 6, and am at work
at 7.) You ask where I spend my evenings. Where would you suppose,
with a free printer's library containing more than 4,000 volumes
within a quarter of a mile of me, and nobody at home to talk to?
Truly your brother, SAM
P.S.-I have written this by a light so dim that you nor Ma could not
read by it. Write, and let me know how Henry is.
It is a good letter; it is direct and clear in its descriptive quality,
and it gives us a scale of things. Double the population of Hannibal
visited the Crystal Palace in one day! and the water to supply the city
came a distance of thirty-eight miles! Doubtless these were amazing
Then there was the interest in family affairs--always strong--his concern
for Henry, whom he loved tenderly; his memory of the promise to his
mother; his understanding of her craving to visit her old home. He did
not write to her direct, for the reason that Orion's plans were then
uncertain, and it was not unlikely that he had already found a new
location. From this letter, too, we learn that the boy who detested
school was reveling in a library of four thousand books--more than he had
ever seen together before. We have somehow the feeling that he had all
at once stepped from boyhood to manhood, and that the separation was
marked by a very definite line.
The work he had secured was in Cliff Street in the printing establishment
of John A. Gray & Green, who agreed to pay him four dollars a week, and
did pay that amount in wildcat money, which saved them about twenty-five
per cent. of the sum. He lodged at a mechanics' boarding-house in Duane
Street, and when he had paid his board and washing he sometimes had as
much as fifty cents to lay away.
He did not like the board. He had been accustomed to the Southern mode
of cooking, and wrote home complaining that New-Yorkers did not have
"hot-bread" or biscuits, but ate "light-bread," which they allowed to get
stale, seeming to prefer it in that way. On the whole, there was not
much inducement to remain in New York after he had satisfied himself with
its wonders. He lingered, however, through the hot months of 1853, and
found it not easy to go. In October he wrote to Pamela, suggesting plans
for Orion; also for Henry and Jim Wolfe, whom he seems never to have
overlooked. Among other things he says:
I have not written to any of the family for some time, from the
fact, firstly, that I didn't know where they were, and, secondly,
because I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to
leave New York every day for the last two weeks. I have taken a
liking to the abominable place, and every time I get ready to leave
I put it off a day or so, from some unaccountable cause. I think I
shall get off Tuesday, though.
Edwin Forrest has been playing for the last sixteen days at the
Broadway Theater, but I never went to see him till last night. The
play was the "Gladiator." I did not like parts of it much, but
other portions were really splendid. In the latter part of the last
act, where the "Gladiator" (Forrest) dies at his brother's feet (in
all the fierce pleasure of gratified revenge), the man's whole soul
seems absorbed in the part he is playing; and it is really startling
to see him. I am sorry I did not see him play "Damon and Pythias"--
the former character being the greatest. He appears in Philadelphia
on Monday night.
I have not received a letter from home lately, but got a "Journal"
the other day, in which I see the office has been sold . . . .
If my letters do not come often, you need not bother yourself about
me; for if you have a brother nearly eighteen years of age who is
not able to take care of himself a few miles from home, such a
brother is not worth one's thoughts; and if I don't manage to take
care of No. 1, be assured you will never know it. I am not afraid,
however; I shall ask favors of no one and endeavor to be (and shall
be) as "independent as a wood-sawyer's clerk.". . .
Passage to Albany (160 miles) on the finest steamers that ply the
Hudson is now 25 cents--cheap enough, but is generally cheaper than
that in the summer.
"I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to leave New
York" is distinctly a Mark Twain phrase. He might have said that fifty
He did go to Philadelphia presently and found work "subbing" on a daily
paper,'The Inquirer.' He was a fairly swift compositor. He could set
ten thousand ems a day, and he received pay according to the amount of
work done. Days or evenings when there was no vacant place for him to
fill he visited historic sites, the art-galleries, and the libraries.
He was still acquiring education, you see. Sometimes at night when he
returned to his boardinghouse his room-mate, an Englishman named Sumner,
grilled a herring, and this was regarded as a feast. He tried his hand
at writing in Philadelphia, though this time without success. For some
reason he did not again attempt to get into the Post, but offered his
contributions to the Philadelphia 'Ledger'--mainly poetry of an obituary
kind. Perhaps it was burlesque; he never confessed that, but it seems
unlikely that any other obituary poetry would have failed of print.
"My efforts were not received with approval," was all he ever said of it
There were two or three characters in the 'Inquirer' office whom he did
not forget. One of these was an old compositor who had "held a case" in
that office for many years. His name was Frog, and sometimes when he
went away the "office devils" would hang a line over his case, with a
hook on it baited with a piece of red flannel. They never got tired of
this joke, and Frog was always able to get as mad over it as he had been
in the beginning. Another old fellow there furnished amusement. He
owned a house in the distant part of the city and had an abnormal fear of
fire. Now and then, when everything was quiet except the clicking of the
types, some one would step to the window and say with a concerned air:
"Doesn't that smoke--[or that light, if it was evening]--seem to be in
the northwestern part of the city?" or "There go the fire-bells again!"
and away the old man would tramp up to the roof to investigate. It was
not the most considerate sport, and it is to be feared that Sam Clemens
had his share in it.
He found that he liked Philadelphia. He could save a little money there,
for one thing, and now and then sent something to his mother--small
amounts, but welcome and gratifying, no doubt. In a letter to Orion--
whom he seems to have forgiven with absence--written October 26th, he
incloses a gold dollar to buy her a handkerchief, and "to serve as a
specimen of the kind of stuff we are paid with in Philadelphia." Further
along he adds:
Unlike New York, I like this Philadelphia amazingly, and the people
in it. There is only one thing that gets my "dander" up--and that
is the hands are always encouraging me: telling me "it's no use to
get discouraged--no use to be downhearted, for there is more work
here than you can do!" "Downhearted," the devil! I have not had a
particle of such a feeling since I left Hannibal, more than four
months ago. I fancy they'll have to wait some time till they see me
downhearted or afraid of starving while I have strength to work and
am in a city of 400,000 inhabitants. When I was in Hannibal, before
I had scarcely stepped out of the town limits, nothing could have
convinced me that I would starve as soon as I got a little way from
He mentions the grave of Franklin in Christ Churchyard with its
inscription "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin," and one is sharply reminded
of the similarity between the early careers of Benjamin Franklin and
Samuel Clemens. Each learned the printer's trade; each worked in his
brother's printing-office and wrote for the paper; each left quietly and
went to New York, and from New York to Philadelphia, as a journeyman
printer; each in due season became a world figure, many-sided, human, and
of incredible popularity.
The foregoing letter ends with a long description of a trip made on the
Fairmount stage. It is a good, vivid description--impressions of a
fresh, sensitive mind, set down with little effort at fine writing; a
letter to convey literal rather than literary enjoyment. The Wire
Bridge, Fairmount Park and Reservoir, new buildings--all these passed in
review. A fine residence about completed impressed him:
It was built entirely of great blocks of red granite. The pillars
in front were all finished but one. These pillars were beautiful,
ornamental fluted columns, considerably larger than a hogshead at
the base, and about as high as Clapinger's second-story front
windows . . . . To see some of them finished and standing, and
then the huge blocks lying about, looks so massy, and carries one,
in imagination, to the ruined piles of ancient Babylon. I despise
the infernal bogus brick columns plastered over with mortar. Marble
is the cheapest building-stone about Philadelphia.
There is a flavor of the 'Innocents' about it; then a little further
I saw small steamboats, with their signs up--"For Wissahickon and
Manayunk 25 cents." Geo. Lippard, in his Legends of Washington and
his Generals, has rendered the Wissahickon sacred in my eyes, and I
shall make that trip, as well as one to Germantown, soon . . . .
There is one fine custom observed in Phila. A gentleman is always
expected to hand up a lady's money for her. Yesterday I sat in the
front end of the bus, directly under the driver's box--a lady sat
opposite me. She handed me her money, which was right. But, Lord!
a St. Louis lady would think herself ruined if she should be so
familiar with a stranger. In St. Louis a man will sit in the front
end of the stage, and see a lady stagger from the far end to pay her
There are two more letters from Philadelphia: one of November, 28th, to
Orion, who by this time had bought a paper in Muscatine, Iowa, and
located the family there; and one to Pamela dated December 5th.
Evidently Orion had realized that his brother might be of value as a
contributor, for the latter says:
I will try to write for the paper occasionally, but I fear my
letters will be very uninteresting, for this incessant night work
dulls one's ideas amazingly.... I believe I am the only person in
the Inquirer office that does not drink. One young fellow makes $18
for a few weeks, and gets on a grand "bender" and spends every cent
How do you like "free soil"?--I would like amazingly to see a good
old-fashioned negro. My love to all.
Truly your brother, SAM
In the letter to Pamela he is clearly homesick.
"I only want to return to avoid night work, which is injuring my eyes,"
is the excuse, but in the next sentence he complains of the scarcity of
letters from home and those "not written as they should be." "One only
has to leave home to learn how to write interesting letters to an absent
friend," he says, and in conclusion, "I don't like our present prospect
for cold weather at all."
He had been gone half a year, and the first attack of home-longing, for a
boy of his age, was due. The novelty of things had worn off; it was
coming on winter; changes had taken place among his home people and
friends; the life he had known best and longest was going on and he had
no part in it. Leaning over his case, he sometimes hummed:
"An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain."
He weathered the attack and stuck it out for more than half a year
longer. In January, when the days were dark and he grew depressed, he
made a trip to Washington to see the sights of the capital. His stay was
comparatively brief, and he did not work there. He returned to
Philadelphia, working for a time on the Ledger and North American.
Finally he went back to New York. There are no letters of this period.
His second experience in New York appears not to have been recorded, and
in later years was only vaguely remembered. It was late in the summer of
1854 when he finally set out on his return to the West. His 'Wanderjahr'
had lasted nearly fifteen months.
He went directly to St. Louis, sitting up three days and nights in a
smoking-car to make the journey. He was worn out when he arrived, but
stopped there only a few hours to see Pamela. It was his mother he was
anxious for. He took the Keokuk Packet that night, and, flinging himself
on his berth, slept the clock three times around, scarcely rousing or
turning over, only waking at last at Muscatine. For a long time that
missing day confused his calculations.
When he reached Orion's house the family sat at breakfast. He came in
carrying a gun. They had not been expecting him, and there was a general
outcry, and a rush in his direction. He warded them off, holding the
butt of the gun in front of him.
"You wouldn't let me buy a gun," he said, "so I bought one myself, and I
am going to use it, now, in self-defense."
"You, Sam! You, Sam!" cried Jane Clemens. "Behave yourself," for she
was wary of a gun.
Then he had had his joke and gave himself into his mother's arms.
Orion wished his brother to remain with him in the Muscatine office, but
the young man declared he must go to St. Louis and earn some money before
he would be able to afford that luxury: He returned to his place on the
St. Louis Evening News, where he remained until late winter or early
spring of the following year.
He lived at this time with a Pavey family, probably one of the Hannibal
Paveys, rooming with a youth named Frank E. Burrough, a journeyman chair-
maker with a taste for Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, and Disraeli. Burrough
had really a fine literary appreciation for his years, and the boys were
comrades and close friends. Twenty-two years later Mark Twain exchanged
with Burrough some impressions of himself at that earlier time. Clemens
MY DEAR BURROUGH,--As you describe me I can picture myself as I was
22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown
some; upon my word there was room for it. You have described a
callow fool, a self-sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug, stern
in air, heaving at his bit of dung, imagining that he is remodeling
the world and is entirely capable of doing it right.... That is
what I was at 19-20.
Orion Clemens in the mean time had married and removed to Keokuk. He had
married during a visit to that city, in the casual, impulsive way so
characteristic of him, and the fact that he had acquired a wife in the
operation seemed at first to have escaped his inner consciousness. He
tells it himself; he says:
At sunrise on the next morning after the wedding we left in a stage
for Muscatine. We halted for dinner at Burlington. After
despatching that meal we stood on the pavement when the stage drove
up, ready for departure. I climbed in, gathered the buffalo robe
around me, and leaned back unconscious that I had anything further
to do. A gentleman standing on the pavement said to my wife, "Miss,
do you go by this stage?" I said, "Oh, I forgot!" and sprang out
and helped her in. A wife was a new kind of possession to which I
had not yet become accustomed; I had forgotten her.
Orion's wife had been Mary Stotts; her mother a friend of Jane Clemens's
girlhood. She proved a faithful helpmate to Orion; but in those early
days of marriage she may have found life with him rather trying, and it
was her homesickness that brought them to Keokuk. Brother Sam came up
from St. Louis, by and by, to visit them, and Orion offered him five
dollars a week and board to remain. He accepted. The office at this
time, or soon after, was located on the third floor of 52 Main Street, in
the building at present occupied by the Paterson Shoe Company. Henry
Clemens, now seventeen, was also in Orion's employ, and a lad by the name
of Dick Hingham. Henry and Sam slept in the office, and Dick came in for
social evenings. Also a young man named Edward Brownell, who clerked in
the book-store on the ground floor.
These were likely to be lively evenings. A music dealer and teacher,
Professor Isbell, occupied the floor just below, and did not care for
their diversions. He objected, but hardly in the right way. Had he gone
to Samuel Clemens gently, he undoubtedly would have found him willing to
make any concessions. Instead, he assailed him roughly, and the next
evening the boys set up a lot of empty wine-bottles, which they had found
in a barrel in a closet, and, with stones for balls, played tenpins on
the office floor. This was Dick and Sam; Henry declined to join the
game. Isbell rushed up-stairs and battered on the door, but they paid no
attention. Next morning he waited for the young men and denounced them
wildly. They merely ignored him, and that night organized a military
company, made up of themselves and a new German apprentice-boy, and
drilled up and down over the singing-class. Dick Hingham led these
military manoeuvers. He was a girlish sort of a fellow, but he had a
natural taste for soldiering. The others used to laugh at him. They
called him a disguised girl, and declared he would run if a gun were
really pointed in his direction. They were mistaken; seven years later
Dick died at Fort Donelson with a bullet in his forehead: this, by the
Isbell now adopted new tactics. He came up very pleasantly and said:
"I like your military practice better than your tenpin exercise, but on
the whole it seems to disturb the young ladies. You see how it is
yourself. You couldn't possibly teach music with a company of raw
recruits drilling overhead--now, could you? Won't you please stop it?
It bothers my pupils."
Sam Clemens regarded him with mild surprise.
"Does it?" he said, very deliberately. "Why didn't you mention it
before? To be sure we don't want to disturb the young ladies."
They gave up the horse-play, and not only stopped the disturbance, but
joined one of the singing--classes. Samuel Clemens had a pretty good
voice in those days and could drum fairly well on a piano and guitar.
He did not become a brilliant musician, but he was easily the most
popular member of the singing-class.
They liked his frank nature, his jokes, and his humor; his slow, quaint
fashion of speech. The young ladies called him openly and fondly a
"fool"--a term of endearment, as they applied it meaning only that he
kept them in a more or less constant state of wonder and merriment; and
indeed it would have been hard for them to say whether he was really
light-minded and frivolous or the wisest of them all. He was twenty now
and at the age for love-making; yet he remained, as in Hannibal, a beau
rather than a suitor, good friend and comrade to all, wooer of none.
Ella Creel, a cousin on the Lampton side, a great belle; also Ella
Patterson (related through Orion's wife and generally known as "Ick"),
and Belle Stotts were perhaps his favorite companions, but there were
many more. He was always ready to stop and be merry with them, full of
his pranks and pleasantries; though they noticed that he quite often
carried a book under his arm--a history or a volume of Dickens or the
tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
He read at odd moments; at night voluminously--until very late,
sometimes. Already in that early day it was his habit to smoke in bed,
and he had made him an Oriental pipe of the hubble-bubble variety,
because it would hold more and was more comfortable than the regular
short pipe of daytime use.
But it had its disadvantages. Sometimes it would go out, and that would
mean sitting up and reaching for a match and leaning over to light the
bowl which stood on the floor. Young Brownell from below was passing
upstairs to his room on the fourth floor one night when he heard Sam
Clemens call. The two were great chums by this time, and Brownell poked
his head in at the door.
"What will you have, Sam?" he asked.
"Come in, Ed; Henry's asleep, and I am in trouble. I want somebody to
light my pipe."
"Why don't you get up and light it yourself?" Brownell asked.
"I would, only I knew you'd be along in a few minutes and would do it for
Brownell scratched the necessary match, stooped down, and applied it.
"What are you reading, Sam?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing much--a so-called funny book--one of these days I'll write a
funnier book than that, myself."
"No, you won't, Sam," he said. "You are too lazy ever to write a book."
A good many years later when the name "Mark Twain" had begun to stand for
American humor the owner of it gave his "Sandwich Island" lecture in
Keokuk. Speaking of the unreliability of the islanders, he said: "The
king is, I believe, one of the greatest liars on the face of the earth,
except one; and I am very sorry to locate that one right here in the city
of Keokuk, in the person of Ed Brownell."
The Keokuk episode in Mark Twain's life was neither very long nor very
actively important. It extended over a period of less than two years--
two vital years, no doubt, if all the bearings could be known--but they
were not years of startling occurrence.
Yet he made at least one beginning there: at a printers' banquet he
delivered his first after-dinner speech; a hilarious speech--its humor of
a primitive kind. Whatever its shortcomings, it delighted his audience,
and raised him many points in the public regard. He had entered a field
of entertainment in which he would one day have no rival. They impressed
him into a debating society after that, and there was generally a stir of
attention when Sam Clemens was about to take the floor.
Orion Clemens records how his brother undertook to teach the German
"There was an old guitar in the office and Sam taught Fritz a song
"Grasshopper sitting on a sweet-potato vine,
Turkey came along and yanked him from behind."
The main point in the lesson was in giving to the word "yanked" the
proper expression and emphasis, accompanied by a sweep of the fingers
across the strings. With serious face and deep earnestness Fritz in his
broken English would attempt these lines, while his teacher would bend
over and hold his sides with laughter at each ridiculous effort. Without
intending it, Fritz had his revenge. One day his tormentor's hand was
caught in the press when the German boy was turning the wheel. Sam
called to him to stop, but the boy's mind was slow to grasp the
situation. The hand was badly wounded, though no bones were broken. In
due time it recovered, its power and dexterity, but the trace of the
Orion's printing-office was not a prosperous one; he had not the gift of
prosperity in any form. When he found it difficult to pay his brother's
wages, he took him into partnership, which meant that Sam got no wages at
all, barely a living, for the office could not keep its head above water.
The junior partner was not disturbed, however. He cared little for money
in those days, beyond his actual needs, and these were modest enough.
His mother, now with Pamela, was amply provided for. Orion himself tells
how his business dwindled away. He printed a Keokuk directory, but it
did not pay largely. He was always too eager for the work; too low in
his bid for it. Samuel Clemens in this directory is set down as "an
antiquarian" a joke, of course, though the point of it is now lost.
Only two of his Keokuk letters have been preserved. The first indicates
the general disorder of the office and a growing dissatisfaction. It is
addressed to his mother and sister and bears date of June 10, 1856.
I don't like to work at too many things at once. They take Henry
and Dick away from me, too. Before we commenced the Directory,--
[Orion printed two editions of the directory. This was probably the
second one.]--I could tell before breakfast just how much work
could be done during the day, and manage accordingly--but now, they
throw all my plans into disorder by taking my hands away from their
work.... I am not getting along well with the job-work. I can't
work blindly--without system. I gave Dick a job yesterday, which I
calculated he could set in two hours and I could work off on the
press in three, and therefore just finish it by supper-time, but he
was transferred to the Directory, and the job, promised this
morning, remains untouched. Through all the great pressure of job-
work lately, I never before failed in a promise of the kind . . .
The other letter is dated two months later, August 5th. It was written
to Henry, who was visiting in St. Louis or Hannibal at the time, and
introduces the first mention of the South American fever, which now
possessed the writer. Lynch and Herndon had completed their survey of
the upper Amazon, and Lieutenant Herndon's account of the exploration was
being widely read. Poring over the book nights, young Clemens had been
seized with a desire to go to the headwaters of the South American river,
there to collect coca and make a fortune. All his life he was subject to
such impulses as that, and ways and means were not always considered. It
did not occur to him that it would be difficult to get to the Amazon and
still more difficult to ascend the river. It was his nature to see
results with a dazzling largeness that blinded him to the detail of their
achievement. In the "Turning-point" article already mentioned he refers
to this. He says:
That was more than fifty years ago. In all that time my temperament
has not changed by even a shade. I have been punished many and many
a time, and bitterly, for doing things and reflecting afterward, but
these tortures have been of no value to me; I still do the thing
commanded by Circumstance and Temperament, and reflect afterward.
Always violently. When I am reflecting on these occasions, even
deaf persons can hear me think.
In the letter to Henry we see that his resolve was already made, his
plans matured; also that Orion had not as yet been taken into full
Ma knows my determination, but even she counsels me to keep it from
Orion. She says I can treat him as I did her when I started to St.
Louis and went to New York--I can start for New York and go to South
He adds that Orion had promised him fifty or one hundred dollars, but
that he does not depend upon it, and will make other arrangements. He
fears obstacles may be put in his way, and he will bring various
influences to bear.
I shall take care that Ma and Orion are plentifully supplied with
South American books: They have Herndon's report now. Ward and the
Dr. and myself will hold a grand consultation to-night at the
office. We have agreed that no more shall be admitted into our
He had enlisted those two adventurers in his enterprise: a Doctor Martin
and the young man, Ward. They were very much in earnest, but the start
was not made as planned, most likely for want of means.
Young Clemens, however, did not give up the idea. He made up his mind to
work in the direction of his desire, following his trade and laying by
money for the venture. But Fate or Providence or Accident--whatever we
may choose to call the unaccountable--stepped in just then, and laid
before him the means of turning another sharp corner in his career. One
of those things happened which we refuse to accept in fiction as
possible; but fact has a smaller regard for the credibilities.
As in the case of the Joan of Arc episode (and this adds to its marvel),
it was the wind that brought the talismanic gift. It was a day in early
November--bleak, bitter, and gusty, with curling snow; most persons were
indoors. Samuel Clemens, going down Main Street, saw a flying bit of
paper pass him and lodge against the side of a building. Something about
it attracted him and he captured it. It was a fifty-dollar bill. He had
never seen one before, but he recognized it. He thought he must be
having a pleasant dream.
The temptation came to pocket his good-fortune and say nothing. His need
of money was urgent, but he had also an urgent and troublesome
conscience; in the end he advertised his find.
"I didn't describe it very particularly, and I waited in daily fear that
the owner would turn up and take away my fortune. By and by I couldn't
stand it any longer. My conscience had gotten all that was coming to it.
I felt that I must take that money out of danger."
In the "Turning-point" article he says: "I advertised the find and left
for the Amazon the same day," a statement which we may accept with a
As a matter of fact, he remained ample time and nobody ever came for the
money. It may have been swept out of a bank or caught up by the wind
from some counting-room table. It may have materialized out of the
unseen--who knows? At all events it carried him the first stage of a
journey, the end of which he little dreamed.
SCOTCHMAN NAMED MACFARLANE
He concluded to go to Cincinnati, which would be on the way either to New
York or New Orleans (he expected to sail from one of these points), but
first paid a brief visit to his mother in St. Louis, for he had a far
journey and along absence in view. Jane Clemens made him renew his
promise as to cards and liquor, and gave him her blessing. He had
expected to go from St. Louis to Cincinnati, but a new idea--a literary
idea--came to him, and he returned to Keokuk. The Saturday Post, a
Keokuk weekly, was a prosperous sheet giving itself certain literary
airs. He was in favor with the management, of which George Rees was the
head, and it had occurred to him that he could send letters of his
travels to the Post--for, a consideration. He may have had a still
larger ambition; at least, the possibility of a book seems to have been
in his consciousness. Rees agreed to take letters from him at five
dollars each--good payment for that time and place. The young traveler,
jubilant in the prospect of receiving money for literature, now made
another start, this time by way of Quincy, Chicago, and Indianapolis
according to his first letter in the Post.--[Supplied by Thomas Rees, of
the Springfield (Illinois) Register, son of George Rees named.]
This letter is dated Cincinnati, November 14, 1856, and it is not a
promising literary production. It was written in the exaggerated dialect
then regarded as humorous, and while here and there are flashes of the
undoubted Mark Twain type, they are few and far between. The genius that
a little more than ten years later would delight the world flickered
feebly enough at twenty-one. The letter is a burlesque account of the
trip to Cincinnati. A brief extract from it, as characteristic as any,
I went down one night to the railroad office there, purty close onto
the Laclede House, and bought about a quire o' yaller paper, cut up
into tickets--one for each railroad in the United States, I thought,
but I found out afterwards that the Alexandria and Boston Air-Line
was left out--and then got a baggage feller to take my trunk down to
the boat, where he spilled it out on the levee, bustin' it open and
shakin' out the contents, consisting of "guides" to Chicago, and
"guides" to Cincinnati, and travelers' guides, and all kinds of sich
books, not excepting a "guide to heaven," which last aint much use
to a Teller in Chicago, I kin tell you. Finally, that fast packet
quit ringing her bell, and started down the river--but she hadn't
gone morn a mile, till she ran clean up on top of a sand-bar, whar
she stuck till plum one o'clock, spite of the Captain's swearin'--
and they had to set the whole crew to cussin' at last afore they got
This is humor, we may concede, of that early American type which a little
later would have its flower in Nasby and Artemus Ward. Only careful
examination reveals in it a hint of the later Mark Twain. The letters
were signed "Snodgrass," and there are but two of them. The second,
dated exactly four months after the first, is in the same assassinating
dialect, and recounts among other things the scarcity of coal in
Cincinnati and an absurd adventure in which Snodgrass has a baby left on
From the fewness of the letters we may assume that Snodgrass found them
hard work, and it is said he raised on the price. At all events, the
second concluded the series. They are mainly important in that they are
the first of his contributions that have been preserved; also the first
for which he received a cash return.
He secured work at his trade in Cincinnati at the printing-office of
Wrightson & Co., and remained there until April, 1857. That winter in
Cincinnati was eventless enough, but it was marked by one notable
association--one that beyond doubt forwarded Samuel Clemens's general
interest in books, influenced his taste, and inspired in him certain
views and philosophies which he never forgot.
He lodged at a cheap boarding-house filled with the usual commonplace
people, with one exception. This exception was a long, lank, unsmiling
Scotchman named Macfarlane, who was twice as old as Clemens and wholly
unlike him--without humor or any comprehension of it. Yet meeting on the
common plane of intellect, the two became friends. Clemens spent his
evenings in Macfarlane's room until the clock struck ten; then Macfarlane
grilled a herring, just as the Englishman Sumner in Philadelphia had done
two years before, and the evening ended.
Macfarlane had books, serious books: histories, philosophies, and
scientific works; also a Bible and a dictionary. He had studied these
and knew them by heart; he was a direct and diligent talker. He never
talked of himself, and beyond the statement that he had acquired his
knowledge from reading, and not at school, his personality was a mystery.
He left the house at six in the morning and returned at the same hour in
the evening. His hands were hardened from some sort of toil-mechanical
labor, his companion thought, but he never knew. He would have liked to
know, and he watched for some reference to slip out that would betray
Macfarlane's trade; but this never happened.
What he did learn was that Macfarlane was a veritable storehouse of
abstruse knowledge; a living dictionary, and a thinker and philosopher
besides. He had at least one vanity: the claim that he knew every word
in the English dictionary, and he made it good. The younger man tried
repeatedly to discover a word that Macfarlane could not define.
Perhaps Macfarlane was vain of his other mental attainments, for he never
tired of discoursing upon deep and grave matters, and his companion never
tired of listening. This Scotch philosopher did not always reflect the
conclusions of others; he had speculated deeply and strikingly on his own
account. That was a good while before Darwin and Wallace gave out--their
conclusions on the Descent of Man; yet Macfarlane was already advancing a
similar philosophy. He went even further: Life, he said, had been
developed in the course of ages from a few microscopic seed-germs--from
one, perhaps, planted by the Creator in the dawn of time, and that from
this beginning development on an ascending scale had finally produced
man. Macfarlane said that the scheme had stopped there, and failed; that
man had retrograded; that man's heart was the only bad one in the animal
kingdom: that man was the only animal capable of malice, vindictiveness,
drunkenness--almost the only animal that could endure personal
uncleanliness. He said that man's intellect was a depraving addition to
him which, in the end, placed him in a rank far below the other beasts,
though it enabled him to keep them in servitude and captivity, along with
many members of his own race.
They were long, fermenting discourses that young Samuel Clemens listened
to that winter in Macfarlane's room, and those who knew the real Mark
Twain and his philosophies will recognize that those evenings left their
impress upon him for life.
THE OLD CALL OF THE RIVER
When spring came, with budding life and quickening impulses; when the
trees in the parks began to show a hint of green, the Amazonian idea
developed afresh, and the would-be coca-hunter prepared for his
expedition. He had saved a little money--enough to take him to New
Orleans--and he decided to begin his long trip with a peaceful journey
down the Mississippi, for once, at least, to give himself up to that
indolent luxury of the majestic stream that had been so large a part of
his early dreams.
The Ohio River steamers were not the most sumptuous craft afloat, but
they were slow and hospitable. The winter had been bleak and hard.
"Spring fever" and a large love of indolence had combined in that drowsy
condition which makes one willing to take his time.
Mark Twain tells us in Life on the Mississippi that he "ran away," vowing
never to return until he could come home a pilot, shedding glory. This
is a literary statement. The pilot ambition had never entirely died; but
it was coca and the Amazon that were uppermost in his head when he
engaged passage on the Paul Jones for New Orleans, and so conferred
immortality on that ancient little craft. He bade good-by to Macfarlane,
put his traps aboard, the bell rang, the whistle blew, the gang-plank was
hauled in, and he had set out on a voyage that was to continue not for a
week or a fortnight, but for four years--four marvelous, sunlit years,
the glory of which would color all that followed them.
In the Mississippi book the author conveys the impression of being then a
boy of perhaps seventeen. Writing from that standpoint he records
incidents that were more or less inventions or that happened to others.
He was, in reality, considerably more than twenty-one years old, for it
was in April, 1857, that he went aboard the Paul Jones; and he was fairly
familiar with steamboats and the general requirements of piloting. He
had been brought up in a town that turned out pilots; he had heard the
talk of their trade. One at least of the Bowen boys was already on the
river while Sam Clemens was still a boy in Hannibal, and had often been
home to air his grandeur and dilate on the marvel of his work. That
learning the river was no light task Sam Clemens very well knew.
Nevertheless, as the little boat made its drowsy way down the river into
lands that grew ever pleasanter with advancing spring, the old "permanent
ambition" of boyhood stirred again, and the call of the far-away Amazon,
with its coca and its variegated zoology, grew faint.
Horace Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones, then a man of thirty-two, still
living (1910) and at the wheel,--[The writer of this memoir interviewed
Mr. Bixby personally, and has followed his phrasing throughout.]--was
looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a
slow, pleasant voice say:
Bixby was a clean-cut, direct, courteous man.
"Good morning, sir," he said, briskly, without looking around.
As a rule Mr. Bixby did not care for visitors in the pilot-house. This
one presently came up and stood a little behind him.
"How would you like a young man to learn the river?" he said.
The pilot glanced over his shoulder and saw a rather slender, loose-
limbed young fellow with a fair, girlish complexion and a great tangle of
"I wouldn't like it. Cub pilots are more trouble than they're worth.
A great deal more trouble than profit."
The applicant was not discouraged.
"I am a printer by trade," he went on, in his easy, deliberate way.
"It doesn't agree with me. I thought I'd go to South America."
Bixby kept his eye on the river; but a note of interest crept into his
"What makes you pull your words that way?" ("pulling" being the river
term for drawling), he asked.
The young man had taken a seat on the visitors' bench.
"You'll have to ask my mother," he said, more slowly than ever. "She
pulls hers, too."
Pilot Bixby woke up and laughed; he had a keen sense of humor, and the
manner of the reply amused him. His guest made another advance.
"Do you know the Bowen boys?" he asked--"pilots in the St. Louis and New
"I know them well--all three of them. William Bowen did his first
steering for me; a mighty good boy, too. Had a Testament in his pocket
when he came aboard; in a week's time he had swapped it for a pack of
cards. I know Sam, too, and Bart."
"Old schoolmates of mine in Hannibal. Sam and Will especially were my
"Come over and stand by the side of me," he said. "What is your name?"
The applicant told him, and the two stood looking at the sunlit water.
"Do you drink?"
"Do you gamble?"
"Do you swear?"
"Not for amusement; only under pressure."
"Do you chew?"
"No, sir, never; but I must smoke."
"Did you ever do any steering?" was Bixby's next question.
"I have steered everything on the river but a steamboat, I guess."
"Very well; take the wheel and see what you can do with a steamboat.
Keep her as she is--toward that lower cottonwood, snag."
Bixby had a sore foot and was glad of a little relief. He sat down on
the bench and kept a careful eye on the course. By and by he said:
"There is just one way that I would take a young man to learn the river:
that is, for money."
"What do you charge?"
"Five hundred dollars, and I to be at no expense whatever."
In those days pilots were allowed to carry a learner, or "cub," board
free. Mr. Bixby meant that he was to be at no expense in port, or for
incidentals. His terms looked rather discouraging.
"I haven't got five hundred dollars in money," Sam said; "I've got a lot
of Tennessee land worth twenty-five cents an acre; I'll give you two
thousand acres of that."
"No; I don't want any unimproved real estate. I have too much already."
Sam reflected upon the amount he could probably borrow from Pamela's
husband without straining his credit.
"Well, then, I'll give you one hundred dollars cash and the rest when I
Something about this young man had won Horace Bixby's heart. His slow,
pleasant speech; his unhurried, quiet manner with the wheel, his evident
sincerity of purpose--these were externals, but beneath them the pilot
felt something of that quality of mind or heart which later made the
world love Mark Twain. The terms proposed were agreed upon. The
deferred payments were to begin when the pupil had learned the river and
was receiving pilot's wages. During Mr. Bixby's daylight watches his
pupil was often at the wheel, that trip, while the pilot sat directing
him and nursing his sore foot. Any literary ambitions Samuel Clemens may
have had grew dim; by the time they had reached New Orleans he had almost
forgotten he had been a printer, and when he learned that no ship would
be sailing to the Amazon for an indefinite period the feeling grew that a
directing hand had taken charge of his affairs.
From New Orleans his chief did not return to Cincinnati, but went to St.
Louis, taking with him his new cub, who thought it fine, indeed, to come
steaming up to that great city with its thronging water-front; its levee
fairly packed with trucks, drays, and piles of freight, the whole flanked
with a solid mile of steamboats lying side by side, bow a little up-
stream, their belching stacks reared high against the blue--a towering
front of trade. It was glorious to nose one's way to a place in that
stately line, to become a unit, however small, of that imposing fleet.
At St. Louis Sam borrowed from Mr. Moffett the funds necessary to make up
his first payment, and so concluded his contract. Then, when he suddenly
found himself on a fine big boat, in a pilot-house so far above the water
that he seemed perched on a mountain--a "sumptuous temple"--his happiness
THE SUPREME SCIENCE
In his Mississippi book Mark Twain has given us a marvelous exposition of
the science of river-piloting, and of the colossal task of acquiring and
keeping a knowledge requisite for that work. He has not exaggerated this
part of the story of developments in any detail; he has set down a simple
Serenely enough he undertook the task of learning twelve hundred miles of
the great changing, shifting river as exactly and as surely by daylight
or darkness as one knows the way to his own features. As already
suggested, he had at least an inkling of what that undertaking meant.
His statement that he "supposed all that a pilot had to do was to keep
his boat in the river" is not to be accepted literally. Still he could
hardly have realized the full majesty of his task; nobody could do that--
not until afterward.
Horace Bixby was a "lightning" pilot with a method of instruction as
direct and forcible as it was effective. He was a small man, hot and
quick-firing, though kindly, too, and gentle when he had blown off.
After one rather pyrotechnic misunderstanding as to the manner of
imparting and acquiring information he said:
"My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, 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."
So Sam Clemens got the little book, and presently it "fairly bristled"
with the names of towns, points, bars, islands, bends, and reaches, but
it made his heart ache to think that he had only half of the river set
down; for, as the "watches" were four hours off and four hours on, there
were long gaps during which he had slept.
The little note-book still exists--thin and faded, with black water-proof
covers--its neat, tiny, penciled notes still, telling, the story of that
first trip. Most of them are cryptographic abbreviations, not readily
deciphered now. Here and there is an easier line:
1/4 less 3--[Depth of water. One-quarter less than three
fathoms.]----run shape of upper bar and go into the low place in
willows about 200(ft.) lower down than last year.
One simple little note out of hundreds far more complicated. It would
take days for the average mind to remember even a single page of such
statistics. And those long four-hour gaps where he had been asleep, they
are still there, and somehow, after more than fifty years, the old heart-
ache is still in them. He got a new book, maybe, for the next trip, and
laid this one away.
There is but one way to account for the fact that the man whom the world
knew as Mark Twain--dreamy, unpractical, and indifferent to details--ever
persisted in acquiring knowledge like that--in the vast, the absolutely
limitless quantity necessary to Mississippi piloting. It lies in the
fact that he loved the river in its every mood and aspect and detail, and
not only the river, but a steam boat; and still more, perhaps, the
freedom of the pilot's life and its prestige. Wherever he has written of
the river--and in one way or another he was always writing of it we feel
the claim of the old captivity and that it still holds him. In the
Huckleberry Finn book, during those nights and days with Huck and Nigger
Jim on the raft--whether in stormlit blackness, still noontide, or the
lifting mists of morning--we can fairly "smell" the river, as Huck
himself would say, and we know that it is because the writer loved it
with his heart of hearts and literally drank in its environment and
atmosphere during those halcyon pilot days.
So, in his love lay the secret of his marvelous learning, and it is
recorded (not by himself, but by his teacher) that he was an apt pupil.
Horace Bixby has more than once declared:
"Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river.
He had a fine memory and never forgot anything I told him."
Mark Twain himself records a different opinion of his memory, with the
size of its appalling task. It can only be presented in his own words.
In the pages quoted he had mastered somewhat of the problem, and had
begun to take on airs. His chief was a constant menace at such moments:
One day he turned on me suddenly with this settler:
"What is the shape of Walnut Bend?"
He might as well have asked me my grandmother's opinion of
protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn't know
it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a
bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was
out of adjectives.... I waited. By and by he said:
"My boy, you've got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is
all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything is
blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn't the same shape in the
night that it has in the daytime."
"How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?"
"How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the
shape of it. You can't see it."
"Do you mean to say that I've got to know all the million trifling
variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well
as I know the shape of the front hall at home?"
"On my honor, you've got to know them better than any man ever did
know the shapes of the halls in his own house."
"I wish I was dead!"
"Now, I don't want to discourage you, but----"
"Well, pile it on me; I might as well have it now as another time."
"You see, this has got to be learned; there isn't any getting around
it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that, if you
didn't know the shape of a shore perfectly, you would claw away from
every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it
for a solid cape; and, you see, you would be getting scared to death
every fifteen minutes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from
shore all the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it.
You can't see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know exactly
where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when you are
coming to it. Then there's your pitch-dark night; the river is a
very different shape on a pitch-dark night from what it is on a
starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and
mighty dim ones, too; and you'd run them for straight lines, only
you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems
to be a solid, straight wall (you know very well that in reality
there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for
you. Then there's your gray mist. You take a night when there's
one of these grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn't any
particular shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of
the oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of
moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways.
"Oh, don't say any more, please! Have I got to learn the shape of
the river according to all these five hundred thousand different
ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make
"No! you only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with
such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape
that's in your head, and never mind the one that's before your
"Very well, I'll try it; but, after I have learned it, can I depend
on it? Will it keep the same form, and not go fooling around?"
Before Mr. Bixby could answer, Mr. W. came in to take the watch, and
"Bixby, you'll have to look out for President's island, and all that
country clear away up above the Old Hen and Chickens. The banks are
caving and the shape of the shores changing like everything. Why,
you wouldn't know the point about 40. You can go up inside the old
sycamore snag now."
So that question was answered. Here were leagues of shore changing
shape. My spirits were down in the mud again. Two things seemed
pretty apparent to me. One was that in order to be a pilot a man
had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know;
and the other was that he must learn it all over again in a
different way every twenty-four hours.
I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the
eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or
hands on, that was the chief. I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp,
wooded point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of
me and go to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and
just as I was beginning to succeed to my satisfaction we would draw
up to it, and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and
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