Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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Considering chapters VI-VIII of Twain's Life on the Mississippi, how would you evaluate Horace Bixby as a teacher? Would you want him as a teacher?

Quick answer:

Mr. Bixby is an excellent teacher to Mark Twain, because he has so much practical experience on the Mississippi River. Although he speaks and acts in a rough manner, his pupil soon learns that this approach is necessary because of the danger involved in being a pilot. Mr. Bixby teaches his student by rote (memorization), observation, and experience; however, he also knows when to give praise, such as when his student steers well even in the dark or over a sandbar without incident. While some teachers would think him too harsh with Mark Twain, one must consider the fact that it was necessary for him to be authoritative since he was teaching someone to be a pilot on this dangerous river.

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[The evaluation of Mr. Bixby as a teacher for Mark Twain will certainly vary if he is to be judged by modern-day measurements or the standards of Twain's time. This response will present Bixby in the context of his time as a pilot on the Mississippi River and as a teacher for Twain. All other judgments will have to be made by the student.]         

At the end of Chapter VIII, Mr. Bixby, an experienced and respected riverboat pilot, says that when he sets out to teach someone to be a ship's pilot, he will "learn him or kill him." While this sounds rather radical, the gruff man means that he will never give up until someone learns. 

  • Trial and Error

When the pilot begins with Twain, he starts in an abrupt manner in order to prove that steering the boat may not be as easy as his apprentice believes it, "Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you'd peel an apple." Of course, Twain thinks that it is dangerous to go so closely to other ships and steers away. "Within ten seconds, I was set aside in disgrace" and Mr. Bixby pulls the steamboat near the shore again and "flaying" his pupil with "abuse of my cowardice." It is only later that Bixby explains why they must stay so close to shore. This is a lesson Twain does not forget.

Later, Mr. Bixby simply remarks, "There's Six Mile Point,"  then the other points. All these points are about level with the water's edge and look alike to Twain, who does not recognize any significance to them. Again, it is not until later on that Mr. Bixby asks Twain about them and explains why he should have remembered them. 

Then, Twain is awakened one night without explanation and made to come to the pilot's house and watch the pilot steer in the night. When Mr. Bixby asks the youth what is the name of the first point above New Orleans, the muddled youth must answer that he does not know.

"Don't know?...Well, you're a smart one," said Mr. Bixby. 'What's the name of the next point?'

Again, the youth does not recall because he had not considered those points important when they were first mentioned. Mr. Bixby scolds him,

"Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?"

Because "the devil of temptation provokes" him, the youth replies, "Well--to--be--entertaining, I thought."

This flippant answer causes Mr. Bixby to become enraged; however, he soon says in "the gentlest way,"

"My boy, you must get a little memorandum book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away."

  • Observation and Experience

Later, Mr. Bixby is hired to pilot a much more attractive steamboat. However, as they now are going downstream, the young Twain realizes that he again is "lost." Yet, he is amid visiting pilots from whom he learns much.

All visiting pilots were useful, for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat's pilots in any way they could.

From listening, Twain realizes that he must memorize towns and islands, snags, "obscure wood piles--and know them in the dark!" He also learns that three bell rings signal land, and he records in his memorandum book many "confusing names." 

One very dark night as many of the visiting pilots crowd into the pilot-house, they observe as Bixby navigates with skill, even going over a sand bar without getting stuck or damaging the boat. The observing youth hears one of them declares, "Mr. Bixby is a lightning pilot!" The youth becomes aware of what a skilled pilot his teach really is.

  • More Complicated Lessons

The student of Bixby "packs" his head full of the names of islands, towns, bars, "points" and bends.  But, lest he become too complacent with his acquisition of knowledge, Mr. Bixby thinks of a new way to humble him. For, when the youth does not know an answer, the "gunpowdery chief went off with a bang...loading and firing until he was out of adjectives." However, the youth now understands that Mr. Bixby's firepower only lasts so long; then, he becomes "placable and even remorseful" as he instructs his pupil,

"You have got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by--it hasn't the same shape in the night."

When the youth asks him how he can discern where to go when there is a moon, or it is foggy, or it is pitch dark, Bixby wisely counsels, "Steer by the shape that's in your head and never mind the one that's before your eyes." And, now Twain knows this is what he did the night he went so skillfully over the sandbar.

Still, Mr. Bixby is relentless with his exercises in humility. For, when the youth tells him that he stayed with Mr. W---- that night that Bixby said nothing to the man when he took over the wheel, Bixby remarks, "You do seem to be more different kinds of an ass than any creature I ever saw before." Twain humbly notes that as soon as his "self-complacency moved to the front once more, Mr. Bixby was all fixed and read to start it to the rear again."

Certainly, Twain respects his teacher, who knows that one must never become complacent; for, the Mississippi River is a river with a powerful current and many twists and turns, sandbars, and other traps. It is a river that must be respected, learned and relearned. This is a lesson that Mr. Bixby has taught his pupil through example, experience, and discipline. He has scolded Twain many times because being a pilot is a serious responsibility because there are no second chances and many lives can be lost if a ship wrecks, not to mention the cost to the boat's owner(s).

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Judging whether Mr. Bixby, the young Mark Twain’s supervisor and unofficial teacher aboard the steamship on which Twain has secured employment, is a good or bad teacher is somewhat subjective.  In the military, it’s often observed that a good noncommissioned officer is ‘worth his weight in gold’ because of the wisdom he or she imparts, the competency he or she displays, the leadership qualities he or she routinely demonstrates.  Such is the situation with Mr. Bixby, the ship’s pilot.  The Paul Jones, the name of the steamship, has a captain, an officer who is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the ship and all those aboard.  It is the pilot, though, who commands in his capacity as the ‘noncommissioned officer’ aboard the vessel.  And Twain makes very clear in Life on the Mississippi that Mr. Bixby is the consummate professional, and a wonderful educator to boot.  This becomes apparent at the outset of Chapter VI, titled “A Cub-pilot’s Experience.”  Right away, Twain supplies the answer to the question: was Mr. Bixby a good teacher, and why.  Describing his introduction to the Paul Jones and its crew, the author provides an important clue as to the value he ascribed to his new boss and mentor:

 “WHAT WITH LYING ON THE ROCKS four days at Louisville, and some other delays, the poor old “Paul Jones” fooled away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to New Orleans. This gave me a chance to get acquainted with one of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus made the fascination of river life more potent than ever for me.”

Referencing again life in the military as a parallel to Twain’s experiences, many an army veteran has looked back on his or time in the military, and particularly in basic training (or boot camp) with the fond observation that ‘it was an experience I wouldn’t trade away for a million dollars, and wouldn’t do again for a million dollars.’ 

Despite being charged a serious sum of his meager earnings for the privilege of being mentored by Mr. Bixby, Twain relished the opportunity, and his time serving under the ship’s pilot did not disappoint.  Time and again, Twain observes Mr. Bixby’s skills as a pilot and courage under conditions that seriously frightened the others onboard.  It is in Chapter VI, however, that Twain is introduced to this gruff but admirable individual.  Being handed responsibility for steering the ship by Mr. Bixby, Twain soon learns an important lesson about responsibility and leadership:

“The boat backed out from New Orleans at four in the afternoon, and it was “our watch” until eight. Mr. Bixby, my chief, “straightened her up,” plowed her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the Levee, and then said, “Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you’d peel an apple.”

“I took the wheel, and my heart-beat fluttered up into the hundreds; for it seemed to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in the line, we were so close. I held my breath and began to claw the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the pilot who had known no better than to get us into such peril, but I was too wise to express it.  In half a minute I had a wide margin of safety intervening between the “Paul Jones” and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in disgrace, and Mr. Bixby was going into danger again and flaying me alive with abuse of my cowardice. I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy confidence with which my chief loafed from side to side of his wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed ceaselessly imminent. When he had cooled a little he told me that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside, and therefore we must hug the bank, up stream, to get the benefit of the former, and stay well out, down-stream, to take advantage of the latter. In my own mind I resolved to be a down-stream pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.”

This is a long but telling passage.  It illuminates Bixby’s character.  He is willing to offer his young charge the opportunity to learn through hands-on experience, and Twain quickly grasps that his teacher knows exactly what he’s doing and why.  And, it does become very apparent that Mr. Bixby knows what he’s doing; in fact, he knows his job quite well.  His years of experience and dedication to his craft have invested in him a mastery of the ship and of the river it plied.  He know the river’s every idiosyncrasy and the vessel’s every eccentricity.  And, he has shown Twain an invaluable lesson in following orders – a lesson that would not have taken hold if the teacher had been any less skilled and assured in his conduct.  Another example of Bixby’s skill, again dutifully demonstrated for all those around him, involved a daring nighttime landing, with limited visibility and seemingly few if any identifying landmarks to aid in navigation:

The mate said:—“We’ve got to land at Jones’s plantation, sir.”

The vengeful spirit in me exulted. I said to myself, I wish you joy of your job, Mr. Bixby; you’ll have a good time finding Mr. Jones’s plantation such a night as this; and I hope you never will find it as long as you live.

Mr. Bixby said to the mate:—“Upper end of the plantation, or the lower.?”


“I can’t do it. The stumps there are out of water at this stage: It’s no great distance to the lower, and you’ll have to get along with that.”

Mr. Bixby is not only demonstrating his superior seamanship, he is also remembering his arrangement with Twain regarding teaching the latter how to be a pilot.  As he continues to skillfully maneuver the ship, he queries the young crewman in basic knowledge:

"It seemed to me that I had put my life in the keeping of a peculiarly reckless outcast. Presently he turned on me and said:—“What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?”

"I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know."

In Chapter VII, examples of Mr. Bixby’s unflappable demeanor and unquestioned skill continue to be described.  Again, navigating down hazardous waters in the dark of night, the entire crew takes comfort behind the steady hand of this master:

“We bore steadily down the bend. More looks were exchanged, and nods of surprised admiration—but no words. Insensibly the men drew together behind Mr. Bixby, as the sky darkened and one or two dim stars came out. . .Nobody was calm and easy but Mr. Bixby.”

Mr. Bixby wasn’t just a good teacher, he was an excellent teacher.  He displayed superior skill and undaunted courage, and, as importantly, was willing and able to communicate his knowledge and the benefits of his experience to his pupil.  The tuition he charged may have been high, but one would hard-pressed not to conclude that he earned it.

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