In the Huckleberry Finn book, during those nights and days with Huck and Nigger Jim on the raft--whether in stormlit blackness, still noontide, or the lifting mists of morning--we can fairly "smell" the river, as Huck himself would say, and we know that it is because the writer loved it with his heart of hearts and literally drank in its environment and atmosphere during those halcyon pilot days.

So, in his love lay the secret of his marvelous learning, and it is recorded (not by himself, but by his teacher) that he was an apt pupil. Horace Bixby has more than once declared:

"Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river. He had a fine memory and never forgot anything I told him."

Mark Twain himself records a different opinion of his memory, with the size of its appalling task. It can only be presented in his own words. In the pages quoted he had mastered somewhat of the problem, and had begun to take on airs. His chief was a constant menace at such moments:

One day he turned on me suddenly with this settler:

"What is the shape of Walnut Bend?"

He might as well have asked me my grandmother's opinion of protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn't know it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives.... I waited. By and by he said:

"My boy, you've got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn't the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime."

"How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?"

"How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the shape of it. You can't see it."

"Do you mean to say that I've got to know all the million trifling variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well as I know the shape of the front hall at home?"

"On my honor, you've got to know them better than any man ever did know the shapes of the halls in his own house."

"I wish I was dead!"

"Now, I don't want to discourage you, but----"

"Well, pile it on me; I might as well have it now as another time."

"You see, this has got to be learned; there isn't any getting around it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that, if you didn't know the shape of a shore perfectly, you would claw away from every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it for a solid cape; and, you see, you would be getting scared to death every fifteen minutes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from shore all the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it. You can't see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know exactly where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when you are coming to it. Then there's your pitch-dark night; the river is a very different shape on a pitch-dark night from what it is on a starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and mighty dim ones, too; and you'd run them for straight lines, only you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems to be a solid, straight wall (you know very well that in reality there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for you. Then there's your gray mist. You take a night when there's one of these grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn't any particular shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of the oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways. You see----"

"Oh, don't say any more, please! Have I got to learn the shape of the river according to all these five hundred thousand different ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make me stoop-shouldered."

"No! you only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's in your head, and never mind the one that's before your eyes."

"Very well, I'll try it; but, after I have learned it, can I depend on it? Will it keep the same form, and not go fooling around?"

Before Mr.

Mark Twain
Classic Literature Library

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