No engineer, author, pilot, poet, inventor or artist can claim a greater role than Mark Twain in making the Mississippi River known and loved throughout the world. Twain brought America’s greatest writing genius to America’s most picturesque era – steamboating on the river.
Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens at Florida, Missouri in 1835, grew up along the banks of the Mississippi at Hannibal. His formal schooling ended with the death of his father; at age 12 he apprenticed to a printer for board and clothing.
At 21 Twain took passage aboard the Paul Jones from Cincinnati to New Orleans, enacting his boyhood dream. “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboat man.” Twain persuaded Horace Bixby to teach him piloting, a 17 month apprenticeship. During this time, he saw his brother Henry die from the boiler explosion on the Pennsylvania, a boat he had piloted the previous trip. Twain continued his apprenticeship and piloted cargo boats on the Missouri as well. He received his license in 1859 and served as a respected pilot for the next two years.
When the Civil War interrupted commercial traffic along the Mississippi, Twain served a two week stint as a confederate soldier, then went west where he worked for the Virginia City, Nevada Enterprise. Here Clemens adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain, the sounding call for two fathoms or 12 feet of depth. Twain falsely asserted that Captain Isaiah Sellers had first used the name, which the public already believed, proving his lament that nothing he had written in truth was believed and nothing had written in jest was doubted.
Twain’s experiences in Hannibal and on the Mississippi were used in his writings: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Twain once recalled,”[I] got to telling…about the old Mississippi days of steamboating glory and grandeur as I saw them from the pilot house.” This became “Old Times on the Mississippi,” running from January through August, 1876 in the Atlantic magazine and later became the basis for Life on the Mississippi. He observed, “Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812. At the end of 30 years, it had grown to mighty proportions, then in less than another 30 years it was dead.”
Twain’s writing also include The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Tragedy of Pudd’n Head Wilson, and The Gilded Age, among others, and he was one of the most popular lecturers of his day as well. He was a master of regional dialect and humor. Ernest Hemingway called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the greatest American novel. William Dean Howells called Twain “the Lincoln of our literature,” a title he deserves for his outstanding contribution not only to American literature but to American life. Twain left this world as he came in, with Haley’s comet in 1910.
Mark Twain was an author, steamboat pilot, newspaper reporter, publisher, humorist, philosopher and lecturer, and is best known for his association with steamboating on the Mississippi. No other man in the world is so universally identified with riverboating; Twain made the Mississippi known to the world and his inspired genius put the Father of Waters in the center of American lore. Because of him, the Mississippi is recognized as the symbol of America’s vigorous spirit and individualism. Mark Twain did more to make America’s rivers famous than any other individual, and he richly deserves the fame he holds as America’s greatest riverman.