Morally, its atmosphere could not be said to be an improvement on the others. Navigation in the West had begun with crafts of the flat-boat type--their navigators rude, hardy men, heavy drinkers, reckless fighters, barbaric in their sports, coarse in their wit, profane in everything. Steam-boatmen were the natural successors of these pioneers--a shade less coarse, a thought less profane, a veneer less barbaric. But these things were mainly "above stairs." You had but to scratch lightly a mate or a deck-hand to find the old keel-boatman savagery. Captains were overlords, and pilots kings in this estate; but they were not angels. In Life on the Mississippi Clemens refers to his chief's explosive vocabulary and tells us how he envied the mate's manner of giving an order. It was easier to acquire those things than piloting, and, on the whole, quicker. One could improve upon them, too, with imagination and wit and a natural gift for terms. That Samuel Clemens maintained his promise as to drink and cards during those apprentice days is something worth remembering; and if he did not always restrict his profanity to moments of severe pressure or sift the quality of his wit, we may also remember that he was an extreme example of a human being, in that formative stage which gathers all as grist, later to refine it for the uses and delights of men.
He acquired a vast knowledge of human character. He says:
In that brief, sharp schooling I got personally and familiarly acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. When I find a well- drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have, known him before--met him on the river.
Undoubtedly the river was a great school for the study of life's broader philosophies and humors: philosophies that avoid vague circumlocution and aim at direct and sure results; humors of the rugged and vigorous sort that in Europe are known as "American" and in America are known as "Western." Let us be thankful that Mark Twain's school was no less than it was--and no more.
The demands of the Missouri River trade took Horace Bixby away from the Mississippi, somewhat later, and he consigned his pupil, according to custom, to another pilot--it is not certain, now, to just which pilot, but probably to Zeb Leavenworth or Beck Jolly, of the John J. Roe. The Roe was a freight-boat, "as slow as an island and as comfortable as a farm." In fact, the Roe was owned and conducted by farmers, and Sam Clemens thought if John Quarles's farm could be set afloat it would greatly resemble that craft in the matter of good-fellowship, hospitality, and speed. It was said of her that up-stream she could even beat an island, though down-stream she could never quite overtake the current, but was a "love of a steamboat" nevertheless. The Roe was not licensed to carry passengers, but she always had a dozen "family guests" aboard, and there was a big boiler-deck for dancing and moonlight frolics, also a piano in the cabin. The young pilot sometimes played on the piano and sang to his music songs relating to the "grasshopper on the sweet-potato vine," or to an old horse by the name of Methusalem:
Took him down and sold him in Jerusalem, A long time ago.
There were forty-eight stanzas about this ancient horse, all pretty much alike; but the assembled company was not likely to be critical, and his efforts won him laurels. He had a heavenly time on the John J. Roe, and then came what seemed inferno by contrast. Bixby returned, made a trip or two, then left and transferred him again, this time to a man named Brown. Brown had a berth on the fine new steamer Pennsylvania, one of the handsomest boats on the river, and young Clemens had become a fine steersman, so it is not unlikely that both men at first were gratified by the arrangement.
But Brown was a fault-finding, tyrannical chief, ignorant, vulgar, and malicious.