Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain Analysis

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Mark Twain’s memoir, Life on the Mississippi, provides a firsthand account of the vibrant river life during the steamboat era. It also serves as a remembrance of that era after the Civil War. Born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain grew up along the Mississippi River. Alongside his career as a journalist, essayist, and writer of short stories and novels, Twain vividly depicts his experiences on the river and shares humorous anecdotes from his childhood. This memoir offers readers a detailed glimpse into life in nineteenth-century America.

The writing style employed by Mark Twain in this book is captivatingly intriguing, presenting an unconventional approach to a biography. Rather than following a linear narrative, Twain crafts a story based on real-life events. Although he invents names for some characters and tales, the overall account revolves around his own life. Furthermore, Twain skillfully incorporates numerous side stories, dedicating entire chapters to them before returning to the main storyline. The central theme explored throughout this work delves into the profound impact of steamboats on the lives of individuals residing along America’s extensive river system.

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This river system comprises primarily of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. Mark Twain’s writing in the second half of his memoir is noticeably distinct. He employs intricate descriptions to provide readers with a thorough understanding of life on the Mississippi during his era. Twain effectively documents the nature of life during his time and demonstrates how it differs from the present-day. In his work, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain vividly depicts life in nineteenth-century America.

According to an eyewitness, their life began on the Mississippi River. Initially, life was slow and lazy until a steamboat arrived. The eyewitness describes the old times with a white town basking in the sun, empty streets, a sow and piglets strolling along the sidewalk, freight piles on the levee, and a skid pile on the wharf without anyone to appreciate the peaceful sound of waves lapping against it (pg. 30). However, everything changed with the arrival of the steamboat as life became more vibrant and enjoyable.

The cry of the negro drayman announcing the arrival of a steamboat had a profound impact. Instantly, every residence and shop emptied out their inhabitants, and in a matter of moments, the once lifeless town was bustling and in motion. Drays, carts, men, and boys hurried from different directions towards a central location – the wharf. Gathered there, all the people gazed at the approaching boat with awe as if they were witnessing a marvel for the first time (pg. 31). The wharf was not only a place of activity for unloading and loading goods and passengers but also served as the town’s crucial connection for trade and for receiving news from other regions.

The river was the only means of quick transportation and acquiring knowledge about events beyond Hannibal. According to the book, “After ten more minutes the town is dead again” (pg. 32), life appeared uncomplicated and relaxed. There was hardly any traffic rushing around, and people rarely ventured far from their homes. Hence, it is no surprise that numerous children yearned for a steamboat excursion for some excitement and the opportunity to explore more of the world. As a boy, Sam Clemens would swim out to passing boats on the river to temporarily escape his surroundings.

He listened to the men on board to hear about any news, or simply enjoyed encountering strangers. This lifestyle is in sharp contrast with the current pace of life in America and other parts of the world. Despite the advent of high-speed trains and airplanes that enable people to travel much faster, life has become fast-paced.

Nowadays, there are numerous sources of information, such as radios, TV channels, and the internet, to keep people informed about global events. By comparison, children today aspire to travel to space like earlier generations dreamt of exploring exotic locations via riverboats.

Mark Twain penned this memoir 18 years following the conclusion of the Civil War. Although he briefly served with the Confederate Army, his loyalty to its cause was lukewarm, making him a “half-hearted confederate soldier.” After leaving the river, Twain ventured to Nevada and remained absent for a much longer period than anticipated. The initial section of Life on the Mississippi was exceptionally well-written, offering an immensely compelling and intricate portrayal of Twain’s apprenticeship, which proved to be highly enjoyable to read. However, the latter half of the book did not possess the same level of fascination.

The short stories in the book were generally two pages long and lacked a coherent narrative. Although some of the characters Twain encountered on his journey were fascinating, most of them served as examples to delve into specific traits he wanted to explore further. This could be attributed to Twain’s advanced age during the trip, which made him more conscious of humanity’s imperfections. Consequently, he wrote in a more analytical and critical style in the latter part of the book, reflecting both his personal development and the evolving era he resided in.

Judging from his detailed account of the settings, Mark Twain may have written Life on the Mississippi to document and preserve the steamboat way of life, which was soon to disappear. Twain’s exceptional talent as a writer sets this book apart from others during that time. His unique regional approach to documenting the speech and habits of the people serves as a clear testament to his dedication and authenticity as a source of information.

Despite his focus on providing a detailed portrayal rather than personal conclusions, Twain likely formed negative opinions about many of the people he encountered on his Mississippi River journey. Nevertheless, The Life on the Mississippi remains mostly positive, showcasing Twain’s skill as a writer and his ability to create informative and enjoyable literature.

The author’s ability to engage the reader is evident in his frequent incorporation of amusing stories, like one where a “haunted barrel” haunted a steamboat for six days and resulted in the deaths of six crew members. Even during less eventful parts of his journey, these tales manage to captivate the reader. Furthermore, Twain demonstrates his expertise in steamboating through his detailed descriptions of methods to navigate obstacles such as submerged snags, bluff reefs, and shallow shoals.

The memoir is somewhat disappointing in its second half due to an excess of loosely connected short chapters. Chapters 22 to 60, including chapters 37 to 41, illustrate this issue. These chapters cover a range of topics, from Twain’s brother’s death to a description of a Victorian house’s architecture, and from industrial developments in Vicksburg to festivities at a carnival in Baton Rouge, and even a complaint about the poor hygiene practices related to corpses in a certain town.

Despite the belief that Mark Twain should have focused more on a consistent theme or a significant issue of his era, it is widely acknowledged that he faced numerous uncontrollable situations during his journey. However, since the majority of the book is grounded in real events and reflects Mark Twain’s personal experiences in the mid-1800s on the Mississippi River, readers can trust that this book presents a fairly accurate portrayal of various aspects of life during that period.

“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain is undeniably a timeless classic. Twain’s inclusion of numerous side stories alters the readers’ perception of this memoir. The writing style in the second half of the book deviates notably, reflecting Twain’s evolving experiences and personality.

Mark Twain’s use of intricate descriptions presents readers with a vibrant portrayal of the way of life along the Mississippi River during his era, showcasing his remarkable literary prowess. Twain effectively captures the essence of life during his time, making his memoir, Life on the Mississippi, a valuable resource for comprehending the disparities between life in America then and now. Anyone intrigued by steamboats or eager to gain an understanding of the American way of life in the mid-1800s would undoubtedly benefit from reading this memoir.

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Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain Analysis. (2016, Dec 24). Retrieved from

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