Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write. Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.
It's not difficult to see why Twain is still popular today. His writing is highly readable, and his characteristic wit is very much in evidence here. It doesn't exactly sparkle out from every page, though; instead, it sort of lies in wait and sneaks up on you.
I'm sad to say that my own first-hand experience of the Mississippi consists entirely having crossed it once, without stopping, in a car. Reading this has made me very much regret that fact. I'm now feeling a strangely powerful urge to pack up and head out for a river cruise.
- History of the Mississippi River, including early explorers – 25 pages
- Twain as a young man, learning to pilot steamboats as a ‘cub’ under some crusty old men – 107 pages
- The passing of 21 years in his life, from the Civil War to his mining, working as a reporter in San Francisco, Hawaii, travel to Europe and then settling in New England – 1 very brief page
- Returning to the Mississippi as a passenger on a steamboat, going from St. Louis down to New Orleans, and back up the river again to St. Paul – 226 pages
In the time that’s elapsed since his return to his beloved river, steamboating has been replaced by the railroad and is a dying industry – so there is a sense of not only fading youth and fading memories because Twain himself is older and in his 40’s, but also because America itself has changed, and is changing so rapidly, so that the job and the industry he held so dear as a child are also fading.
In this sense he captures a glimpse of an era through various facts, anecdotes, the writing of others, and memories, so if this time or place is of particular interest, the book may appeal to you as history. As a brief aside, it struck me as ironic that he observed New Orleans to be at the bottom of a dish, surrounded by levees and below the water level, such that “there is nothing but the frail breastwork of earth between the people and destruction”.
But I digress. While all it may have been the sort of thing that worked for me, the book was written without a lot of condensing, and unfortunately without a lot of humor. There is a darkness about it that prefetches his later writing, so much so that Raban in the introduction says it might have been called Death on the Mississippi, but I didn’t find that aspect too bad, and sometimes of interest, in portraying just how rough life and attitudes were on what was the frontier of America.
However, while in Huck Finn we can forgive the chapters in the latter portions of the book which drag on as the only flaw in his masterpiece because it was so singular, here we cannot. There are lots of details on the nuances and complexities of piloting, which, after the gist is captured, become tiresome. There are of course highlights: he recounts his brother’s death in a steamboat explosion when he was 20 (and Twain was 23) to conclude the first major portion of the book before fast forwarding to the future, and a couple of his memories as a child which return to him when he reaches his boyhood town of Hannibal late in the book are endearing. Unfortunately they are just too few and far between. Three stars may be a little generous. For Twain, stick to Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and A Tramp Abroad.
Quotes: just this one, on Andrew Jackson, who should not be on the $20 folks:
“The war had ended, the two nations were at peace, but the news had not reached New Orleans. If we had had the cable telegraph in those days, this blood would not have been spilt, those lives would not have been wasted; and better still, Jackson would probably never have been president. We have gotten over the harms done us by the War of 1812, but not over some of those done us by Jackson’s presidency.”
The stories here have a loose sense of chronology: they follow Twain through his pilot training and up the river on the trip he takes later, but are often interrupted by stories and anecdotes, as well as Twain's memories and his views on various subjects.
The book is often humorous. There were many passages that I wanted to write out, if I was the type of person who writes out passages from books. At one point, Twain argues that Sir Walter Scott is responsible for the Civil War. There are many other stories that are quite funny, it would be impossible to list them all.
Something I had trouble with was all the steamboating jargon that went unexplained. I suppose at the time of the books' publishing, people generally knew more about boats and would not be puzzled. Some footnotes would have helped, though.
Life on the Mississippi is, overall, a very interesting portrait of 19th century America. It wasn't a period I knew much about, apart from the Civil War.
Sometimes we can encounter that same sense of wonder when reading history, when the past is described so vividly that it becomes real and wonderful.
I've just encountered that sense while reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. It begins with a historical humorous outlook on the way various explorers cheerfully claimed vast tracts of already occupied land for their own countries, but the book came to life for me when he starts to talk about the skills of the riverboat pilots.
Here, Twain writes from first-hand experience of learning those skills, and it makes for fascinating reading. The description of a pilot navigating a dangerous river section at night is hair-raising and makes the navigation skills of a London taxi driver suddenly seem trivial by comparison.
You can get the book free from Project Gutenberg and I definitely recommend it as a window on a totally different world.
It starts off with history, then meanders through biography, anecdotal stories of his youth and travels on the Mississippi, descriptions of steamboats and the countryside, the Civil War, New Orleans, cemeteries, Mardi Gras, and all in between. If I may make a bold and yet now-hackneyed comparison, this book IS the Mississippi - Wide, deep, circular and long, a centuries-old part of our history.
The obscurest details are made illuminating, and this story shines with humor and charm. Recommended to all fans of Twain, or laughing at books.
This is a "non-fictional" book by Mark Twain. (I guess that means based on some truth but embelished in various ways?) In it he recalls the years he spent during his youth as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Then he suddenly jumps forward many years in the book to when he is an older man. As an older man, he decides to go back and travel on the Mississippi River again. He finds the river much changed. The course of time (the Civil War has come and gone, the expansion of the railroad, and the forces of nature) have greatly changed life on the river. The once thriving steamboat trade has almost disapeared.
Besides his personal recollections, he also includes other interesting stories,history,folklore, talltales, and such. It is written in typical Mark Twain style - his dry sense of humor will bring a smile to your face. I really enjoyed this book.
I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like. Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows? I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.
This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain. I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.
The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism. The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start. The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes. Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.
So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started. What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour. Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.
Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read. And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.
While the Missouri River is not the Mississippi, it is nevertheless far more impressive than my native Kansas River, a wide stream populated with massive sandbars and piles of driftwood. No ships float down my river. I'm not sure they ever did. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain paints a portrait of a time when many ships paddled lazily up and down the rivers. Full of anecdotes about his time as a young river boat pilot, Twain's love for the river and its boats is evident. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of reading the first half of this book in the days before, during, and immediately after my river sojourn. Aside from Twain's signature humor, Life on the Mississippi bristled with the life of the river—its sounds and smells. I was glad to have this book as a companion during my own exploration of the river. I don't think I would've enjoyed it nearly as much at any other time.
The second half of Life on the Mississippi loses its magic. From humorous tales of his own experience on the river, Twain switches to the tales of others, statistics, and random observations. Some of these have to do with the Mississippi. Some do not. Basically, Twain was let loose to follow whatever tangents he wanted in this book and the results were underwhelming. There were some great stories within these pages, but most of it was as dry as the Kansas River.