Life on the Mississippi Summary
by Mark Twain

Start Your Free Trial

Life on the Mississippi Summary

Life on the Mississippi is a memoir of Twain's personal experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.

  • As a boy, Twain talks his way onto the Paul Jones, a steamer, where he pays the pilot, Mr. Bixby, $500 to teach him everything he knows.
  • Twain learns the ecology and history of the Mississippi river.
  • Twain describes life on the Mississippi. He describes small shore towns, lively talkers, and the victim of a wildcat.
  • Twain writes about his love for steamboats. He was a skilled pilot, and he learned how to read the currents of the notoriously fickle Mississippi River.

Download Life on the Mississippi Study Guide

Subscribe Now


Life on the Mississippi is an autobiographical chronicle of Mark Twain's adventures during his training as a steamboat captain when he was twenty-one years old. The book includes some historical context about the Mississippi River, such as explorer Hernando de Soto's encounter with the river in 1542. The memoir's primary focus, however, is Mark Twain's apprenticeship to steamboat pilot Horace Bixby, whom he paid $500 to teach him how to operate a steamboat.

Although he falters through much of his training, Twain eventually does live his boyhood dream by earning a steamboat pilot's license. In the book's second half, Twain recounts his past during a steamboat journey from St. Louis to New Orleans. On this trip, Twain is particularly observant of changes in modes of transportation and meditates on railroads, architectural features, and the growth and expansion of big cities.

Human nature is of interest to Twain, and he both interacts with and describes the people he encounters during his journey, honestly and realistically noting their characteristics, strengths, and flaws. He includes anecdotes and observations from his fellow travel companions and the people they encounter along the way.

Twain also writes about his personal employment history prior to becoming a writer. He was a reporter, a miner, a teacher, and a foreign correspondent before embarking upon his extremely successful career as a novelist. His love for and appreciation of the Mississippi River is evident throughout the book due to his recognition of the body of water as a venue for travel, business, trade, and social and political growth. The combination of history, humor, tall tales, personal observation, and human interest are prevalent in this memoir of a journey of Twain's growth and fulfillment both as an individual and as a world-renowned writer.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Life on the Mississippi is Twain’s happiest book. Written early in his career, before the difficulties of his personal life had a chance to color his perception, and filled with reminiscent celebration of his time as a boy and man, as an apprentice and as a Mississippi steamboat pilot, it is a lively, affectionate tribute hardly muted by the fact that the world of the romantic pilots of the Mississippi had disappeared forever during the Civil War and the development of the railroads.

It is a great grab-bag of a book. It starts formally enough, with a sonorous history of the river that reveals how much Twain feels for the phenomenon of the Mississippi (which will appear again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but swiftly falls into rambling anecdotes, comic turns, and tall tales. It has, as is often the case in early Twain, a weakness for elephantine humor of the unsophisticated, midwestern rural stripe, but the obvious happiness that marks the tonality of the book manages to keep it going despite its regular habit of floundering in bathos.

The book could well have descended into an amusing shambles had it not been used to tell the very long, detailed, and sometimes hilarious story of the steamboat pilots and of how Twain as a young boy wheedles his way onto the Paul Jones , where Mr. Bixby, the pilot, agrees to teach him the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, which Twain is to pay him out of his first wages as a pilot. These passages are some of the best action writing done by Twain, and...

(The entire section is 2,040 words.)