What are the themes in Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain?

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Coming of Age

Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain , dreamed of being a steamboat pilot since he was a boy growing up in Hannibal, Mississippi. He was 22 when he became a steamboat pilot in 1857, but this career was cut short in 1861, at the outbreak of...

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Coming of Age

Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, dreamed of being a steamboat pilot since he was a boy growing up in Hannibal, Mississippi. He was 22 when he became a steamboat pilot in 1857, but this career was cut short in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Samuel Clemens became a man during his time as a steamboat pilot. His pen name, Mark Twain, was inspired by his time on riverboats: the term 'mark twain' is used to measure river depths of 12 feet, the depth deemed safe for a steamboat to pass.

The Conflict Between Childhood Fantasy and Reality

As a young boy, Twain dreamed of adventure on the Mississippi, creating a fiction in his mind of what he believed was the life of a steamboat pilot. In reality, his training was physically demanding, and he struggled significantly in his first few months. His captain was a harsh man who frequently issued verbal insults. Journeying the river was not the constant excitement Twain dreamed it would be—there were periods of prolonged idleness, and to his disappointment, the captain would regularly wake him up in the middle of the night to pilot the steamboat.

The Importance of Mentorship

The riverboat captain, Horace Bixby, acted as a mentor to Twain. Twain convinced Bixby to take him on as a trainee despite his young age and lack of relevant training. Bixby was not the ideal mentor. He had an explosive temper and swore at Twain constantly, particularly at the onset of his training, during which Twain made frequent mistakes. Despite the onslaught of verbal abuse, Twain respected the captain. He took the captain’s words with a grain of salt, mainly because steamboat workers had notoriously coarse language. Twain admired the captain, who was known throughout the Mississippi as a superior captain.

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