On the Big River

After an eighteen-month apprenticeship, Samuel Clemens received his steamboat pilot’s license on this day in 1859, making good on his and every Hannibal river boy’s pipe dream:

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)

In Down the Mississippi: A Modern-Day Huck on America’s River Road, Neal Moore and Cindy Lovell quote extensively from a range of Twain’s writing as they chronicle Moore’s five-month river adventure. This was by canoe rather than steamboat or raft, but it was boyish and bold in the true Twain spirit:

Canoeing the Mississippi makes me think of the old cliché: There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. Some folks would tip their hats to you, seeing the journey as a reflection of the American spirit. Others would berate you as a vagabond. And still others would flat out tell you that you were going to die.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.