Thursday, April 21, 2005

Book 4: Life On The Mississippi, by Mark Twain

Included in the Library of America volume of Mark Twain’s Mississippi writings I have been working my way through on the subway, was his “autobiographical” (for there's no telling how much he exaggerates) Life On the Mississippi. The work, similar to both Huck and Tom, follows a young man (in this case the author) through various escapades along the Mississippi river in the pre-Civil War south. Twain recounts (rather laboriously and in tedious, fine I’ll say it, boring, detail) his work as a steamboat driver for the majority of the book’s first section. While some of his anecdotes were amusing and his characterization of an American institution now lost and gone is historically valuable, to my modern eyes, it was difficult not to skim through these pages. With a limited amount of brain space, I’m not sure I need to know the proper names of a steamboat’s architecture, nor every bend and cranny of the river. While it’s clear Twain loves his subject, it was like listening to a computer geek drone on about server IPs and web hosting. Suitable for certain audiences, sure, but the intricacies would be lost on most people.

Better was Twain’s unabashed scalding of Sir Walter Scott, which was both hilarious and sociological eye opening. Twain lays the blame for much of the south’s misaligned feelings of nobility and tarnished pride at the feet of Scott, the author of such fantastical romances as Ivanhoe. Twain attributes the revival of a skewed Southern chivalry to the influence of Scott’s novels and believes southern writers were set back generations by too closely aligning themselves with Scott’s nauseating sentimentalism. There is a certain amount of truth in these jabs and it’s not for nothing that Twain is known for his satirical voice.

It was also intriguing to see Twain return to the his younger stomping grounds after a twenty year absence that bridged the Civil War. The railroad had replaced the steamboat, previous hamlets, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, had become thriving cities, and some of the river villages of his youth had even been swept under by storms and the river’s unpredictability. Twain's eye for the comical ridiculousness of human beings was frequently delightful. Reading him is like listening to a partially demented grandparent speak about their youth, in which truth, fiction, memories personal and projected, combine to form enjoyable yarns of yore. As a grand survey of an American caught amidst dramatic change, Life On the Mississippi, will always be worth the read.

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