Sunday, March 18, 2012

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

This book falls into both categories - it holds up well for today's readers AND it's only good as a period piece.  Well, parts of it fall into both categories.  As with other Mark Twain travel books, I could edit them down to something more readable for today.

Starting early in the book with his desire as a boy to become a riverboat pilot, right up through the stories of being a cub pilot, those are priceless.  That's great story telling, filled with humor, adventure, and even some romance.  But cut it short before he tells of his brother's death.  Take that part out and the rest is well worth reading.  Here's an example.
One trip a pretty girl of sixteen spent her time in our pilot-house with her uncle and aunt, every day and all day long. I fell in love with her. So did Mr. Thornburg's cub, Tom G——. Tom and I had been bosom friends until this time; but now a coolness began to arise. I told the girl a good many of my river adventures, and made myself out a good deal of a hero...
They had to go out "sounding".  That means getting in a little boat and rowing ahead of the steamship to find deep water for it to go through.  They put a buoy with a torch on it on the deepest channel, and the ship heads towards that light.
About this time something happened which promised handsomely for me: the pilots decided to sound the crossing at the head of 21. This would occur about nine or ten o'clock at night, when the passengers would be still up; it would be Mr. Thornburg's watch, therefore my chief would have to do the sounding.
So Mark Twain wants to show off for the girl.  It's every young guy's dream to do dangerous things to show off.  It's a dark night and Mark Twain is supposed to go in the sounding boat, but Tom tricks him and steals his place.
I looked over, and there was the gallant sounding-boat booming away, the unprincipled Tom presiding at the tiller, and my chief sitting by him with the sounding-pole which I had been sent on a fool's errand to fetch. Then that young girl said to me— 
'Oh, how awful to have to go out in that little boat on such a night! Do you think there is any danger?'
I would rather have been stabbed.
Then there's an accident, the steamship runs over the boat, and Tom and another man are missing.  They hear someone in the water.
The crowd massed themselves against the boiler-deck railings, leaning over and staring into the gloom; and every faint and fainter cry wrung from them such words as, 'Ah, poor fellow, poor fellow! is there no way to save him?' 
But still the cries held out, and drew nearer, and presently the voice said pluckily—
'I can make it! Stand by with a rope!'
What a rousing cheer they gave him! The chief mate took his stand in the glare of a torch-basket, a coil of rope in his hand, and his men grouped about him. The next moment the swimmer's face appeared in the circle of light, and in another one the owner of it was hauled aboard, limp and drenched, while cheer on cheer went up. It was that devil Tom.
Tom had...plunged head-first into the river and dived under the wheel. It was nothing; I could have done it easy enough, and I said so; but everybody went on just the same, making a wonderful to do over that ass, as if he had done something great. That girl couldn't seem to have enough of that pitiful 'hero' the rest of the trip; but little I cared; I loathed her, any way.
That might be the funniest part of the book.  It makes me laugh every time I read it.  But it's the kind of story-telling humor that most people don't go for these days.  It's slow and drawn out.  This example gives you a good idea of exactly what this book is about.  So if you liked this small bit, you will like the book.  If not, then don't bother with the book.

The second half of the book, where he returns to the river years later, also has some great parts.  When he first starts out and when he visits his old hometown of Hannibal come to mind.  But even then, he throws in some gruesome stories as always.  Tales of children drowning, a wife getting killed with an axe to the head, and other stories.  I won't go into it any further.  I don't like it in his books and I don't like talking about it.

The last several chapters of the book are boring.  No joke.  He describes his trip up the river north of St. Louis.  This town has electric street lamps, and that town has a population of whatever.  I understand he wanted to write about the entire Mississippi, but it's just not fun.  He ran out of steam after Hannibal, and so did the book.

If you've read Tom Sawyer, then his visit to Hannibal is interesting.  His boyhood home and the inspiration for the Tom and Huck stories, he finds it slightly different, and he regales us with tales that paint a background to the people and places we came to know in his books.  We hear about Jimmy Finn, the real life father of Huck Finn.  We hear what became of Becky, or at least the person we assume was her inspiration.

This book also tells us how he got his name.  You have to remember while reading this that his name wasn't Mark Twain.  He was young Sam Clemens, the riverboat cub, the boy who grew up in Hannibal and wanted to be a steamboat pilot.  Sam later chose Mark Twain as his nom de guerre, and the way it happened was...  Well, I'll let you read that.  It's worth hearing from Twain's own lips.  Or pen, rather.

The book is so full of fun stories and interesting tales that I can't begin to list them all, much less give meaningful examples of them.  For me, I'll continue to read this book because it takes me to a time and place that only exists in literature.  The modern Mississippi has long since swallowed up the old world of Mark Twain.  But I can read Life on the Mississippi and sink back into those relaxing, slow paced stories.

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