Saturday, January 31, 2009


Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, originally published in 1883, is part memoir, part paean to the Mississippi River and its culture, and part compilation of whatever miscellaneous anecdotes Twain thought were worth relating.

Twain begins with a history of the Mississippi since it was discovered by de Soto in 1541. He then discusses in great detail his training and early career as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, and the accompanying science of navigating the river. Mastering the river in Twain’s time was a mind-boggling achievement – it required the memorization of the entire river from St. Louis to New Orleans, and this monumental task was complicated by the Mississippi’s tendency to change its course constantly. Later in life, Twain and some companions traveled on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans, and he discusses in great detail how the riverboating industry (as well as industry in general) has changed. This account reads something more like a travelogue.

Interspersed through this account are a number of anecdotes and commentaries, covering a various and sundry range of topics, including tall tales, legends, architecture, culture, grammar, mule racing, cockfighting, and Sir Walter Scott’s detrimental effect on the American South. One could spend several pages listing the topics Twain covers, but suffice it to say that the majority will be of interest to the discerning modern reader. His tall tales (often related as fact) are particularly good.

Twain is just as engaging here as he is in his fiction. He is self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek, and his style is completely endearing. And if a particular topic is not of interest to the reader, well, he moves on quickly enough.

Ultimately, Life on the Mississippi is a fascinating read, not only for detailed insight into nineteenth-century life in America, but also for the countless tales Twain relates in his inimitable style.