Nov. 30, 2009


by Mark Twain

After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the
white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty
nearly so; one or two clerks in front of the Water Street stores, with their splint-bottomed
chairs tilted back against the wall, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep —
with shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and litter
of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in water-melon rinds and seeds;
two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the "levee;" a pile of "skids" on the
slope of the stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of
them; two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the
peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, the majestic, the
magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense
forest away on the other side; the "point" above town, and the "point" below,
bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and
brilliant and lonely one. Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those
remote "points;" instantly a negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious
voice, lifts up the cry, "S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!" and the scene changes! The town
drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and
store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and

Excerpt from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, © 1883 by Samuel Clemens. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1900 that Oscar Wilde (books by this author) died at age 46, after declaring his famous last words: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." He had spent two years in prison under the official crime of "acts of gross indecency," meaning that he had male lovers. His health deteriorated, and he had a severe ear infection that the prison doctor would not treat. When he got out of prison, he moved to Paris, but neither his health nor his reputation ever recovered — he eventually died of meningitis, a complication of the ear infection. He ended his days at a seedy motel in Paris, Hôtel d'Alsace, which obviously had some very ugly wallpaper. Now it goes by the name L'Hôtel and is an upscale four-star establishment.

It's the birthday of Canadian children's writer L.M. Montgomery, (books by this author) born Lucy Maud Montgomery in Clifton, Prince Edward Island, in 1874. Her mother died when she was a toddler, and her father sent her to live with her mother's parents. There were no other children around, just Lucy and her grandparents, and she spent a lot of time reading and writing poems. She left home for a few years to teach, but when her grandfather died, she came home to live with her grandmother, and she stayed with her for the next 13 years. And during that time, she wrote her first novel, about an orphan girl with bright red hair who gets sent to live with a couple from Prince Edward Island who were hoping for a boy instead. It got rejected over and over, so she put the manuscript away in a hatbox and turned to other things. But eventually, she got it back out, read it, decided it wasn't that bad after all, and sent it out again. This time it got accepted, and in 1908, Anne of Green Gables was published and became a classic children's book.

It's the birthday of a writer who described life in the Mississippi River valley, whose most famous fiction and nonfiction is set along the river, and who got his pen name from being a riverboat captain, even though he spent most of his adult life traveling or living on the East Coast. That's Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, (books by this author) born on this day in Florida, Missouri (1835). The town of Florida was about 30 miles inland from the Mississippi River, and Samuel's father, trained as a lawyer, was finding it impossible to support himself in Florida as a lawyer, or a politician or storekeeper, for that matter. So when Sam was four, his father moved the family to Hannibal, Missouri, right on the river, figuring that he would have better business there. For a while, Sam had an ordinary childhood, playing with other boys his age, exploring the caves near Hannibal, playing elaborate pranks on fellow townspeople. But when he was 11, his father died, and after fifth grade he never went back to school. He was an apprentice with local printers, including his older brother Orion, who had bought out several of the area's newspapers. When he got tired of working for his brother, he went and worked as a typesetter on the East Coast. But he wasn't very successful.

Like many boys growing up along the Mississippi, Sam had dreamed of being a riverboat pilot, and so when he found himself, at 22 years old, struggling to make a living as a printer, he decided to switch careers entirely and give his childhood dream a try. It was a rigorous job, requiring an 18-month apprenticeship that cost $500 (more than $10,000 today). But he loved life on a riverboat. He said, "A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth."

And Sam Clemens was good at learning the river, and a very good pilot. He made enough money to pay off his debts, support his mother, and have some money left over to spend in St. Louis and New Orleans, where he learned to drink and dance. He admitted that he found it satisfying to walk around with hundred dollar bills peeking out between his smaller bills to show off to the pilots who didn't think he could ever learn the river as well as he did.

And he might have stayed this way for the rest of his life, a successful steamboat captain enjoying the river and the nightlife of the river cities, if the Civil War had not come along. In the spring of 1861, all the river traffic was stopped, and Sam no longer had a job.

His older brother was given the job of Secretary of the Nevada Territory, and was set to leave that summer. He asked Sam if he would like to travel west with him, and Sam agreed. He got a job writing for a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. He wanted to write under a new name, so he chose a riverboat expression: "Mark Twain," a call given when the river is two fathoms deep, about 12 feet, which means it is safe for the average steamboat. And so Mark Twain became a writer.

He lived in California, Europe, New York, and Connecticut, but never again along the Mississippi, although he went back in 1882 in order to do research for a project about life as a riverboat pilot. And he went back to the river again and again in his fiction, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

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