Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Coming of Age

Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, dreamed of being a steamboat pilot since he was a boy growing up in the small town of Hannibal, Mississippi. He was twenty-two when he became a steamboat pilot in 1857, but this career was cut short in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Samuel Clemens became a man during his time as a steamboat pilot, growing as both a pilot and a person. His pen name, Mark Twain, was inspired by his time on riverboats: the term mark twain was used when measuring river depths of twelve feet, the depth deemed safe for a steamboat to pass.

Fantasy versus Reality

As a young boy, Twain dreamed of adventure on the Mississippi, creating a fiction in his mind of what he believed was the life of a steamboat pilot. In chapter 4, he writes of his first attempts at seeking employment on the river:

So by and by I ran away. I said I never would come home again till I was a pilot and could come in glory. But somehow I could not manage it. I went meekly aboard a few of the boats that lay packed together like sardines at the long St. Louis wharf, and very humbly inquired for the pilots, but got only a cold shoulder and short words from mates and clerks. I had to make the best of this sort of treatment for the time being, but I had comforting daydreams of a future when I should be a great and honored pilot, with plenty of money, and could kill some of these mates and clerks and pay for them.

While Twain did eventually become an apprentice pilot, his training was physically demanding, and he struggled significantly in his first few months. His captain was a harsh man who frequently issued verbal insults. Journeying the river was not the constant excitement Twain dreamed it would be—there were periods of prolonged idleness, and to his disappointment, the captain would regularly wake him up in the middle of the night to pilot the steamboat. Nevertheless, the older Twain still considers the Mississippi River a wonderful and impressive place, writing at the beginning of chapter 1 that “The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.”

The Importance of Mentorship

The riverboat captain Horace Bixby acted as a mentor to Mark Twain. Twain convinced Bixby to take him on as a trainee despite his young age and lack of relevant training. Bixby was not the ideal mentor. He had an explosive temper and swore at Twain constantly, particularly at the onset of his training, during which Twain made frequent mistakes. Despite the onslaught of verbal abuse, Twain respected the captain. He took the captain’s words with a grain of salt, mainly because steamboat workers used notoriously coarse language. Twain admired Bixby, who was known throughout the Mississippi as a superior captain.

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