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Cheaper by the Dozen
Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Life on the Mississippi (Mark Twain, 1883). I didn’t even know if it was fiction or not, but I decided to read it because I now live about five miles from the actual Mississippi, and thought it would be appropriate summer reading material.

The book is in two parts: the first part is a memoir of Samuel Clemens’s days of apprenticeship as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. The second part is a memoir of Clemens’s return to the river, when he took a cruise down and back up the river several decades after his youthful days as a pilot.

Both parts are written in the folksy, witty style of the rest of Twain’s work. For example, in the first two chapters, he manages to squeeze in several good jabs at the royalty of France. The rest of the first part is a surprisingly detailed description of the process of learning to be a pilot on the wild and unpredictable Mississippi of the mid-19th century. Nearly all of the first part takes place on the steamboat, as Twain describes, with tongue in cheek, his slow-witted learning of the river’s every mood. While piling on the self-ridicule for comedic effect, Twain does manage to convey a real sense of what a pilot had to learn in order to be successful.

The second part of the book is a memoir of Twain’s return for a full-length cruise of the river: he works his way from St. Louis to New Orleans, and then all the way back north to St. Paul. These chapters are interesting for their descriptions of the various river towns and the topographical features of the land that they passed on this journey. Twain describes how the towns, the river, and the surroundings have changed, with special reference to the war. The Civil War, that is, which had concluded by the time of his journey, but whose effects were still strongly felt in the south.

I liked reading about towns along the river that I’ve seen or traveled through. My own place of abode made its appearance, along with several others I’m familiar with. I also really liked Twain’s descriptions of how the river itself changed over time. This theme is common throughout the book: the river’s astonishing power to change itself, its banks, and even the borders of the states that it touches. Twain pointed to several instances in which islands had disappeared or new ones appeared, riverfront towns that had become landlocked in the course of a few years, and islands that had migrated from one side of the river to the other (this last instance is one in which I’m not sure if Twain’s kidding or not).

Some chapters did drag a bit, though, chiefly the ones in which Twain’s relating some tall tale of river culture. To me, those passages weren’t as sparkling and interesting as the rest. Twain also took the opportunity to flog an apparently favorite horse: the practice of embalming and burying the dead. When his steamboat reached New Orleans, he described the above-ground graves and went on and on about the unsanitary practice of burying bodies.

My edition of this book was somewhat less than lovely. Since it’s in the public domain, any old person can run off a printing of this book and sell it, but this one had mistakes, the printing was terrible, and the footnotes were integrated into the text {footnote: like this}. I mention the bad quality of the edition because the back cover blurb touted the book as “one of the best books in the world.” While I’d hesitate to go that far, I would say that Twain’s sense of humor hasn’t dulled over the last hundred and twenty years. Some of the more politically-oriented zingers have lost some some of their immediate relevance, but his creative and humorous way of putting a sentence together made me smile many times.

Definitely recommended for anyone who is interested in Mississippi-area cultural and political history.