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Life on the Mississippi Summary
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Life on the Mississippi is a work that is a combination of historical narrative and memoir. Though Twain tells the narrative through several colorful characters, the Mississippi River also acts as a character/protagonist throughout the novel, and has been noted by many critics as the main protagonist for its role as a living, breathing entity that informs much of the story. Through the various characters of note, however, Twain effectively sets out to detail different aspects of nineteenth-century river life.
Twain begins the narrative by discussing the river’s history, beginning with its discovery by early settlers. Early on, the Mississippi River was largely ignored. It was viewed as nothing more than a natural phenomenon by the early settlers. The River was barely used by the early settlers, and many were not even willing to settle along its banks. As America began its westward expansion, however, the River became a vital component for both trade and travel, especially by the time that Mark Twain was born.
After delving into the history of the river, the narrative then switches to a memoir style of writing, with Twain exploring the River’s importance to him on a personal level. While growing up in Missouri, Twain had always dreamt of becoming a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. In time, Twain was able to achieve his goal. In fact, a majority of the narrative addresses his training as a steamboat pilot under the training of a man named Bixby. The narrative itself runs the gamut of emotions and styles. The narrative style can be fast moving, mimicking the River itself. It can also be slower, almost technical, again mimicking water to some extent. Twain is a master storyteller, however, and also infuses humor, pathos and ethos into his recollections. Humor is most evident in his recounting of his trials while learning to be a pilot, while his seriousness can be marked when he recounts his brother’s death.
The narrative then moves ahead in time, jumping a full twenty-one years. During this time span, Twain was not on the Mississippi River. As the narrative picks up, however, the reader finds that Twain is again recounting another journey down the River. This trip is one filled with nostalgia, as Twain visits old towns he used to frequent while also conversing with both old and new steamboat pilots. The journey allows Twain to note the various changes that come about on and around the Mississippi River since he was last there.
As a narrative that is both historical and immediate, Life on the Mississippi effectively addresses the theme of growth. This growth is made explicit in the historical context of the Mississippi River’s own history, from its beginnings with the early settlers who never really paid it much attention to its vital presence and use as America began growing westward. The theme of growth is also symbolic in regard to the River in that, from a personal perspective, Twain had wanted to work on the River ever since he was a child. He began taking lessons from Bixby, and made good on that promise. As such, Twain shows a level of growth in his actions. He also points to the fact that, like the early settlers, his identity as an individual has grown alongside the Mississippi River’s growing identity.
Movement is another important theme in the narrative, evident in the river itself. This remarkable body of water acts as a character in its own right, moving along with the passage of time as the pages of the narrative go by. Indeed, Twain notes how the River runs like a living, breathing entity. It is alive, and as such, is a perfect vehicle to show change and growth. By commenting on the River’s growth, on his own recollections concerning the River’s purpose, as well as including recollections of other travelers, such as Mrs. Trollope, and English writer, Twain is able to show not only growth in general, but the growth of America and its expansion in the eyes of other travelers.
The concept of travel is paramount, and is clearly seen in Twain’s desire to be a steamboat pilot, as well as in the River’s use as a conduit for travel and trade. Twain even uses information from his early drafts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is now considered an important travel narrative and work of fiction, to illuminate the River’s importance as far as growth and travel is concerned. As such, the Mississippi River highlights internal growth as much as it does external, political or social growth. It is a vessel for leisure and business, and a vessel for growth in a myriad of ways. The narrative shows how the people that come into contact with the River are all changed somehow, again adding to Twain’s view throughout the narrative of the river as a powerful, living entity.