Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
As a boy growing up in a Mississippi River town, the narrator has the common ambition of becoming a steamboatman. He especially wants to be a pilot. Later, while living in Cincinnati, he decides to make his fortune in the Amazon and buys passage on the steamboat Paul Jones to New Orleans, from where he intends to sail to the Amazon. After arriving in New Orleans, however, he discovers that he will not be able to continue his journey, so he looks for a new career. He lays siege to Mr. Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones, and persuades the man to accept him as a cub pilot on the return voyage upriver.
The new pilot begins his education under Bixby’s tutelage by steering the Paul Jones out of New Orleans and listening to Bixby call attention to monotonously nondescript points along the way. At midnight on his first day, he is rudely turned out of his bed to stand watch—his first intimation that piloting might not be quite as romantic as he had imagined. His second such intimation comes when he learns that Bixby expects him to remember everything he is told. As the boat continues upriver, the narrator’s new notebook fills with information, but his head remains empty.
After switching boats at St. Louis for the return trip, the cub pilot discovers that downstream navigation differs greatly from upstream navigation. In fact, each time he thinks he is mastering his new trade, Bixby piles on more facts for him to learn. He is expected to memorize the river’s features and its shape, then he has to learn the river’s depths and how to “read” it like a book. Eventually, the narrator thinks his education is complete, only to be told that he now has to learn how to read the river’s fluctuating depths from its banks. His education continues.
The narrator relates the minutiae of piloting because he loves the profession more than any other. In the early days, he says, a steamboat pilot was the only completely unfettered human being on earth. That situation began changing before the Civil War, when the rapid increase in licensed pilots started cutting into wages. A handful of bold veterans reversed the trend by forming a professional association that forced the steamboat companies to restore their former wages. Shortly after, however, the war halted commercial steamboat traffic, and it never recovered...
(The entire section is 963 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cox, James M. “Life on the Mississippi Revisited.” In The Mythologizing of Mark Twain, edited by Sara deSaussure Davis and Phillip D. Beidler. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984. Presents a persuasive argument that Life on the Mississippi converts the life of Samuel L. Clemens into the “myth” of Mark Twain.
Emerson, Everett. The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Contains a useful summary of Twain’s composition of Life on the Mississippi, concluding that the “real” Mark Twain disappears from the last part of his book. Emerson also wrote on this book for The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, edited by J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson (New York: Garland, 1993).
Kruse, Horst H. Mark Twain and “Life on the Mississippi.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Much the fullest study of its subject, this book focuses on Twain’s composition of Life on the Mississippi. Kruse concludes that one of Twain’s intentions was to help redeem the South from the Romanticism that brought on the Civil War. Includes an extensive bibliography.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 1995. This comprehensive reference work has a long analytical synopsis of Life on the Mississippi which is cross-referenced to essays on individual characters, places, and other topics. It also has extended essays on such related topics as piloting, steamboats, and the Mississippi River.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1944. A full edition of the work with an authoritative introduction by Edward Wagenknecht and an appendix that restores fifteen thousand words cut from the original text. Also published in a Heritage Press edition.