Life on the Mississippi Summary

Life on the Mississippi is a memoir of Twain's personal experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.

  • As a boy, Twain talks his way onto the Paul Jones, a steamer, where he pays the pilot, Mr. Bixby, $500 to teach him everything he knows.
  • Twain learns the ecology and history of the Mississippi river.
  • Twain describes life on the Mississippi. He describes small shore towns, lively talkers, and the victim of a wildcat.
  • Twain writes about his love for steamboats. He was a skilled pilot, and he learned how to read the currents of the notoriously fickle Mississippi River.


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Last Reviewed on November 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

Life on the Mississippi is an autobiographical chronicle of Mark Twain's adventures during his training as a steamboat captain when he was twenty-one years old. The book includes some historical context about the Mississippi River, such as explorer Hernando de Soto's encounter with the river in 1542. The memoir's primary focus, however, is Mark Twain's apprenticeship to steamboat pilot Horace Bixby, whom he paid $500 to teach him how to operate a steamboat.

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Although he falters through much of his training, Twain eventually does live his boyhood dream by earning a steamboat pilot's license. In the book's second half, Twain recounts his past during a steamboat journey from St. Louis to New Orleans. On this trip, Twain is particularly observant of changes in modes of transportation and meditates on railroads, architectural features, and the growth and expansion of big cities.

Human nature is of interest to Twain, and he both interacts with and describes the people he encounters during his journey, honestly and realistically noting their characteristics, strengths, and flaws. He includes anecdotes and observations from his fellow travel companions and the people they encounter along the way.

Twain also writes about his personal employment history prior to becoming a writer. He was a reporter, a miner, a teacher, and a foreign correspondent before embarking upon his extremely successful career as a novelist. His love for and appreciation of the Mississippi River is evident throughout the book due to his recognition of the body of water as a venue for travel, business, trade, and social and political growth. The combination of history, humor, tall tales, personal observation, and human interest are prevalent in this memoir of a journey of Twain's growth and fulfillment both as an individual and as a world-renowned writer.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

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...

(The entire section contains 1253 words.)

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