Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain (1883)

A fun romp down the Mississippi takes you back to yester-century.  This book stands up well today because it was meant as a travelogue of a far-away place.  Even today, we can think of it that same way, a far-away place and time.

This book has come to define Mark Twain.  His years spent as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River are what comes to mind when people think of his life.  He stated, "I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took measureless pride in it."

I've read this book countless times. This on my list of "fall asleep" books. Not because it's boring, but because it's interesting enough to take my mind off things, but maybe a tiny bit boring in that there's no action or plot you have to follow.

I divide it into three parts, a history of the Mississippi River, told in a humorous and satirical way that only Mark Twain can do, then a history of Twain's own years becoming a pilot, and finally a rather long tale of him returning to the river years later to visit the old place.
After twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there. I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down,' and started westward about the middle of April.
This section takes up half the book. It's filled with various encounters and stories, some grotesque, some humorous. I swear, he is such a funny writer. I understand his humor isn't the same as a modern writer. It's more subtle, more satirical in ways. When he starts traveling out west from New York by train, he has this to say.

'APRIL 19. This morning, struck into the region of full goatees--sometimes accompanied by a mustache, but only occasionally. 
It was odd to come upon this thick crop of an obsolete and uncomely fashion; it was like running suddenly across a forgotten acquaintance whom you had supposed dead for a generation...
'AFTERNOON. At the railway stations the loafers carry both hands in their breeches pockets; it was observable, heretofore, that one hand was sometimes out of doors,--here, never. This is an important fact in geography.'
If the loafers determined the character of a country, it would be still more important, of course.
'Heretofore, all along, the station-loafer has been often observed to scratch one shin with the other foot; here, these remains of activity are wanting. This has an ominous look.'
And so it goes on. That's Twain's style. It is subtle, that's true. It's not direct like some modern writers. In fact, when I see a modern writer try to imitate Twain's style it turns me off. Few people can pull it off. I think Dave Barry is one of those few. Not saying Barry is imitating Twain, but that they have a similar humor.

Here's another example, this time using some of the local dialect that gets him into trouble with modern day readers who find it offensive. His carriage arrived late, and his coachman had an excuse.

'De time is mos' an hour en a half slower in de country en what it is in de town; you'll be in plenty time, boss. Sometimes we shoves out early for church, Sunday, en fetches up dah right plum in de middle er de sermon. Diffunce in de time. A body can't make no calculations 'bout it.' 
I had lost two hours and a half; but I had learned a fact worth four.

In this book we are given a chapter that was originally destined to be in his book Huckleberry Finn. It's long and weary, but interesting as a bit of period storyline which is how he meant it.

Something that came up while reading this is the fact that Mark Twain is not from the south. He's from the Midwest. Hannibal, Missouri is across the river from Illinois, about the same level as Cleveland and Cincinnati. Most people probably think of him as southern, but he was not. In this book, he writes about his visit down south on the river, and how "the war" affected everybody there.

There are parts of this book I just can't read. Some are so tedious I want to scratch my eyes out. His flowery descriptions are too long-winded for my tastes. This is the morning breaking on the river.
First, there is the eloquence of silence; for a deep hush broods everywhere. Next, there is the haunting sense of loneliness, isolation, remoteness from the worry and bustle of the world. The dawn creeps in stealthily; the solid walls of black forest soften to gray, and vast stretches of the river open up and reveal themselves; the water is glass-smooth, gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist, there is not the faintest breath of wind, nor stir of leaf; the tranquillity is profound and infinitely satisfying. Then a bird pipes up, another follows, and soon the pipings develop into a jubilant riot of music. You see none of the birds; you simply move through an atmosphere of song which seems to sing itself. When the light has become a little stronger, you have one of the fairest and softest pictures imaginable...
And it goes on and on. Sorry, I didn't mean for you to read all that. I never do. I read flowery descriptions by some of his English contemporaries, and for some reason it doesn't bother me as much. Maybe they pull it off better.

Other parts are just too gruesome or sad. He describes the death of his brother, Henry. There aren't as many gruesome stories as in A Tramp Abroad, but he has enough to notice.

More later.  This book is too much to cover in one sitting.

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