Life on the Mississippi Questions and Answers
by Mark Twain

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What were some of Mark Twain's more interesting experiences when he became a cub pilot?

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Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is memorable not so much for specific incidents as for the general impression it makes on the reader as a picture of the antebellum United States. The conditions of nineteenth-century life described in it tend to strike the modern reader as amusing but strangely poignant as well.

As an apprentice riverboat pilot, Mark Twain has to put up with the anxious directions of his teacher, Bixby. Psychologists today would probably diagnose Bixby as having a form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Most trainees in any job today would not put up with Bixby's style of teaching, in which there is a well-meaning but maddening repetition of instructions about the correct method of steering a riverboat.

The pilot is expected to know by heart every twist and turn of the Mississippi over a length of nearly 700 miles from St. Louis to New Orleans. The way Bixby pounds this axiom into the young Mark Twain is hilarious, but it's also a general feature of Mark Twain's style to convey a point through exaggerated repetition. The Americans of the age are typically portrayed in his work as amusingly naive, but not in the derogatory way some commentators have attributed to him.

A striking detail is the apprentice's being told that he must learn the course of the river in the same way he knows the inside of his house in the dark. Though everyone today knows that Life on the Mississippi takes place in a time when candles and oil lamps were still the only source of light within people's homes, it is precisely this kind of detail that illustrates, though in a small way, the extent to which technology has transformed the world in the past century and a half. For me, this particular point is the most memorable element in the book.

One has to remember that Life on the Mississippi was written in the 1880s, nearly thirty years after the period during which the story takes place. It was therefore a nostalgia piece even for its first readers. Unfortunately, most of those readers may not have appreciated how much the United States had at least started to change for the better during those thirty years, and how much of a good thing it was that the antebellum world had vanished forever.

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