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Directory of Mark Twain's maxims, quotations, and various opinions:



When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
- Life on the Mississippi

Illustration from first edition of LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

I am a person who would quit authorizing in a minute to go to piloting, if the madam would stand it. I would rather sink a steamboat than eat, any time.
- letter to William Dean Howells, 8 December 1874

A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.
- Life on the Mississippi

Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play -- delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play -- and I loved it...
- Mark Twain in Eruption

I wish I was back there piloting up & down the river again. Verily, all is vanity and little worth -- save piloting.
- letter to Jane Clemens, October 1865

Illustration by Edmund Garrett from 1899 edition of

Pilot unidentified
Unidentified steamboat pilot from the Dave Thomson collection.
Uniforms on the Mississippi! It beats all the other changes put together, for surprise. Still, there is another surprise -- that it was not made fifty years ago. It is so manifestly sensible, that it might have been thought of earlier, one would suppose. During fifty years, out there, the innocent passenger in need of help and information, has been mistaking the mate for the cook, and the captain for the barber -- and being roughly entertained for it, too. But his troubles are ended now. And the greatly improved aspect of the boat's staff is another advantage achieved by the dress-reform period.
- Life on the Mississippi

Pilots' Association lapel pin
from the Dave Thomson collection.
Clemens wrote about the
Pilots' Association in
Chapter 15 of
Life on the Mississippi

...all men--kings & serfs alike--are slaves to other men & to circumstance -- save alone, the pilot -- who comes at no man's back and call, obeys no man's orders & scorns all men's suggestions. The king would do this thing, & would do that: but a cramped treasury overmasters him in the one case & a seditious people in the other. The Senator must hob-nob with canaille whom he despises, & banker, priest & statesman trim their actions by the breeze of the world's will & the world's opinion. It is a strange study, -- a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent & genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, & not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.
- letter to Will Bowen, 25 August 1866


In April 1909, Samuel Clemens declined an invitation to attend a celebration in Natchez, Mississippi for the battleship Mississippi. His letter of regret was sent to Natchez Mayor William G. Benbrook and was published in the Atlanta Constitution on April 27, 1909:
Redding, Conn., April, 1909. -- I know quite well what I am losing. Among other things, I am losing the chance of seeing -- for a blessed once in my life -- a Mississippi pilot in supreme and unchallengeable command of an American battleship. I am losing the chance of hearing the executive officer say: 'Stand by, there, with the starboard lead,' and of hearing an affronted voice from the pilot retort: 'I beg your pardon sir, but I'll call for the leads when I want them.'

But I am old and indolent, and most humbly sacrifice my desires to my necessities.
- letter published in Atlanta Constitution, 27 April 1909, pg. 1


On March 20, 1880, Clemens replied to a letter asking if he would ever like to "Be a boy again" and live a part of his life over. He responded:

Would I live it over again under certain conditions? Certainly I would! The main condition would be that I should emerge from boyhood as a "cub pilot" on a Mississippi boat, & that I should by & by become a pilot, & remain one. The minor conditions would be these: Summer always; the magnolias at Rifle Point always in bloom, so that the dreamy twilight should have the added charm of their perfume; the oleanders on the "coast" always in bloom, likewise; the sugar cane always green -- never any “bagasse” burnings; the river always bank-full, so we could run all the chutes -- how heavenly that would be! -- then in the foot of 63, & in a thousand other places, we should see the thick banks of young willows dipping their leaves into the currentless water, & we could thrash right along against them without any danger of hurting anything; & I would require a new "cut-off" to experiment on, every season -- we tried one about a dozen times, one rainy night, & then had to go around, after all -- but it was a noble circus while we had it; I should require that there be a dog-watch in the evening, but none in the morning -- for a dog-watch in the morning is pure foolishness; I would rule out the middle watch in the night, except on moonlight nights, because it makes one feel so dreary & low-spirited & forlorn to rouse out of a pleasant sleep at dead midnight & go & perch away up there in the pilot house in the midst of the wide darkness, with apparently nobody alive in the deserted world but him; but the middle watch in so summer moonlit nights is a gracious time, especially if the boat steers like a duck, & friends have staid up to keep one company, & sing, & smoke, & spin yarns, and blow the whistle when other boats are met (though I remember that the unpracticed friend from the mainland never blew it right, & consequently always made a little trouble;) & I would have the trips long, & the stays in port short; & my boat should be a big dignified freight boat, with a stately contempt for passenger-hails & a tranquil willingness to 'lay up" for fog -- being never in a hurry; & her crew should never change, nor ever die; -- one such crew I have in mind, & can call their names & see their faces, now: but two decades have done their work upon them, & half are dead, the rest scattered, & the boat’s bones are rotting five fathom deep in Madrid Bend. That is the way I would have it all. And in addition, I should require to be notorious among speakers of the English tongue -- because I should want to be invited around, a little, you know, & have nice little kindly attentions in cars & ships & other places where such things help out, you see, & keep a body from feeling homesick. And when strangers were introduced I should have them repeat “Mr. Clemens?” doubtfully, & with the rising inflection -- & when they were informed that I was the celebrated “Master Pilot of the Mississippi,” & immediately took me by the hand & wrung it with effusion, & exclaimed, “O, I know that name very well!” I should feel a pleasurable emotion trickling down my spine & know I had not lived in vain.
- letter to David Watt Bowser, 20 March 1880


Steamer Missouri

Steamboat MISSOURI, (known as "The Big Missouri") the boat Ben Rogers impersonates as he approaches Tom Sawyer during the fence whitewashing episode. Original engraving for the Family Magazine 1850 was lithographed by Klaupreck & Menzel in Cincinnati. The MISSOURI ran in the St. Louis-New Orleans trade and was lost by fire in St. Louis on July 8, 1851.
Photo and history of the steamer MISSOURI courtesy of Dave Thomson.


Also see Clemens' Pilot License

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