Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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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 Updated 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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted June 8, 2020, 9:55 pm (UTC)

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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 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 because of postwar competition from railroads and tow barges.

A prime example of a master pilot with an exceptional memory, Bixby proves his skill by switching to the more difficult Missouri River, where he quickly earns a new license. Meanwhile, the young cub stays on the Mississippi and apprentices himself on the Pennsylvania under the despotic tutelage of Mr. Brown. His younger brother Henry has joined the Pennsylvania as a lowly clerk. One day, Brown assaults Henry, which provokes the narrator to beat Brown. The narrator thinks that with this act he has ruined his career, but kindly Captain Klinefelter approves of what he has done and even offers to put Brown ashore in New Orleans. Not feeling up to assuming Brown’s piloting responsibilities, the cub himself stays ashore and then follows the Pennsylvania upriver on another boat. Near Memphis, Tennessee, he learns that the Pennsylvania’s boilers have exploded, killing 150 people, his own brother among them, and Brown has disappeared.

Eventually the narrator earns his license and becomes steadily employed as a pilot. Soon, however, the Civil War intervenes and brings his occupation to an end. Twenty-one years later—after going through a succession of careers—he decides to return to the Mississippi, and he enlists a poet named Thompson and a stenographer named Rogers to accompany him. At St. Louis, they board the Gold Dust, on which the narrator quickly begins discovering how much steamboating has changed. Traveling under a pseudonym, he sits quietly in the pilothouse and listens while the pilot, Robert Styles—who had once been his fellow cub—tries to impress him with outrageous lies before revealing that he had recognized him immediately.

As the Gold Dust travels south, the mate, “Uncle” Mumford, and other crew members recount the river’s recent history and the impact of the Civil War on southern towns. The narrator observes how much navigational techniques have been modernized—a development that he feels has destroyed the river’s romance.

As the boat nears Napoleon, Arkansas, the narrator tells his companions an amazing story about a German named Ritter whose last wish he had promised to fulfill by retrieving ten thousand dollars that Ritter had hidden in Napoleon and sending it to the son of a man whom Ritter had wronged. The story arouses avarice among the narrator’s companions until they learn that the entire town of Napoleon has been washed away by a flood.

At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the travelers switch to another steamboat that takes them to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they enter the “absolute South,” where romantic influences in architecture remind the narrator of the debilitating influence that Sir Walter Scott’s Romanticism has had on the region. In New Orleans, the narrator spends much of his visit with authors George Washington Cable and Joel Chandler Harris. He also meets Horace Bixby, who is now captain of the City of Baton Rouge. The narrator, Bixby, and other old-time pilots swap stories about former rivermen, including Captain Isaiah Sellers, from whom the narrator has appropriated his pen name, “Mark Twain.” After returning to St. Louis on Bixby’s boat, the narrator continues upriver to Hannibal, Missouri—his boyhood home. There he recalls poignant memories from his youth. He then travels north by boat to St. Paul, Minnesota, from where he later returns home by land.

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