Life on the Mississippi – Mark Twain

We are now some amount of days into a proper New York City heat wave. On the news, they were saying that the beaches were just as hot as Midtown, that there was no escape, and we were all going to melt into the subways, a flood of liquefied bones and meat.

Part of that sentence might not have been true.

Okay, this book was a struggle.

If you failed to discern which book was a struggle via the title of the article, the book in question is Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. I already hear you protesting: “Mark Twain?! He’s a classic American author, god of words, god of writing, his (insert whatever here) changed my life!”

Confession: of Twain’s works, I’ve read parts of Huckleberry Finn. That’s it. Public school failed me on this front and, as some of you know, I am the worst English Literature major ever to exist and yet somehow I still have this Master’s degree declaring to the world that I actually know things.

I know that Twain is a lauded author. I know he’s canon for American literature. I know he’s intelligent and funny through various quotes that have peppered the internet dwelling places that I visit. But this book is a hot mess.

Is it the writing that is bad?

Well, it’s not what I’d call great. There are moments of greatness, to be sure, some of which I’ll feature in the quote section down below. But there are many sections–one entire chapter, in fact–that are so structurally iffy as to be on the verge of collapse. From sentence structure to paragraph structure, these points require multiple re-reads in order to make sense of the content because they’re just not… good.

Look, I tried. I’ve read Ulysses. I’ve read Infinite Jest. I’ve read House of Leaves. And there were points in Life on the Mississippi that were less coherent than anything in those three books.

So that was just internal structure, which I think was one of the two major failings of this book.

The second major failing of this book was the external structure, should that even be the right phrase for it. The book is organized into three sections: dissemination of needed contextual knowledge of steamboats and the steamboat industry (in order to understand the rest of the book), Twain’s teenage years as a novice riverboat pilot, and Twain’s quarter-century-later retracing of his time on the Mississippi, post-Civil War.

These days, one would venture that it would be better to fold contextual knowledge into the two latter parts of the book, to make it less Moby Dick and more… modern. But this was written in the late 1800s, so we can’t exactly expect modern, thus I am going to leave that section alone.

What was murdering me about this book was its total disorganization when it came to the narrative portions. We’d start off a chapter with him talking about the city they were passing through, which would somehow remind him of a story he knew or a conversation he had overheard and then we’d be hijacked for one to four pages of a tall tale and instead of ever getting back to the journey, we’d be subject to a lecture on the decor of steamboat bars or the cotton-oil industry, which would lead into a story about his childhood or a history of… whatever, really.

It was chaos. There was no sense, no order, no organization, no bringing things back around, no guided journey. You got the sense that Twain wasn’t only an unreliable narrator, but that he didn’t care if you kept up with his story at all.

And what’s the point of writing something if no one will ever want to read it? (She asked the academics in the room, nodding her head towards piles of bastardly-titled dissertations, mouldering in a library basement until retrieved ten years later by a hapless grad student who curses their entire life as they attempt to translate the academic-ese foisted on the educational system for no other reason than to be superior and keep those lower classes out.)

Side Note: In my book-in-progress, I go off on tangents. I feel (hope) that I take the reader with me, that I guide them through my mental stepping-stones, but now I feel I need to be extra vigilant.

Anyhow, I don’t really suggest reading this unless you are interested in steamboating and general life along the Mississippi during the mid- to late-1800s. If you’re into that, this is a messy treasure trove for you, so plunge right in.

Some quotes, for your reading pleasure (with the disclaimer that these were handpicked for humor and structure and are not at all representative of the work in its entirety):

“If somebody should discover a creek in the county next to the one the North Pole is in, Europe and America would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to explore the creek and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.”

“For a long time I was on a boat so slow that we used to forget what year it was we left port in. […] Ferryboats used to lose valuable trips because their passengers grew old and died, waiting for us to get by.”

Afternoon. At 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 of geography.”

“April 19. This morning, struck into the region of full goatees — sometimes accompanied by a moustache, but only occasionally.”

“The adoption of cremation would relieve us of a muck of threadbare burial-witticisms; but, on the other hand, it would resurrect a lot of mildewed old cremation-jokes that have had a rest for two thousand years.”

“[…]as for the contents of his skull, they could have changed place with the contents of a pie and nobody would have been the worse off for it but the pie.”