On this date in 1883, Mark Twain's publisher released "Life on the Mississippi," a biographical account of his boyhood. Many of its stories had appeared eight years earlier in The Atlantic Monthly and this book was published while Twain was working on a sequel to his 1876 classic, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." That novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," would appear in 1884.
In revisiting his youth, Twain saw the need to refresh his memories by returning to a place he hadn't been to in 21 years -- "to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left."
"Life on the Mississippi" opens with a physical description of the great waterway and spends a couple of chapters on the political history of the river, at least from the time white men discovered it in 1542. But it is Twain's own history the reader is drawn to, and by Chapter 4, titled "The Boys' Ambition," the 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. … 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 the purposes of this book. He persuades steamboat captain Horace Bixby, his old mentor, to let him apprentice once again. Bixby himself doesn't seem much changed, at least to Twain. ("Why, Horace, you are as young as ever," says Twain as he shook 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, is the same, not even the river, and certainly not the author.
As they travel upriver from New Orleans, Twain finds the banks of the Mississippi so altered he cannot locate any of 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 spotted only a single riverboat, and its name – "The Mark Twain" -- suggests time travel more than a river tour. The story is nostalgic and wonderful, but in the end this journey is also about progress and change and how the currents of human history flow as inexorably as the great river.
At the story's conclusion, 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 genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.