Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

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Life on the Mississippi (1883) is one part memoir and one part travelogue about steamboat life along the greatest of American rivers. Twain uses his characteristic wit and firsthand knowledge to impart a sense of dirty wonder about the steamboat days and the towns that line up and down the Mississippi.

The book can be considered in several sections:

1) A history of white exploration and settlement on the Mississippi from De Soto in 1542 to late antebellum South. This section is brisk but informative and a nice prelude to the rest of the book.

2) Twain’s own coming of age as he leaves Hannibal, Missouri and takes up life about steamboats as a cub pilot. Considerably the best section because it is the most narrative, personal, and nostalgic. Twain uses his own youthful accumulation of knowledge and experience to show his readers just what steamboating was and gives us a delightful look at the rough-and-tumble steamboat men who reared him. Ends with a heartbreaking steamboat disaster.

(Interlude: In one short, plain, and understated chapter that might last all of forty words Twain jumps through decades of his life by occupation and incident.)

3) Twain, now an old man and a famous writer, taking a trip with friends on a steamboat on a much-changed river. The longest section of the book, here begins the true travelogue but there’s a lot of fascinating history. The trip occurred shortly after a catastrophic flood which is alluded to often and its effects were still visible.

4) Twain’s impressions of New Orleans, the final stop of the first part of the downriver trip, in the 1880s. A little less interesting maybe but still worthwhile.

5) Twain and his acquaintances make a trip up the Missouri River, including a stop back in his hometown. The final section is more travelogue centered with a nostalgic, quasi-tragic yet characteristically funny reminiscence and catching up in Hannibal.

Overall, Life on the Mississippi was a true pleasure. Twain was a great humorist and character writer and here breaks down and explains some very interesting stuff from a history enthusiast’s perspective. The only thing that hasn’t aged well is some of the clichéd depictions of black folk along the river for the sake of comedy. However, Twain was still way more sympathetic and humanizing than a lot of late 19th century Southern writers.

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