On this date in 1883, Boston publishing house James R. Osgood and Co. issued a new work, "Life on the Mississippi." Written by a familiar author, this book contained more than 300 illustrations. The writer was Mark Twain, a nom de plume well familiar to Americans by that time, although on the frontispiece Twain was described as the author of "The Innocents Abroad," "Roughing It," and "The Prince and the Pauper."
Left unmentioned was Twain's 1876 classic, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," even though by the time "Life on the Mississippi" appeared, Twain was nearly finished with his "Tom Sawyer" sequel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
"Life on the Mississippi" was a nonfiction recounting of Twain's time on the great river before the Civil War. Many of these stories had previously appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, raising the question of why Twain was revisiting his younger days between publication of his two greatest novels.
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"Life on the Mississippi" is equal parts memoir and travelogue. It's also a story of homage. "The Mississippi is well worth reading about," it begins. "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."
This is also a book intended to remind readers that although Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are fictional characters, their stories were set in a world the author knew well. Twain even quotes from the unpublished Huck Finn in this work.
Finally, "Life on the Mississippi" is a story about progress, which flows along despite society's attempts to dam it up or divert it with nostalgia or outmoded customs. Twain was not immune to such feelings. In revisiting the stories of his boyhood, he had returned to a place he hadn't visited in two decades "to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left."
The book's early chapters are spent on the political history of the river, at least since white men discovered it in 1542. But it is Mark Twain's personal history the reader is drawn to -- and by Chapter 4, titled "The Boys' Ambition," his story is off and running:
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
As Samuel Clemens, he briefly attained this ambition. As Mark Twain, he did, too -- for purposes of this book. He persuaded steamboat captain Horace Bixby, his old mentor, to let him apprentice once again. Bixby himself doesn't seem much changed. ("Why, Horace, you are as young as ever," says Twain as he shakes hands with his old friend. "It's a curious thing to leave a man 35 years old, and come back at the end of 21 years and find him still 35.")
Yet nothing, really, was the same. As they travel upriver from New Orleans, Twain finds the banks of the Mississippi so altered that he cannot locate his favorite landmarks. The dozen riverboats per hour he saw as a young man are now a tickle, fewer than half that number in an entire day. One morning, they spot only a single riverboat, and its name -- The Mark Twain -- suggests time travel more than river travel. The story is simultaneously sad and wonderful, but in the end it is about progress and how the currents of history flow as inexorably as a great waterway.
At the tale's end, Twain leaves the Mississippi by train for another, more modern world.
"We struck the home-trail now, and in a few hours were in that astonishing Chicago -- a city where they are always rubbing the lamp, and fetching up the genie, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities," he wrote.
"It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago -- she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them," Twain concludes. "She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time."
In this telling, Chicago is a metaphor for America, a country that embraces the innovation and change that left Twain feeling wistful when he was on the river. This upbeat ending is not false bravado. When it came to technology, the author practiced what he preached: Although the Twain canon is filled with hilarious quips at the expense of a then-new invention called the typewriter, in real-life Twain embraced the contraption: "Life on the Mississippi" is believed to be the first book-length manuscript anywhere in the world turned in to its publisher on pages that had been typed, not written by hand.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.