Life on the Mississippi is one of my favorite Mark Twain books. It’s a hodgepodge of history, tall tales, humor, autobiography (with some “stretchers,” I’m sure), and keen observations of human nature. Some of the best chapters are the ones about learning how to pilot a steamboat.
Riverboat piloting required a strong memory. A pilot had to memorize every detail of more than a thousand miles of river—every bend, shoal, and sunken wreck, towns, crossings, water depths—and all of it both ways, upstream and down, by day and night, and at all seasons and stages of the river. A good pilot knew exactly what his boat could do and what it couldn’t, and he knew how to read the water’s surface in a way that would baffle a landsman.
Several of the best (and funniest) of the book’s chapters are the ones in which Twain writes of his struggles to master this knowledge. But finally he did master it, and his vivid and poignant description of the result has stuck with me for many years. Here are the closing paragraphs of Chapter 9. Rather than being dated, if anything they’ve gained relevance in our world of ever-expanding knowledge:
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
“I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
“No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Twain doesn’t develop the idea any further than that. The book’s narrative rolls on, like the Mississippi itself, and never comes back to this idea. But he’s touched on something larger, I think—the idea that knowledge is the enemy of beauty. And specifically technical or scientific knowledge.
Twain wasn’t anti-science. In fact, he was an enthusiastic adopter and investor in new technology (with disastrous financial consequences, but that’s another story). But I do think he was making a common mistake here, confusing knowledge with professional utility. The negative change in attitude he describes didn’t come from learning the river’s subtleties, but from learning them to do a job—even a job that he greatly enjoyed. The river became a means to an end, and not an end in itself.
So for the riverboat pilot, or for the physician—to cite his other example—the trick would be hold both views in mind, or to train oneself to switch back and forth between them. A truly enlightened pilot would be the one who could appreciate the beauty of that subtle ripple on the water even as he steered his boat safely around it.
Twain himself demonstrates this, though perhaps it took spending years away from the Mississippi River for it to regain its romance in his memory. In the end, Life on the Mississippi, written by a man who knew the river deeply, professionally, technically—is a book-length refutation of the idea that knowledge ruins aesthetics. Instead, it added to his sense of wonder because it gave him so many more ways to look at the river, its physical wonders, its history, its people, the tales and jokes and anecdotes, the reminiscences. I find this very encouraging.