When young boys on the Mississippi saw steamboatmen, they always wanted to become one, but in the same way that any sort of strange group traveling through their town would pull them to be like them. Normally, these sleepy little towns along the Mississippi would be full of bored people doing boring things. However, when someone would make mention of the steamboat coming, “a furious clutter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving” (p. 144). It would wake up the town and fill it full of excitement it did not have otherwise, and that is what caused all the excitement between the young boys in these towns.
They loved the look of the boats, admiring the “husbanded grandeur” that came about from their aesthetic. It carried freight, people, movement – all things that were simply not present in the day to day lifes of rivertowns at that time. It brought strangers and strange experiences, stories and tales of adventure and frontiering; these young boys who longed for excitement welcomed the changeup from the mundanity of their lives that the steamboat brought. Most of the excitement came from how hurried the steamboat was to offload its cargo and be on its way again; “After ten more minutes the town is dead again, and the town drunkard asleep by the skids once more” (p. 146).
Of course, that was not the only allure a steamboat had for these boys; the spirit of adventure would often call to them, wishing for a life at sea and stories of his own. One of Twain’s friends who became a steamboatman would always come back with tales of the places he had been and the things he had done – as they all wanted to have his life, they would be envious of him - “If ever a youth was cordially admired and hated by his comrades, this one was” (p. 150). Though it would seem that they loathed him, it was just that they wanted to be the womanizing, transient, free man he seemed to be.
Being the pilot of a steamboat was the boy’s ultimate dream; “Pilot was the grandest position of all….I said I would never come home again till I was a pilot and could come in glory” (p. 154). The pilot of a steamboat was the captain, the head, getting paid plenty of money to travel all up and down the Mississippi, and there were also fantasies of being a mercenary linked in with them. “I had comforting daydreams of a future when I should be a great and honored pilot, with plenty of money, and could kill some of those mates and clerks and pay for them” (p. 154).
In short, the steamboat promised excitement and a life away from the boring towns that young boys grew up in. Always longing for adventure and excitement, they looked forward to the different places that people on steamboats saw, and the romantic, traveling lifestyle they always imagined steamboatmen to have. It appealed to the boys’ rebellious urges and need for activity, since they saw how the arrival of a steamboat lit up the town every time it arrived. They wanted to feel that every day.
Twain, Mark. "A Boy's Ambition." The American tradition in literature . 12th ed. New York: Norton, 1967. 144-154. Print.