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 theĀ 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 September 5, 2023.

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.

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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