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Life on the Mississippi Summary
Life on the Mississippi is a memoir of Twain's personal experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
As a boy, Twain talks his way onto the Paul Jones, a steamer, where he pays the pilot, Mr. Bixby, $500 to teach him everything he knows.
Twain learns the ecology and history of the Mississippi river.
Twain describes life on the Mississippi. He describes small shore towns, lively talkers, and the victim of a wildcat.
Twain writes about his love for steamboats. He was a skilled pilot, and he learned how to read the currents of the notoriously fickle Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi is an autobiographical chronicle of Mark Twain's adventures during his training as a steamboat captain when he was
twenty-one years old. The book includes some historical context about the Mississippi River, such as explorer Hernando de Soto's encounter
with the river in 1542.
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.
The book begins with a brief history of the river as reported by Europeans and Americans, beginning with the Spanish explorer Hernando de
Soto in 1542.[2] It continues with anecdotes of Twain's training as a steamboat pilot, as the 'cub' (apprentice) of an experienced pilot, Horace E.
Bixby. He describes, with great affection, the science of navigating the ever-changing Mississippi River in a section that was first published in
1876, entitled "Old Times on the Mississippi". Although Twain was actually 21 when he began his training, he uses artistic license to make
himself seem somewhat younger, referring to himself as a "fledgling" and a "boy" who "ran away from home" to seek his fortune on the river,
and playing up his own callowness and naïveté.
In the second half, Twain narrates his trip many years later on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans, shortly followed by a steamboat
journey from New Orleans to St Paul (with a stop at his boyhood home town of Hannibal, MO). He describes the competition from railroads,
and the new, large cities, and adds his observations on greed, gullibility, tragedy, and bad architecture. He also tells some stories that are most
likely tall tales.
This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.
In Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, the author describes many different aspects of the river and its life in the nineteenth century. Overall,
Twain writes about the Mississippi as a living, breathing being - it is by far the most important character in the story, and functions as a character
throughout the narrative.
Half history and half memoir, Life on the Mississippi begins with an historical examination of the river. Twain writes of its early discovery by
settlers and how, for many years, the river was ignored as anything but a simple natural fact: it was hardly used, and very few pilgrims came to
live along it. However, it became an important feature as America expanded westward, and was of vital importance in trade and travel by the
time Twain was born.
After covering the history of the river, Twain focuses on his personal history with the river. Growing up in Missouri, the river played an
important role in his childhood, as he dreamed of becoming a steamboat pilot. Eventually, he achieved this role: a large part of the book deals
with his training in this area, under the tutelage of an experienced pilot named Bixby. Twain's stories vary throughout the narrative: at certain
points, he is humorous, particularly when he's speaking about his own failings in the early days; at others, he is technical, describing the various
features of the river and the difficulties they presented for pilots in the early days; at other points, he describes tragic occurrences, such as the
death of his brother.
Twain then marks the passage of twenty-one years when he was not on the river with a single page, then transitioning back to the river itself.
However, this time he writes of a recent journey he took down the river, incognito, more than two decades after he worked as a pilot himself on
the Mississippi. Here, he searches for different towns he knew, speaks to pilots old and new, and looks at the changes that have taken place on
the river since he last saw it.
Throughout the book, Twain relies not only on his own recollections and observations, but also on a variety of sources: from his own early drafts
of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to the memoirs of previous travelers, such as an English writer named Mrs. Trollope. By doing so, he
creates a textured narrative about an important, changing geographical feature that has played a complex role in American history.
Mark Twain
Mark Twain, the narrator of Life on the Mississippi is the main character and, indeed, the character who ties the narrative together. Growing up
as a young boy in Hannibal, Missouri, located on the Mississippi River, Twain watched steamboats go by with envy and desire to become one of
the men who worked on them. As he got older, he eventually got the idea to go explore the Amazon on a boat. However, it was too early for that;
so he took a job training to become a pilot on a steamship, under an experienced man named Bixby. Twain writes the narrative from an older
perspective, poking fun at his younger self, whom he describes as inexperienced, naive, and slightly puffed-up about what he already knew about
the river. Later, Twain returns to the river twenty-one years after his first training, trying to be incognito.
The Growth of America
One of the most prevalent themes in Life on the Mississippi is the growth of America as a country, as well as the development of national and
regional characteristics. Through the rise and fall of the steamship industry, Twain traces the development of a certain area of the United States.
Thus, he begins his story by telling of the discovery of the Mississippi and of its early uses before giving the narrative its more personal tone.
Here, we begin by seeing the Mississippi as an undiscovered resource, to be followed by a discussion of its uses for the growth of industry, as
well as its mythical character in Twain's eyes. Not only does Twain discuss the steamboat as a part of his maturing, but he also shows how it
allowed America to grow and develop, through trade and even during the Civil War.