Those early piloting chapters, as they appeared in the Atlantic, constituted Mark Twain’s best literary exhibit up to that time. In some respects they are his best literature of any time. As pictures of an intensely interesting phase of life, they are so convincing, so real, and at the same time of such extraordinary charm and interest, that if the English language should survive a thousand years, or ten times as long, they would be as fresh and vivid at the end of that period as the day they were penned. In them the atmosphere of, the river and its environment—its pictures, its thousand aspects of life—are reproduced with what is no less than literary necromancy. Not only does he make you smell the river you can fairly hear it breathe. On the appearance of the first number John Hay wrote:
“It is perfect; no more nor less. I don’t see how you do it,” and added, “you know what my opinion is of time not spent with you.”
You are doing the science
of piloting splendidly. Every word
interesting, and don’t you drop the series till you’ve got every bit
of anecdote and reminiscence into it.
He let Clemens write the articles to suit himself. Once he said:
If I might put in my jaw at this point I should say, stick to actual fact and character in the thing and give things in detail. All that belongs to the old river life is novel, and is now mostly historical. Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear.
Clemens replied that he had no dread of the Atlantic audience; he declared it was the only audience that did not require a humorist to “paint himself striped and stand on his head to amuse it.”
The “Old Times” papers ran through seven numbers of the Atlantic. They were reprinted everywhere by the newspapers, who in that day had little respect for magazine copyrights, and were promptly pirated in book form in Canada. They added vastly to Mark Twain’s literary capital, though Howells informs us that the Atlantic circulation did not thrive proportionately, for the reason that the newspapers gave the articles to their readers from advanced sheets of the magazine, even before the latter could be placed on sale. It so happened that in the January Atlantic, which contained the first of the Mississippi papers, there appeared Robert Dale Owen’s article on “Spiritualism,” which brought such humility both to author and publisher because of the exposure of the medium Katie King, which came along while the magazine was in press. Clemens has written this marginal note on the opening page of the copy at Quarry Farm:
While this number of the Atlantic was being printed the Katie King manifestations were discovered to be the cheapest, wretchedest shams and frauds, and were exposed in the newspapers. The awful humiliation of it unseated Robert Dale Owen’s reason, and he died in the madhouse.