Death on the Mississippi

Mark Twain’s book-publishing career spans thirty years, 1867-97. Standing back-to-back at the midpoint of these three decades are Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), the two books which anchor Twain’s literary legacy. If only to meet the needs of the subscription-book market, Life on the Mississippi is a fat, mixed-genre composite — history, geography, travel, social commentary, tall tales, memoir, and Huckleberry Finn itself. Early on in Life on the Mississippi, “by way of illustrating keelboat talk and manners, and that now-departed and hardly-remembered raft-life,” Twain decides to “throw in” that chapter of Huck’s river adventures in which, confused about his and Jim’s location, Huck swims at night to a lumber raft, hoping to discover his bearings from the men aboard. Hiding beyond the light of their campfire (and settling down with a pipe of their tobacco), Huck observes the raft-men fighting, dancing “An Old-Fashioned Break-Down” (illustration), singing “jolly, jolly raftsman’s the life for me,” and talking — of women, house fires, Injuns and the benefits of Mississippi River mud:

The Child of Calamity said that was so; he said there was nutritiousness in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to. He says:—“You look at the graveyards; that tells the tale. Trees won’t grow worth shucks in a Cincinnati graveyard, but in a Sent Louis graveyard they grow upwards of eight hundred foot high. It’s all on account of the water people drunk before they laid up. A Cincinnati corpse don’t richen a soil any.”

In his Introduction to the 2009 Library of America paperback edition, Jonathan Raban says that Twain might have more accurately called his book Death on the Mississippi, being “shot through with a kind of jaunty necrophilia.”  Twain’s catalogue of the dying, dead or utterly changed include the river itself, the Old South, steamboat economics, his hometown and many of those whom he’d hoped to revisit there — raft-men, pilots, and friends gone to richen the soil with the same mud from which Twain had shaped (was now shaping, his writer’s notebook in hand) his wealth and fame.

Each morning of his three-day stay in Hannibal, Twain writes, he woke up as if a small boy, full of the young faces and memories of his youth; and each night, after seeing those same faces and places in their present condition, or searching in vain for a sight of them, “I went to bed a hundred years old.” In one letter to his wife, Twain describes his trip as both “delightful” and “hideous,” as if a walk in a tree-lined graveyard:

That world which I knew in its blossoming youth is old and bowed and melancholy, now; its soft cheeks are leathery and wrinkled, the fire is gone out in its eyes, and the spring from its step. It will be dust and ashes when I come again. I have been clasping hands with the moribund.

Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at