Life on the Mississippi is Twain’s happiest book. Written early in his career, before the difficulties of his personal life had a chance to color his perception, and filled with reminiscent celebration of his time as a boy and man, as an apprentice and as a Mississippi steamboat pilot, it is a lively, affectionate tribute hardly muted by the fact that the world of the romantic pilots of the Mississippi had disappeared forever during the Civil War and the development of the railroads.
It is a great grab-bag of a book. It starts formally enough, with a sonorous history of the river that reveals how much Twain feels for the phenomenon of the Mississippi (which will appear again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but swiftly falls into rambling anecdotes, comic turns, and tall tales. It has, as is often the case in early Twain, a weakness for elephantine humor of the unsophisticated, midwestern rural stripe, but the obvious happiness that marks the tonality of the book manages to keep it going despite its regular habit of floundering in bathos.
The book could well have descended into an amusing shambles had it not been used to tell the very long, detailed, and sometimes hilarious story of the steamboat pilots and of how Twain as a young boy wheedles his way onto the Paul Jones, where Mr. Bixby, the pilot, agrees to teach him the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, which Twain is to pay him out of his first wages as a pilot. These passages are some of the best action writing done by Twain, and they anticipate the kind of exciting river narrative that is so important in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Beyond the action, however, is Twain’s ability to relate the minute-by-minute excitement of learning how to handle the great boats in their perilous journeys up and down a river that changed so rapidly, hour by hour, that charts...
(The entire section is 787 words.)