Synopses & Reviews
Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi
is Mark Twains most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twains life before he began to write.
Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also Americas most profound chronicler of the human comedy.
In this classic memoir -- the inspiration behind Huckleberry Finn -- Twain draws on his experience as a young pilot to recount the story of an extra-ordinary river, the South, and its people. Set from the first American edition (1883), this volume includes newly commissioned notes and a reading group guide.
About the Author
Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, led one of the most exciting of literary lives. Raised in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain had to leave school at age 12 and was successively a journeyman printer, a steamboat pilot, a halfhearted Confederate soldier, and a prospector, miner, and reporter in the western territories. His experiences furnished him with a wide knowledge of humanity, as well as with the perfect grasp of local customs and speech which manifests itself in his writing. With the publication in 1865 of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
, Twain gained national attention as a frontier humorist, and the bestselling Innocents Abroad solidified his fame. But it wasn't until Life on the Mississippi
(1883), and finally, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(1885), that he was recognized by the literary establishment as one of the greatest writers America would ever produce.
Toward the end of his life, plagued by personal tragedy and financial failure, Twain grew more and more pessimistic—an outlook not alleviated by his natural skepticism and sarcasm. Though his fame continued to widen—Yale & Oxford awarded him honorary degrees—Twain spent his last years in gloom and exasperation, writing fables about "the damned human race."
Reading Group Guide
1. “The Mississippi is well worth reading about,” writes Twain. “It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.” How does the author support this claim?
2. According to William Dean Howells, “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writing the fashion we all use in thinking, and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favour of the thing that went before, or the thing that may be about to follow.” Is this an apt description of Twain’s technique in Life on the Mississippi? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this unique brand of storytelling?
3. In chapter XXI, Mark Twain transports himself and his readers twenty-one years into the future, from an antebellum to a post–Civil War society. When the worldly “scribbler of books” revisits his beloved river and the towns along the Mississippi, what changes does he discover?
4. Recounting how he “confiscated” his now legendary “nom de guerre” from the recently deceased Captain Isaiah Sellers (see chapter L), the author declares, “I . . . have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth.” Is Life on the Mississippi truly a memoir? Is it fact, or fiction, or a mixture of both?
5. Consider some of the most memorable characters in Twain’s book, such as the two riverboat pilots, Mr. Bixby and Mr. Brown. What qualities typify the heroes and villains, and what conclusions might you draw about the author’s own set of values?
6. Commenting on Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Langston Hughes wrote that the author, “in his presentation of Negroes as human beings, stands head and shoulders above the other Southern writers of his times.” Is this same sensibility evident in Life on the Mississippi?
7. According to Lawrence Howe, “Reconstructing his antebellum career in this era of Reconstruction helped Twain discover how to resume and complete Tom Sawyer. The momentum of finishing that novel launched him into Huckleberry Finn.” Do any elements (such as plot, setting, style, or characterization) of Life on the Mississippi remind you of Twain’s two legendary novels?