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. 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.
- Life on the Mississippi includes many humorous sketches of characters Twain met during his time as a steamboat pilot. Twain relies on dialogue and comedic timing to introduce the interesting people he met.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Mark Twain’s book Life on the Mississippi was published in 1883, the year before the publication of Twain’s best-known work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Several of the book’s chapters on Twain’s experiences as an apprentice steamboat pilot, from 1858 to 1859, were originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly under the title “Old Times on the Mississippi” in 1876. Twain later revised these pieces and included them in his book alongside a great deal of new material, spanning sixty chapters in total.
While Life on the Mississippi is often classed as autobiography or travel narrative, the book also contains plenty of embellishment of true events, as well as purely fictional stories. The latter category includes the story of Karl Ritter in chapters 31–32 and the tale recounted in chapter 52, “The Burning Brand,” among others. The most authentically autobiographical portions of the book, on the other hand, include Twain’s descriptions of his cub pilot days and his visit to his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.
The principal aim of Life on the Mississippi seems to be to immortalize an aspect of the American experience that had, since the advent of new technologies such as the transcontinental railroad, largely disappeared by the time of Twain’s return to the river in 1882. Twain’s detailed portrayal of the river’s history, dating back to the earliest attempts of Europeans to chart its course, together with the minute care with which he describes the particularities of his former profession as an apprentice steamboat pilot, speaks to his feverish determination that humanity should not forget what life on the Mississippi was like. He desired to show, through his blending of history, anthropology, and personal anecdote, that the Mississippi was a cultural as well as a geographical and economic phenomenon and that the people of the Mississippi embodied, in the transient and improvisational nature of their lives, what it truly meant to be American.
In a sense, Twain might be said to have grown up with a stereotypically American spirit. The work’s earlier chapters, detailing Samuel Clemens’s first experiences as a cub pilot, ring with the kind of optimistic energy characteristic of the antebellum United States. However, his return to the river later in life is written in quite a different tone. The narrative of Samuel Clemens races along with the river itself, with Clemens seemingly driven by an almost Whitmanic hunger to experience the people and the places he encountered. At that time, the United States was much the same, having now begun the process of westward expansion with great optimism and enthusiasm while at the same time undergoing unprecedented technological growth.
However, the later Mark Twain seems chastened by the death of his brother, much as the United States had been chastened by its experience of the Civil War (1861–1865). Upon returning to the river twenty years after the outbreak of the war, the older Twain’s tone fluctuates between a sterile appreciation of how science had made the business of navigating easier and a regret that the same innovations were ruining the authenticity of the lifestyle he remembered so fondly.