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.


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Last Updated on February 24, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

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...

(The entire section contains 842 words.)

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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 succumbed to the itch to return to the river.

In early 1882, Twain spent just over a month on the Mississippi with his book publisher, James R. Osgood (“Thompson” in the narrative), and a Hartford, Connecticut, stenographer named Roswell Phelps (“Rogers”). Afterward, he returned home to Hartford and threw himself into writing what he believed must be a large book. After completing the introductory chapters, he naturally returned to his “Old Times” articles. These he lightly revised and supplemented with several new chapters—including those recounting his troubles with Mr. Brown.

Although chapters 4 through 20 of Life on the Mississippi are based on Twain’s own experiences as a cub pilot from early 1858 through early 1859, they cannot strictly be regarded as autobiography. Twain’s narrator writes in the first person, but the cub whom he depicts as his youthful self appears to be a much younger and more naïve person than the twenty-one-year-old Sam Clemens who had become an apprentice pilot. Twain’s interest in writing these chapters is to describe the marvelous art of piloting and the wonders of the Mississippi River, not to recount his own life. Once he achieves these objectives, he dismisses the two years that he spent as a licensed pilot in one brief paragraph (chapter 21).

The balance of the sixty-chapter book recounts Twain’s return to the Mississippi in 1882. Much of this section is straightforward travel narrative, but even this cannot be read as unadulterated autobiography. As with Twain’s other travel books, much of this section is embroidered for entertainment and literary effect. More even than in the earlier chapters, the narrator speaks with the voice of Twain, but here, too, he never openly identifies himself as Mark Twain (or as Samuel Clemens), although he twice alludes to his famous pen name. Keeping the identity of his narrator vague—a technique that typifies most of Twain’s travel writing—leaves him free to invent and embroider without the strictures of nonfiction.

Readers unaware of the extent to which Twain freed himself to invent may become confused in reading Life on the Mississippi. The second part of the book contains several frame stories that are pure fiction, but the author gives no hint of their nature. A prime example is the Karl Ritter episode, which blends so seamlessly into chapters 31 and 32 that one might mistakenly read the story as authentic. Another example occurs in chapter 52—“The Burning Brand”—to which Twain adds a realistic note by working in the name of his literary friend Charles Dudley Warner.

Although Life on the Mississippi should not be read as authentic autobiography, the book is filled with autobiographical interest. Its cub-piloting chapters help illuminate an important phase of Twain’s early life, just as the book’s later narrative at least approximates Twain’s 1882 experiences. Of perhaps greater autobiographical significance, and of often superior literary interest, are the chapters concerning his return visit to Hannibal, Missouri. Chapters 53-56 take Twain deeper into his youth than anything he wrote until he seriously undertook his autobiography a quarter century later.

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