Last night, when I read to the family from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, we came upon a passage that made them erupt in laughter. I read it again a couple of times just to savor the choice morsel we had been served. Some background first:
Samuel Clemens had run away from home looking for adventure on the Mississippi River. He finally finds a steamboat pilot who will take him on as apprentice. Young Sam does not have any idea what he has gotten into. It dawns on him he is supposed to memorize every bend, point, snag, willow, woodpile, island, sandbar on the entire 1500 mile journey. After he experiences a bit of Mr. Bixby’s wrath over his forgetfulness, he writes everything down in his little book. That helps. One day, when Sam is feeling pretty good about his improved memory, the pilot asks him the shape of Walnut Bend. Samuel says he doesn’t know.
My gunpowdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives.
I had learned long ago that he only carried just so many rounds of ammunition, and was sure to subside into a very placable and even remorseful old smoothbore as soon as they were all gone.
Oh, did that tickle us.
This autobiographical story holds us fascinated for a chapter or two after supper. Besides the view we get from the Mississippi in the antebellum south, we get to taste Twain’s superb writing skill. Let me share an example of “Show, don’t tell”. His boss is at the tiller, the pilot house is full of off-duty pilots. Pressure is on to get the steamboat past Hat Island before dark or they’ll have to land for the night. If they can just get past the treacherous shoals around this island they will have open water, where they can continue through the night.
So there was a deal of looking at watches all the rest of the day, and a constant ciphering upon the speed we were making; Hat Island was the eternal subject; sometimes hope was high and sometimes we were delayed by a bad crossing, and down it went again. For hours all hands lay under the burden of this suppressed excitement; it was even communicated to me, and I got to feeling so solicitous about Hat Island, and under such an awful pressure of responsibility, that I wished I might have five minutes on shore to draw a good, full, relieving breath, and start over again. We were standing no regular watches, Each of our pilots ran such portions of the river as he had run when coming up-stream, because of his greater familiarity with it; but both remained in the pilot-house constantly.
An hour before sunset Mr. Bixby took the wheel, and Mr. W. stepped aside. For the next thirty minutes every man held his watch in his hand and was restless, silent, and uneasy. At last someone said, with a doomful sigh:
“Well, yonder’s Hat Island–and we can’t make it.”
All the watches closed with a snap, and everybody sighed and muttered something about it being “too bad, too bad–ah, if we could only have got here half an hour sooner!”–and the place was thick with the atmosphere of disappointment. Some started to go out, but loitered, hearing no bell-tap to land. The sun dipped being the horizon, the boat went on. Inquiring looks passed from one guest to another; and one who had his hand on the door-knob and had turned it, waited, then presently took away his hand and let the knob turn back again.
The thing with the doorknob. Can’t you just see a film director focusing on that hand on the doorknob, creating tension, setting up expectation for the amazing feat that follows?And it is amazing, as Mr. Bixby pulls it off in the dark with high stakes if he misses: $250,000 ship and cargo, and 150 lives. His feat is talked about for years after.
I highly recommend Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. It is a relatively short book. (Just eyeballing it, I would say three of these could fit into Huck Finn.) Two of my children are studying American History in the Classical Conversations’ Challenge III program and we find this story gives flesh to the antebellum culture.
And the lively language takes an easy journey into our souls where it will return someday in our own writing, uniquely our own but owing honor to the master.