Life on the Mississippi Analysis

  • Mark Twain's memoir Life on the Mississippi recounts the author's personal experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. The book is broken up into sixty short chapters, most of which take the form of anecdotes from Twain's life. Though generally classified as an autobiography, the book does include several fictional stories in the later chapters
  • Mark Twain describes the art of piloting steamboats in detail. He drew his pseudonym from the term meaning a river depth of two fathoms, which was required for a steamboat's safe passage. The early chapters of the memoir are an important source of biographical information about one of the most formative period of Twain's life.
  • Life on the Mississippi includes many humorous sketches of characters Twain met during his time as a steamboat pilot. Twain relies on his ear for dialogue and his comedic timing to depict the wildly interesting people he met on the river.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Though usually classified among Mark Twain’s five travel books, Life on the Mississippi defies neat categorization. Like much of the author’s work, it is structurally flawed and uneven in tone; indeed, it even resists simple synopsis. Nevertheless, the book is generally recognized as one of Twain’s finest works, a true classic about the great Mississippi River. It is, moreover, the immediate predecessor to his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

The book’s structural problems arise from its author’s conflicting goals. A decade before Twain began the book, he entertained the idea of writing a standard work on the Mississippi River. The germ of this idea can be seen in the book’s first three chapters, which describe the river’s history and geographical peculiarities. As early as chapter 3, however, Twain’s resolve to continue along these lines begins wavering, and he shifts direction by introducing an extract from a novel on which he had worked for several years. Taken from what would become chapter 16 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this passage introduces Huck and Jim and depicts life on a great commercial river raft. A beautifully realized passage, it evokes the power and romance of the Mississippi and links the book directly to the novel.

Chapter 4 of Life on the Mississippi opens with what is generally acknowledged to be one of Twain’s finest pieces of writing: an almost lyrical account of his two years as an apprentice steamboat pilot on the lower Mississippi. He originally composed most of the seventeen chapters that constitute this part of the book for magazine serialization. With the encouragement of his friends Joseph Twichell and W. D. Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote these articles in order to re-create the great age of steamboating. After they appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1876 as a series titled “Old Times on the Mississippi,” he put aside his idea of writing a book on the Mississippi until six years later, when he...

(The entire section is 842 words.)