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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 6th, 2008
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Life on the Mississippi (Modern Library Classics)

by Mark Twain

Life on the Mississippi: A Review

[Ed. note: This review was published in the Atlantic Monthly, September 1883.]

Of the first fifteen chapters of Mr. Clemens's book, twelve are reprinted from The Atlantic; but they are so full of entertaining and instructive matter that they will repay a second reading. In the three introductory ones which precede these, the physical character of the river is sketched, and brief reference is made to the early travelers and explorers of the stream, -- De Soto, Marquette, and La Salle; these latter belonging to the epoch of what Mr. Clemens quaintly calls "historical history," as distinguished from that other unconventional history, which he does not define, but certainly embodies in the most graphic form. There are some good touches in this opening portion; as where the author refers to "Louis XIV., of inflated memory," and, speaking of indifference which attended the discovery of the Mississippi, remarks, "Apparently, nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and a half, the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When De Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it, or even take any particular notice of it." We are also presented with a chapter from an unpublished work by the writer, detailing the adventures of a Southwestern boy a quarter of a century ago, which places before us in vivid colors the rough, hilarious, swaggering, fighting, superstitious ways of the bygone raftsmen. Rude, sturdy, unflinching, and raw though the picture is, it is likely to stand a long while as a wonderful transcript from nature, and as a memorial of the phase of existence which is describes that will not easily be surpassed in the future. The chapter on Racing Days is perhaps a little disappointing, although suggestive. Then there comes a short autobiographic summary of Mr. Clemen's life after he had ceased to be a pilot and several other things, and until he became a New Englander; followed by an account of the trip which he made down and up the Mississippi, twenty-one years from the time when he last sailed upon it in charge of a steamer's course. At St. Louis he found a steamer which was to stop at the old French settlements sixty miles below St. Louis. "She was a venerable rack-heap, and a fraud to boot; for she was playing herself for personal property, whereas the good honest dirt was so thickly caked over her that she was righteously taxable as real estate. There are places in New England where her hurricane deck would be worth a hundred and fifty dollars an acre. The soil on her forecastle was quite good; the new crop of wheat was already springing from the cracks in protected places. The companion-way was of a dry, sandy character, and would have been well suited for grapes, with a southern exposure and a little subsoiling. The soil of the boiler-deck was thin and rocky, but good enough for grazing purposes." He finally concluded not to take this boat, but another, called the Gold Dust, upon which he was subsequently anxious to make the return trip from New Orleans; but luckily he was prevented by circumstances from doing so, for the Gold Dust was blown up on her way back to St. Louis, during the voyage he had intended making with her. The material offered by observations on the journey is various beyond enumeration, and much of it is extremely amusing. Hoaxes and exaggerations palmed off by pilots and other natives along the way upon supposed ignorant strangers; stories of gamblers and obsolete robbers; glimpses of character and manners; descriptions of scenery and places; statistics of trade; Indian legends; extracts from the comments of foreign travelers, -- all these occur, interspersed with two or three stories of either humorous or tragic import, or of both together. One of the tales thus interpolated -- Ritter's Narrative -- is not only complicated and ingenious in plot, but bears witness also to its author's startling power of weird imagination; and a perhaps still more remarkable thing about it is the manner in which at last it is given a sudden turn, which carries the reader away from one of the most ghastly situations imaginable with a sensation of amusement and of humorous surprise. At the same time, the story, with consummate skill, is made tributary to the main current of the book, and of the river with which it deals. Mr. Clemens is never tired of noting the extraordinary changes which take place in the course of the Mississippi and the conformation of its banks; the appearance and disappearance of islands; the sudden action of the mighty flood in making new "cut-offs," which play havoc with state boundary-lines, and playfully transfer towns from one riverbank to the other. The general reader stands in some peril of finding these observations wearisome; but just as he is on the brink of fatigue, Mr. Clemens enlivens him with a dry remark like this: "We dashed along without anxiety; for the hidden rock which used to lie right in the way has moved up stream a long distance out of the channel; or rather, about one county has gone into the river from the Missouri point, and the Cairo point has 'made down,' and added to its long tongue of territory correspondingly. The Mississippi is a just and equitable river; it never tumbles one man's farm overboard without building another farm just like it for that man's neighbor. This keeps down hard feelings." The peculiarities of local speech occasionally draw down severe condemnation from the author, who appears to be sharply on the lookout for offenses against grammar, -- something that savors of ingratitude in one who has profited so well by the colloquial crudities upon which he now turns. In considering the cemetery at New Orleans, which is kept in very fine order, "If those people down there," at the levee or in the business streets, says Mr. Clemens, "would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it." Of the memorial wreaths: "The immortelle requires no attention; you just hang it up, and there you are. Just leave it alone; it will take care of your grief for you, and keep it in mind better than you can." He declares himself in favor of cremation, and considers unjustifiable the old form of burial, which preserves disease germs to such an extent that even "a dead saint enters upon a century-long career of assassination the moment the earth closes over his corpse." All this in keeping with the grimness which is a constituent of the author's humor. There is a good deal of grimness and soberness in the book, underlying he surface of fun and incident and panoramic diversity of scene. There is also a good deal of solid sense and of information. What the future investigation -- if people of the twentieth century have any time left for investigating the past -- will conclude concerning the life depicted in these pages we can conjecture only from our own impression; which is that the Mississippi has developed prosperity and misery in about even measure, and that the type of character most frequent along the line of its flow has combined with great hardiness and practical dexterity a Greek love of skillful lying and a peculiarly American recklessness of personal safety. Meanwhile we are very sure that Mr. Clemens has given us the most thorough and racy report of the whole phenomenon which has yet been forthcoming, and that much more significance is contained in it than we are able to concentrate in these few words.

The Atlantic Monthly, September 1883.


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