Starting with a humorous and informative history of the river, Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain continues to describe piloting that waterway. In the same home-down style established by all of his more well known works, Twain paints a brightly-colored portrait of that long river with all its twists, turns, rapids, shallows and landmarks. The book traces river travel from the time that the river pilot was almost a god to their downfall with the building of levees, dykes and the placing of light and floating markers, making the navigation of the river immensely easier. Halfway through the sketches (I use this word as the book sometimes lacks in unity) the author moves away from a direct connection with the Mississippi River and continues with colorful accounts that take the reader around the world. Life on the Mississippi was the start of Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clements) fame as a writer. This introduction to a great writer and a great mind is a true diamond; not in the rough but shining as a lighthouse in the misty night.(Thom Swennes) Life on the Mississippi is a memoir by Mark Twain detailing his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the American Civil War. A good portion of the work also deals with his post-war visit to the “old haunts”.
The book begins with a brief history of the river as reported by Europeans and Americans, beginning with the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542. It continues with anecdotes of Twain's training as a steamboat pilot, as the 'cub' (apprentice) of an experienced pilot, Horace E. Bixby. He describes, with great affection, the science of navigating the ever-changing Mississippi River in a section that was first published in 1876, entitled "Old Times on the Mississippi". Although Twain was actually 21 when he began his training, he uses artistic license to make himself seem somewhat younger, referring to himself as a "fledgling" and a "boy" who "ran away from home" to seek his fortune on the river, and playing up his own callowness and naïveté.
In the second half, Twain narrates his trip many years later on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans, shortly followed by a steamboat journey from New Orleans to St Paul (with a stop at his boyhood home town of Hannibal, MO). He describes the competition from railroads, and the new, large cities, and adds his observations on greed, gullibility, tragedy, and bad architecture. He also tells some stories that are most likely tall tales.
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