Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Life on the Mississippi - by Mark Twain

Life on the Mississippi is an 1883 memoir by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) on his life as a steamboat captain.  
(US Edition)  (UK Edition) The one page preface to this book is off-putting with its eccentric spacing, capitalization and highlighting.  But as Twain might say, it settles down after chapter one.  The sentences in all caps are captions for illustrations that are not included in the free edition.

This book was a bestseller in its time and has remained popular ever since.  Every book and article on the Mississippi that I have read references this travel memoir. 

Samuel Clemens took his pen name from words used to sound the river depth, and Mark Twain sets his most celebrated novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, on the river.

Here is a bit of the river’s history as it pertains to European explorers:

The mere mysteriousness of the matter [stories of a great river] ought to have fired curiosity and compelled exploration; but this did not occur. Apparently nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and a half the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When De Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it.

Twain talks of his desire to work aboard a steamboat.  (His father was a justice of the peace.)  Here is a jealous account of a schoolmate’s good fortune:

By and by one of our boys went away. He was not heard of for a long time. At last he turned up as apprentice engineer or 'striker' on a steamboat. This thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings. That boy had been notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse; yet he was exalted to this eminence, and I left in obscurity and misery. There was nothing generous about this fellow in his greatness. He would always manage to have a rusty bolt to scrub while his boat tarried at our town, and he would sit on the inside guard and scrub it, where we could all see him and envy him and loathe him. And whenever his boat was laid up he would come home and swell around the town in his blackest and greasiest clothes, so that nobody could help remembering that he was a steamboatman; and he used all sorts of steamboat technicalities in his talk, as if he were so used to them that he forgot common people could not understand them. He would speak of the 'labboard' side of a horse in an easy, natural way that would make one wish he was dead.

So climb aboard and take a lazy trip down the mighty “Mississipp’.”

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