78 pages 2 hours read

Mark Twain

Life on the Mississippi

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1883

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Summary and Study Guide


Life on the Mississippi is a powerful narrative concerning the past, present, and future of the Mississippi River, including its towns, peoples, and ways of life. The narrative is written by Mark Twain, whose real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Twain explains in the narrative how he “stole” this nickname from an old steamboat captain who was also a writer. Mark Twain is a nautical term and a pilot’s phrase that means “two fathoms.” Two fathoms is when the water level is just deep enough for river navigation. As Mark Twain, he provides a comical take on life in general. With this novel, Twain addresses the life and times of piloting steamboats along the Mississippi River, making sure to mix his trademark humor into the narrative.

Before addressing the river and his personal relationship to it, Twain provides a brief history of the Mississippi River. He comments in the first few chapters on the river’s historic standing as a wonder that surpasses many rivers around the world. Twain also provides a history of explorers in the region, including DeSoto, who first saw the river, and how the Mississippi transitioned from being just another body of water to become a conduit for transportation that many eventually found worth exploring and building industry upon. Twain comments on America’s historic past despite both literature and people using the word “new” to describe everything related to America.

The narrative is intertwined with Twain’s personal story of falling love with steamboats and wanting to become a steamboat pilot from a young age. As a child, Twain dreamed of being a steamboat pilot, not to mention a pirate. Though he initially wanted to travel on the Amazon, he leaves home and becomes a “cub” or a trainee pilot, on the Mississippi River. Twain’s sense of adventure and his thirst for knowledge relating to steamboat piloting provide many of the comic stories that flesh out the narrative and his apprenticeship with Mr. Bixby in the early part of the novel. While learning to understand the Mississippi, Twain must also learn to understand himself, dealing with his own cockiness and pride along the way.

From teachers such as Mr. Bixby and the cantankerous Brown, Twain learns the ins and outs of steamboat piloting. His dream is cut short, however, when the Civil War hits and he must leave to become a war reporter. The narrative picks up some twenty years later when Twain returns to the Mississippi River to see how much it has changed. He attempts to return without being noticed, but is recognized by old acquaintances. Twain’s return is bittersweet as he notes the changes in the Mississippi and the steamboat industry. The war has caused railroads to become the main mode of transportation, and Twain sees the once noble profession of steamboat piloting going the proverbial way of the dinosaurs. Though he laments this change, Twain also notes that industry must progress, and that the new rules and methods of transportation are more efficient. Twain revisits old haunts in the South, his stories providing a noteworthy snapshot of river life both before and after the war.

Twain uses anecdotes, stories, and first-hand narratives to weave a story highlighting his growth on the Mississippi, the Mississippi’s own growth, the glory days and decline of steamboats, his departure for war, and his eventual return to the Mississippi many years later. Twain is a masterful storyteller, and imbues many of his stories with his trademark humor. Twain also uses the recollections of others to further highlight the general feel or character of places and people. These recollections include newspaper clippings, stories, recalls from people of character, like Mrs. Trollope, and steamboat pilot stories, all of which are meant to paint a colorful picture of Southern life along the Mississippi River.