realistic, cynical, boisterous, popular, tender-hearted, touched with chivalry, and permeated to the marrow of his bones with the sentiment of democratic society and with loyalty to American institutions.
By his birth at Florida, Missouri, 30 November, 1835, he was a Middle-Westerner; but by his inheritance from the restless, sanguine, unprosperous Virginian, his father, who had drifted with his family and slaves through Kentucky and Tennessee, he was a bit of a Southerner and still more of a migrant and a seeker of fortune. His boyhood he spent in the indolent semi-Southern town of Hannibal, Missouri, which, as he fondly represents it, slept for the most part like a cat in the sun, but stretched and rubbed its eyes when the Mississippi steamboats called, teasing his imagination with hints of the unexplored reaches of the river. When in 1847 his father died in poverty brightened by visions of wealth from the sale of his land in Tennessee, the son was glad to drop his lessons and go to work in the office of the Hannibal Journal. There, mainly under his visionary brother Orion, he served as printer and assistant editor for the next six years, and in verse and satirical skits made the first trials of his humour. In 1853, having promised his mother with hand on the Testament "not to throw a card or drink a drop of liquor," he set out on an excursion into the world, and worked his way for three or four years as printer in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Keokuk, and Cincinnati.
Through the winter of 1856–7 he pleased himself with a project for making his fortune by collecting cocoa at the headwaters of the Amazon; and in the spring of 1857 he actually took passage on the Paul Jones for New Orleans. But falling into conversation with the pilot, Horace Bixby, he engaged himself with characteristic impulsiveness as an apprentice to that exacting, admired, and, as it then seemed to him, magnificently salaried king of the river. In return for five hundred dollars payable out of his first wages Bixby undertook to teach him the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis so that he should have it "by heart." He mastered his twelve hundred miles of shifting current, and became a licensed pilot. In the process he acquired without the slightest consciousness of its uses his richest store of literary material.