Life on the Mississippi

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Overview

About the Author

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he was better known was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, the sixth child of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens. His father ran a dry goods and grocery store, practiced law and involved himself in local politics after the family's move to Hannibal, Missouri, when Sam was four years old.

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Overview

About the Author

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he was better known was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, the sixth child of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens. His father ran a dry goods and grocery store, practiced law and involved himself in local politics after the family's move to Hannibal, Missouri, when Sam was four years old.

Hannibal seems to have been a good place for a boy to grow up. Sam was entranced by the Mississippi River and enjoyed both the barges and the people who traveled on them. When Sam was just eleven his father died and Sam went to work for his brother at the Hannibal Journal first as a printer's apprentice and later a compositor. While still in his teens Sam went on the road as an itinerant printer. In 1857 he conceived a plan to seek his fortune in South America but on the way he met a steamboat captain, Horace Bixby who took him on as a cub riverboat pilot and taught him until he acquired his own license.

This enjoyable style of life, which Twain always spoke of later with special warmth was ended by the Civil War. Twain went west with his brother Orion to prospect in Nevada but in 1862 joined the staff of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a paper to which he had already begun submitting his work. Later Twain went to California and submitted "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" to the New York Saturday Press.

By 1871 Twain had published Innocents Abroad and had married Olivia Langdon, the sister of a friend from a socially prominent New York City family. He and his wife moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they made their family home for thenext 20 years.

Books that he wrote in Hartford confirmed his popular reputation but despite their success Twain found himself in financial difficulty primarily because of his investments in the Paige typesetting business as well as his own publishing company. Eventually Twain was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Twain's last major books were successful commercially but they also reflect his increasing pessimism. His satire becomes at times more biting and mean-spirited than it is humorous. Despite the downturn in Twain's outlook in later life and despite the unevenness of much of his work, he remains one of the major writers of the American nineteenth century, and one who has been enormously influential on subsequent writers.

This is Twain's account of his life on the Mississippi River.

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What People Are Saying

Bernard De Voto
Twain found zest and gusto-nouns that do not describe very much American literature of the first rank - in whatsoever was alive... A mere passerby, a casual of the river or a thug heard talking in a frowzy town, may reveal a whole personality in a few paragraphs... Boys, villagers, the rivermen, the Negroes - there is nothing quite like the Mark Twain gallery elsewhere in American literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451506146
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/1/1961
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, led one of the most exciting of literary lives. Raised in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain had to leave school at age 12 and was successively a journeyman printer, a steamboat pilot, a halfhearted Confederate soldier, and a prospector, miner, and reporter in the western territories. His experiences furnished him with a wide knowledge of humanity, as well as with the perfect grasp of local customs and speech which manifests itself in his writing.

With the publication in 1865 of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain gained national attention as a frontier humorist, and the bestselling Innocents Abroad solidified his fame. But it wasn't until Life on the Mississippi (1883), and finally, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), that he was recognized by the literary establishment as one of the greatest writers America would ever produce.

Toward the end of his life, plagued by personal tragedy and financial failure, Twain grew more and more pessimistic—an outlook not alleviated by his natural skepticism and sarcasm. Though his fame continued to widen—Yale & Oxford awarded him honorary degrees—Twain spent his last years in gloom and exasperation, writing fables about "the damned human race."

Biography

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri; his family moved to the port town of Hannibal four years later. His father, an unsuccessful farmer, died when Twain was eleven. Soon afterward the boy began working as an apprentice printer, and by age sixteen he was writing newspaper sketches. He left Hannibal at eighteen to work as an itinerant printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. From 1857 to 1861 he worked on Mississippi steamboats, advancing from cub pilot to licensed pilot.

After river shipping was interrupted by the Civil War, Twain headed west with his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the Nevada Territory. Settling in Carson City, he tried his luck at prospecting and wrote humorous pieces for a range of newspapers. Around this time he first began using the pseudonym Mark Twain, derived from a riverboat term. Relocating to San Francisco, he became a regular newspaper correspondent and a contributor to the literary magazine the Golden Era. He made a five-month journey to Hawaii in 1866 and the following year traveled to Europe to report on the first organized tourist cruise. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867) consolidated his growing reputation as humorist and lecturer.

After his marriage to Livy Langdon, Twain settled first in Buffalo, New York, and then for two decades in Hartford, Connecticut. His European sketches were expanded into The Innocents Abroad (1869), followed by Roughing It (1872), an account of his Western adventures; both were enormously successful. Twain's literary triumphs were offset by often ill-advised business dealings (he sank thousands of dollars, for instance, in a failed attempt to develop a new kind of typesetting machine, and thousands more into his own ultimately unsuccessful publishing house) and unrestrained spending that left him in frequent financial difficulty, a pattern that was to persist throughout his life.

Following The Gilded Age (1873), written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner, Twain began a literary exploration of his childhood memories of the Mississippi, resulting in a trio of masterpieces --The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and finally The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), on which he had been working for nearly a decade. Another vein, of historical romance, found expression in The Prince and the Pauper (1882), the satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), while he continued to draw on his travel experiences in A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). His close associates in these years included William Dean Howells, Bret Harte, and George Washington Cable, as well as the dying Ulysses S. Grant, whom Twain encouraged to complete his memoirs, published by Twain's publishing company in 1885.

For most of the 1890s Twain lived in Europe, as his life took a darker turn with the death of his daughter Susy in 1896 and the worsening illness of his daughter Jean. The tone of Twain's writing also turned progressively more bitter. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), a detective story hinging on the consequences of slavery, was followed by powerful anti-imperialist and anticolonial statements such as 'To the Person Sitting in Darkness' (1901), 'The War Prayer' (1905), and 'King Leopold's Soliloquy' (1905), and by the pessimistic sketches collected in the privately published What Is Man? (1906). The unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger was perhaps the most uncompromisingly dark of all Twain's later works. In his last years, his financial troubles finally resolved, Twain settled near Redding, Connecticut, and died in his mansion, Stormfield, on April 21, 1910.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Samuel Langhorne Clemens (real name); Sieur Louis de Conte
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1835
    2. Place of Birth:
      Florida, Missouri
    1. Date of Death:
      April 21, 1910
    2. Place of Death:
      Redding, Connecticut

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER I.

THE RIVER AND ITS HISTORY


THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world - four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin; it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope - a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half-way down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water; thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the "Passes," above the mouth, it is but little over half a mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi's depth is eighty-seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.

The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable - not in the upper, but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uniform, down to Natchez (three hundred and sixty miles above the mouth) - about fifty feet. But at Bayou La Fourche the river rises only twenty-four feet; at New Orleans only fifteen, and just above the mouth only two and one-half.

An article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, based upon reports of able engineers, states that the river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico - which brings to mind Captain Marryat's rude name for the Mississippi - "the Great Sewer." This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.

The mud deposit gradually extends the land - but only gradually; it has extended it not quite a third of a mile in the two hundred years which have elapsed since the river took its place in history.

The belief of the scientific people is that the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge, where the hills cease, and that the two hundred miles of land between there and the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that piece of country, without any trouble at all - one hundred and twenty thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfulest batch of country that lies around there anywhere.

The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way - its disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects: they have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, and built up sand-bars and forests in front of them. The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg; a recent cut-off has radically changed the position, and Delta is now two miles above Vicksburg.

Both of these river towns have been retired to the country by that cut-off. A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines and jurisdictions: for instance, a man is living in the State of Mississippi to-day, a cut-off occurs to-night, and to-morrow the man finds himself and his land over on the other side of the river, within the boundaries and subject to the laws of the State of Louisiana! Such a thing, happening in the upper river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from Missouri to Illinois and made a free man of him.

The Mississippi does not alter its locality by cut-offs alone: it is always changing its habitat bodily - is always moving bodily sidewise. At Hard Times, La., the river is two miles west of the region it used to occupy. As a result, the original site of that settlement is not now in Louisiana at all, but on the other side of the river, in the State of Mississippi. Nearly the whole of that one thousand three hundred miles of old Mississippi River which La Salle floated down in his canoes, two hundred years ago, is good solid dry ground now. The river lies to the right of it, in places, and to the left of it in other places.

Although the Mississippi's mud builds land but slowly, down at the mouth, where the Gulf's billows interfere with its work, it builds fast enough in better protected regions higher up: for instance, Prophet's Island contained one thousand five hundred acres of land thirty years ago; since then the river has added seven hundred acres to it.

But enough of these examples of the mighty stream's eccentricities for the present - I will give a few more of them further along in the book.

Let us drop the Mississippi's physical history, and say a word about its historical history - so to speak. We can glance briefly at its slumbrous first epoch in a couple of short chapters; at its second and wider-awake epoch in a couple more; at its flushes and widest-awake epoch in a good many succeeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tranquil present epoch in what shall be left of the book.

The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use, the word "new" in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it. We do of course know that there are several comparatively old dates in American history, but the mere figures convey to our minds no just idea, no distinct realization, of the stretch of time which they represent. To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names - as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don't see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it.

The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color, and then realizes that this is one of the American dates which is quite respectable for age.

For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white man, less than a quarter of a century had elapsed since Francis I.'s defeat at Pavia; the death of Raphael; the death of Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche; the driving out of the Knights-Hospitallers from Rhodes by the Turks; and the placarding of the Ninety-five Propositions - the act which began the Reformation. When De Soto took his glimpse of the river, Ignatius Loyola was an obscure name; the order of the Jesuits was not yet a year old; Michael Angelo's paint was not yet dry on the "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel; Mary Queen of Scots was not yet born, but would be before the year closed. Catherine de Medici was a child; Elizabeth of England was not yet in her teens; Calvin, Benvenuto Cellini, and the Emperor Charles V. were at the top of their fame, and each was manufacturing history after his own peculiar fashion; Margaret of Navarre was writing the "Heptameron'' and some religious books - the first survives, the others are forgotten, wit and indelicacy being sometimes better literature-preservers than holiness; lax court morals and the absurd chivalry business were in full feather, and the joust and the tournament were the frequent pastime of titled fine gentlemen who could fight better than they could spell, while religion was the passion of their ladies, and the classifying their offspring into children of full rank and children by brevet their pastime. In fact, all around, religion was in a peculiarly blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being called; the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burning, with a free hand; elsewhere on the Continent the nations were being persuaded to holy living by the sword and fire; in England, Henry VIII. had suppressed the monasteries, burned Fisher and another bishop or two, and was getting his English Reformation and his harem effectively started. When De Soto stood on the banks of the Mississippi, it was still two years before Luther's death; eleven years before the burning of Servetus; thirty years before the St. Bartholomew slaughter; Rabelais had not yet published; Don Quixote was not yet written; Shakespeare was not yet born; a hundred long years must still elapse before Englishmen would hear the name of Oliver Cromwell.

Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable outside aspect of rustiness and antiquity.

De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was buried in it by his priests and soldiers. One would expect the priests and the soldiers to multiply the river's dimensions by ten - the Spanish custom of the day - and thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore it. On the contrary, their narratives, when they reached home, did not excite that amount of curiosity. The Mississippi was left unvisited by whites during a term of years which seems incredible in our energetic days. One may "sense" the interval to his mind, after a fashion, by dividing it up in this way: after De Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a quarter of a century elapsed, and then Shakespeare was born; lived a trifle more than half a century, then died; and when he had been in his grave considerably more than half a century, the second white man saw the Mississippi. In our day we don't allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel. If somebody should discover a creek in the county next to the one that 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.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 9
Suggestions for Further Reading 25
A Note on the Text 27
Life on the Mississippi 29
Notes 445
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Reading Group Guide

1. “The Mississippi is well worth reading about,” writes Twain. “It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.” How does the author support this claim?

2. According to William Dean Howells, “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writing the fashion we all use in thinking, and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favour of the thing that went before, or the thing that may be about to follow.” Is this an apt description of Twain’s technique in Life on the Mississippi? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this unique brand of storytelling? 

3. In chapter XXI, Mark Twain transports himself and his readers twenty-one years into the future, from an antebellum to a post–Civil War society. When the worldly “scribbler of books” revisits his beloved river and the towns along the Mississippi, what changes does he discover? 

4. Recounting how he “confiscated” his now legendary “nom de guerre” from the recently deceased Captain Isaiah Sellers (see chapter L), the author declares, “I . . . have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth.” Is Life on the Mississippi truly a memoir? Is it fact, or fiction, or a mixture of both? 

5. Consider some of the most memorable characters in Twain’s book, such as the two riverboat pilots, Mr. Bixby and Mr. Brown. What qualities typify the heroes and villains, and what conclusions might you draw about the author’s own set of values? 

6. Commenting on Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Langston Hughes wrote that the author, “in his presentation of Negroes as human beings, stands head and shoulders above the other Southern writers of his times.” Is this same sensibility evident in Life on the Mississippi

7. According to Lawrence Howe, “Reconstructing his antebellum career in this era of Reconstruction helped Twain discover how to resume and complete Tom Sawyer. The momentum of finishing that novel launched him into Huckleberry Finn.” Do any elements (such as plot, setting, style, or characterization) of Life on the Mississippi remind you of Twain’s two legendary novels? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 63 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(26)

4 Star

(14)

3 Star

(9)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(8)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 63 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2002

    Mark Twain on every page.

    Mark Twain is my favorite writer and I have read many of his books. So, if you really know what Mark Twain's writing is like, then you will LOVE this book. It's all Mark Twain. Every page--from cover to cover. It's mainly about him growing up as a steamboat pilot--and more. Throughout the book, I felt as if I was just right there with Twain having a conversation with him. Whether he's telling you a hilarious story, a story that fills your eyes with tears, or just his view of the Mississippi river, it's hard to hate this book. It's never boring. It never drifts, it's just fantastic. If you love Mark Twain, you'll love him more, if you hate him, you'll love him after reading this book. Easy 5 stars here.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2002

    This is an outstanding work from Mark Twain! Twain fans should definately read this book!!

    Life on the Mississippi is all about Mark Twain's experience as a steamboat pilot. I learned so much about the Mississippi River, the towns along the river, and about steamboating. It is well told my Twain and the first sentence makes you feel the need to keep reading. Life on the Mississippi is easily one of my favorite books.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    For Twain lovers and history buffs alike...

    I've read almost every Mark Twain novel and this which I read awhile back, is still one of my very faves. There are lots of great little two to three page accounts that across time are universally funny. It is really interesting looking at a snapshot of heartland American steamboat history long forgotten. I find Twain's travel diary type of writing in general to be irresistible and this one even beats "Innocents Abroad" in humor, quirkiness and creative writing ability. This book propelled me on a crusade to read all of Twain's travel diary type stuff and so far, the only other one which matched this one was "Roughing It". In these pages, Twain also manages to paint a wonderfully light, objective picture of various 19th century issues such as slavery and the industrial revolution. It eeks with rainy day interest from the first to the last page.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2012

    Don't buy this edition

    Barnes and Noble should be ashamed that they even offer up this edition. The scanning OCR software did a terrible job of relaying the text. Parts are totally eligible.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2012

    Interestiing!

    I bought this to give to my husband since we are going on a riverboat trip up the Mississippi this spring. Very easy & interesting reading by the great Mark Twain.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    Wow - now I understand why Twain was so popular

    This book is written in an almost chatty style that was surprising at first. The technique sprinkles little anectdotes throughout the text, along with quite a bit of period history. Clemen's interest in technology, and descriptions of changes in his lifetime, is a bonus for people interested in technological history.

    This is the first Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain book I've read since high school, and it shows why he was so popular during his lifetime. It's definitely a shame that most of us are only exposed to a couple of his works. Well worth a read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is a literary masterpiece, painted by the author with superb skill, and on the scenic canvass of the awe-inspiring Mississippi River.

    The heyday of the riverboats might have picked up and left, but this detailed book is all you need to revive it. The age-old memoir, Life on the Mississippi, is masterfully authored by Mark Twain, one of America's greatest authors, and is put into a humorous and detailed set up that takes you back to the time of riverboats. The mighty Mississippi is at full flow, and the riverboats are at full steam. It takes place in his childhood, when he decides to leave home and become a cub-pilot (pilot in training) after most of the town's teenager's leave to take jobs on the Mississippi. However, the road to being a cub pilot and then a pilot of a riverboat is no easy feat. Remember, these boats were at least 200ft long and 50ft wide, and able to reach relativity high speeds on the river. The book describes the lengthy and difficult path that takes determination and perseverance to be willing to learn and a tolerance for your piloting teacher, ".he swore till his face was blue." or " 'I never let a cub pilot fail, even if it almost kills him." I think that this great book goes over everything about the Mississippi that you would need to know, and even a little more. The book is peppered with advanced and old-style vocabulary, and is at higher reading level. And the Mississippi has its fair share of missteps and mishaps, so I'd say it's for 9 and up. Read and enjoy!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2012

    Something is seriously wrong with this version!!

    That's what I get for trying to save a buck! This version is screwed up not even in english

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    Mark Twain - What can you say?!!

    My husband had read this as an e-book. He enjoyed it so much, we bought it for his Mother, who lives on the Mississippi. It's much more enjoyable than Mark Twain's autobiography, which he also read. Anyone who loves Mark Twain and/or lives on THE river will enjoy this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2014

    TOWNSPEOPLE HOMES

    WHERE THE PEACEFUL TOWNSPEOPLE BE WITH THEIR FAMILIES, TALK, CHAT, AND HAVE FUN. UNTIL THEY ARE FORCED TO EVACUATE.

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  • Posted December 28, 2011

    Enjoyable read - worth the time and money!

    How does one find the adjectives to describe a book so full of adjectives? The book not only chronicled life on the river but the authors life as well. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the goegraphy can melt right into the story and understand what he talks about. I highlighted several passages as I read along.

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  • Posted July 30, 2010

    Best writer we've ever produced.

    There is not one thing about Twain's writing that needs correction. His characters are universal and timeless. His insight into the human condition has never been exceeded. He does not dwell on the morbid, however grim his observations may at times appear. His descriptions of travel in Europe are still amazing today. Innocents Abroad is a wonderful book. About all Twain's writing, I have this to say: Read him and learn how truly great a writer he was.

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  • Posted June 28, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Gloriously nostalgic.

    Personally, I love anything that has to do with water and boats and such. Reading this wonderfully crafted and humorously witty novel enchanted me with a sense of desire to have lived in those good ol' days in the Mississippi. The characters are believable and charming, and the story is wonderful. Twain's descriptive imagery isn't overwhelming, nor is it undermining; it's perfection.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2007

    A Book for People Who Can't Get Too Much Mark Twain

    Much of Mark Twain's LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI was serialized in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY in 1875. The whole was made a book in 1883, when Twain was 48 years old. Its unifying theme is a nostalgic steamboat trip from north to south and back up again on the Mississippi in the early 1870s. *** LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI is clearly, forcefully and amusingly written. It is also very uneven in quality. If one were to read only one book by Mark Twain/Samuel Langhorne Clemens, this would not be it. This book does not make one want to read more Twain. For unifying structure the author uses the framework of a sentimental river journey by steamboat which he made in the 1870s largely to toss off unrelated comments on many subjects, each with its specialized audience.*** No, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI is for specialists and for readers who simply can't get enough of the great humorist and satirist. Who should read this book? *** First, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI is for people who can't read too much Mark Twain. It is autobiographical about his time in pre-Civil War training and practice as a steamboat pilot and gives a reminiscence of growing up in Hannibal, Missouri. Second, the book is for specialists in the ancient and modern history of the mighty Mississippi river itself, 2,000 miles from New Orleans to Saint Paul. It also forcefully brings to life the great age of Mississippi river steam-boating which began in 1811. That period grew in importance through the Civil War and then gradually ceded both passengers and freights to the railroads. In any case this was a longer period than the fabled hey-day of cowboys and trail drives from the 1860s into the 1880s. *** Scholars of the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) swarm on two brief passages in Chapters 45 and 46 in LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI in which Mark Twain variously blames the bad architecture of the state capitol at Baton Rouge on Sir Walter and even gives him a major hand in causing the American Civil War. Even second-rate Southern writers are said to be second rate because they are poor imitators of Sir Walter Scott! Basically, Mark Twain sees the world moving away from superstition and revealed religion into a time of reason, equality of man, individualism and self-starting skeptical personal creativity. Napoleon is this world's engine. Cervantes in DON QUIXOTE almost ended the learned world's fascination with chivalry. But then came Sir Walter and turned back the clock with IVANHOE. It is hard to know whether Mark Twain was being serious or funny. *** This is in a few places a five star performance, Twain at his best. But in too many other passages, e.g. in his dry reproduction of statistical charts, it dips to two star quality, not much more exciting than reading a telephone directory. -OOO-

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