Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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In Life on the Mississippi, how does the river change Twain's romantic life notions?

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Mark Twain narrates the days of his apprenticeship on a riverboat in a seriocomic manner that reveals much about his own mentality and the general conditions of nineteenth-century life.

What might have been thought of in romantic and pastoral terms is actually a harsh experience under his captain, Bixby. From the neurotic and repetitive manner in which he instructs Mark Twain, Bixby seems to have a touch of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Over and over he emphasizes that the one steering a riverboat must know by heart every twist and turn of the Mississippi. To a modern reader, it’s mind boggling, considering the thousand mile distance from St. Louis down to New Orleans. Bixby warns (or rather threatens) that just as one must navigate one’s house in total darkness at night (which gives us some indication of the atmosphere of pre-electricity times), so must one know the Mississippi blindfolded.

It is a sobering apprenticeship, but as with so many things in Mark Twain, one can’t be sure how much is intended for comic effect or as satire. Mark Twain presents the antebellum world at some distance, with the subtext that the South has been been transformed into a different world over the past 30 years. The young man’s romantic notions of the river might be dispelled, but the entire account is a Romantic or romanticized vision of a vanished world.

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Mark Twain tells this story in Chapter IX, “Continued Perplexities.” Having grown up along the Mississippi River, Twain had always found beauty in it. He remembered a specific sunset that was especially remarkable, with the light reflecting around a log and a variety of ripples in the water. Unfortunately, once he was trained as a steamboat pilot, Twain's view changed. He learned how to read the signs in the water so that he could successfully guide a boat through it, without getting hung up or stuck on any submerged obstacles. Now he could recognize and analyze all of the hazards that lay around that log, beneath those ripples, and along the shoreline. He approached the scene as a scientist or an engineer would, gauging the waterway for navigation and transportation, and not for mere beauty. He says,

I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! … All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.

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