This Day In Literary History
On May 12th, 1883, Life on the Mississippi, the classic memoir by the legendary American writer Mark Twain, (the pseudonym of Samuel Clemens) was published simultaneously in Boston and London.
In this great book, Twain combines autobiography with history. He begins with the discovery of the Mississippi River by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542. Twain's personal history with the Mississippi began in childhood.
As a young man, while traveling by steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, he befriended the pilot, Horace E. Bixby, who inspired him to become a steamboat pilot himself.
At the time, steamboat piloting was a very prominent and respected position. It paid handsomely - around $3000 per year, which is equivalent to about $72,000 in today's money. That's because the job required lots of training.
As he chronicles his own personal history with that of the river, Twain tells of his training and career as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, discussing the science of navigating the Mississippi.
To become a steamboat pilot in those days was a daunting task - you had to learn everything about the piloting and mechanics of a steamboat and also memorize the geography of the entire Mississippi River, from St. Louis to New Orleans, which changed course frequently.
Later in his life, Twain and some of his friends traveled the same path by steamboat, and the author discusses how the river boating industry had changed since he was a pilot, including the competition it faces from the railroad.
Interspersed through the straightforward documentary are numerous anecdotes and commentaries, as Twain offers his perspective on the people who live on the Mississippi and their culture - everything from the architecture of homes to local customs and folklore.
The narrative is classic Mark Twain, often tongue-in-cheek and filled with self-deprecating humor. A good example of the narrative can be found in the following passage:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Life on the Mississippi is a fascinating read that paints a colorful, detailed portrait of life in the 19th century American South. To write the book, Twain used a then newfangled instrument called a typewriter. Life on the Mississippi is believed to be the first book submitted to a publisher in the form of a typewritten manuscript.
In 1980, Life on the Mississippi was adapted as a movie for American public television. Starring David Knell as Samuel Clemens, the film weaves folklore from the book into a fictional narrative of the author's life.
Quote Of The Day
"Words are only painted fire; a book is the fire itself." - Mark Twain
Today's video features a complete reading of Mark Twain's classic book, Life on the Mississippi. Enjoy!