Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi has relevance beyond its ostensible purpose of telling about Twain’s travels on a riverboat. It has continued to fascinate readers since its publication for its literary qualities, its significance as a coming-of-age story, and its relationship to Twain’s fiction, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
While the book is supposedly a work of nonfiction, Twain constantly exaggerates; the reader knows that Twain does not always intend to be believed. Twain also includes tall tales that other characters tell. His humor also sometimes uses the opposite tactic, of understatement, to create dry humor or suggest an ironic detachment on the narrator’s part. Twain has a unique knack for moving quickly between humorous and serious subjects; this sharp juxtaposition both retains the reader’s interest and impresses them with the gravity of some events depicted.
The book also functions as a slice of time, presenting one man’s clear image of a moment in US history and a way of life that vanished not long after Twain’s stint as a captain ended. He states that his work ended his innocent, romantic fantasy:
All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!
Interestingly, Twain himself played a major role in imbuing the river with poetry for the appreciation of generations to come. His capturing the lifeways of the boat’s crew and passengers, as well as scenes of shore life, also offer a benchmark of that era, which is useful for comparison to the current situation of North America’s longest river.