Going Home With Mark Twain

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In the town library I pored over the photographs of the ’27 flood and listened to the stories of the older people, and years later, when I read in Life on the Mississippi of the ’82 flood—a stunning déjà vu—I remembered those photographs and stories, especially of the black people: “Sometimes there was a group of high-water-stained, tumble-down cabins, populous with colored folk, and no whites visible; with grassless patches of dry ground here and there; a few felled trees, with skeleton cattle, mules, and horses, eating the leaves and gnawing the bark—no other food for them in the flood-wasted land. Sometimes there was a single lonely landing-cabin; near it the colored family that had hailed us; little and big, old and young, roosting on the scant pile of household goods; these consisting of a rusty gun, some bedticks, chests, tinware, stools, a crippled looking-glass, a venerable arm-chair, and six or eight base-born and spiritless yellow curs, attached to the family by strings.”

There was the matter, too, of our mutual respect for mosquitoes, so large in our area that local wags said they wore wristwatches. Mr. H. in chapter 34 speaks graphically of the colossal mosquitoes of Lake Providence on our exact parallel across the river, that two of them could whip a dog, that four of them could hold a man down, and that he had seen them try to vote.

Lake Providence mosquitoes were such, he said, that two of them could whip a dog, and he had seen them try to vote.

Yet the tumult of the elements in these river towns was not the whole of it, for in the violence of their extremes and the tension of their paradoxes lay other similarities between the Hannibals and Yazoos across the divide of time. The rough-hewn democracy of both, complicated by all the visible textures of caste and class, encompassed harmless boyhood fun and mischief right along with all sorts of treacheries and fragilities and ambivalences and deceits: murders and other lesser savageries, rank hypocrisies, churchgoing sanctimonies, racial hatred, entrenched and unrepentant greed. They were all there for a boy to see, in a self-contained place, no matter what his century.

AS A WRITER WITH A NEARLY ANGUISHED SENSE OF time passing, Mark Twain is deeply saddened, on his return to the river in ’82, that the exalted steamboating life he once knew and loved is just about gone. Along the way he often ponders the grand calling of the pilot, who deferred to no one in his imperious independence, and while recounting the steamboat disasters caused by wrecks and explosions, he takes such pride in reporting that “ there is no instance of a pilot deserting his post to save his life while by remaining and sacrificing it he might secure other lives from destruction ” that he put the phrase in italics.

“The towboat and the railroad had done their work,” he laments, “and done it well and completely. … Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of the thirty years it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.” The war had contributed to the decline, all but destroying the steamboat trade for several years, and the advancing railroads took away much of the freight and passenger traffic, so that the river edges of St. Louis and other cities looked dead to him beyond resurrection: ”… so straightaway some genius from the Atlantic coast introduced the plan of towing a dozen steamer cargoes down to New Orleans at the tail of a vulgar little tugboat.” And that is what one mainly sees today.

During the two and a half years of his apprenticeship as a cub pilot under the incomparable Mr. Bixby and other steamboatmen, Mark Twain tells us, he grew to know all the various and unmitigated types of the human species. “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography,” he writes in chapter 18, “I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.”

In New Orleans Mark Twain encounters the incontrovertible Bixby again, the man who had taught him the river—“the man whom, of all men, I most wished to see”—now captain of the City of Baton Rouge . After all the stories he has accumulated of friends and associates of the earlier time perished in the line of steamboat duty, or in the war, or of natural causes, the reunion must have gladdened him. “The same slender figure, the same tight curls, the same springy step, the same alertness, the same decision of eye and answering decision of hand. … It is a curious thing, to leave a man thirty-five years old, and come back at the end of twenty-one years and find him still only thirty-five.” He and Bixby and a number of ladies and gentlemen take a swift tug to a sugar plantation fifty or so miles below New Orleans, and along the route they see a despairing sight, “a number of decayed, ram-shackly, superannuated old steamboats, not one of which had I ever seen before. They had all been built, and worn out, and thrown aside, since I was here last.”