Life on the Mississippi (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
  • Life on the Mississippi (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
  • Life on the Mississippi (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Life on the Mississippi (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

3.7 64
by Mark Twain

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Life on the Mississippi was, in some ways, the book Mark Twain always wanted to write. It was the travel narrative most closely connected with his youth, with his sense of self, with his life. Twain viewed the Mississippi River as a defining feature of his life, his culture, and his country. It is in this book that we learn how Samuel Clemens took on…  See more details below


Life on the Mississippi was, in some ways, the book Mark Twain always wanted to write. It was the travel narrative most closely connected with his youth, with his sense of self, with his life. Twain viewed the Mississippi River as a defining feature of his life, his culture, and his country. It is in this book that we learn how Samuel Clemens took on the pen name Mark Twain.

This is a work not about the Mississippi, but about life on the Mississippi. It is a text that lays before the reader not only the life of America’s greatest river, but the life of one of her greatest artists. Yet, in doing these two things, it does more, for, when all is said and done, Life on the Mississippi lays before the reader the life of the nation itself, a portrait of nineteenth-century American life and culture as only Mark Twain can paint it.

Born November 30, 1835, in the frontier town of Florida, Missouri, Samuel L. Clemens adopted the pen name Mark Twain. The name was a term that he often heard during his days as a Mississippi River pilot. A prolific author, Twain is best known for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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Barnes & Noble
Publication date:
Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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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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What People are saying about this

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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Life on the Mississippi 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
DVD More than 1 year ago
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.
Waterfall42 More than 1 year ago
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.
CGS_MI More than 1 year ago
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.
Michaelm7b More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That's what I get for trying to save a buck! This version is screwed up not even in english
mjfreader More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not too many OCR problems, but NONE of the appendices are included, which is a huge disappointment. Why weren't they scanned along with the rest of the text?
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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.
jgreen19 More than 1 year ago
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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