Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, the author of the memoir Life on the Mississippi, narrates his own experiences on the Mississippi River in two parts: first, as a “cub” or apprentice pilot in the employ of Mr. Bixby, and later, as a visitor returning twenty years later from other journeys and commenting on what he has seen. Although Twain (born Samuel Clemens) is no longer a steamboat pilot, his experience has left him with an admiration for highly skilled steamboat workers. Twain realizes that his early training has created within him the confidence to excel at anything he sets his mind to doing. However, he also realizes that, as life has changed on the river, it is now much easier to become a steamboat pilot due to the increased number of riverboats and the subsequent increase in demand for pilots. As a result, those who have achieved this position no longer need to struggle the way he did and don’t necessarily share his values or beliefs as a result.

Horace E. Bixby

Mr. Bixby is the steamboat pilot who agrees to train and teach Twain. However, the character of Mr. Bixby is mentioned repeatedly and often even after Twain’s apprenticeship, as he is the primary instrument in Twain’s becoming an actual steamboat pilot. As such, Mr. Bixby is pivotal to that point in Twain’s life and instrumental to everything that unfolds afterward. At one point, Twain begins to doubt himself and mentions to Mr. Bixby that he is going to take his leave, as he doubts he can ever truly pilot a steamboat; Mr. Bixby’s response seals Twain’s future for good:

Now drop that! When I say I’ll learn . . . a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.

Twain believes Mr. Bixby is not exaggerating in the slightest, in part due to the rough nature of his language—which is the complete opposite of the more polite (and not necessarily honest) language used by the more civilized land dwellers. He realizes that there is no going back and that his fate, for at least the immediate future, is sealed.

Minor Characters

Many minor characters are introduced in the memoir either by first name, by a name that has been blanked out (for example, a “Mr. W_____”), or through simple references to them in conversation that don’t assign them a name. These references are usually made in order to carry the story forward or in order to introduce the characters as representations of the local culture; an example of this is Bob and the Child, who get into a disagreement that threatens to lead to violence without ever actually making good on the threat. It is likely that the incident where they quarrel is a tall tale, but it does demonstrate Twain’s understanding of the people he sees on his travels. Bob and the Child are ultimately confronted by a diminutive Davey, who boxes both of their ears to the delight of the other people looking on.

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