Life on the Mississippi River – A Review

Ever since I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve been a fan of Mark Twain’s river stories. I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer last summer, and I was delighted to find that Twain’s sharp wit and satire also appeared in this classic. Something about the way he portrays the river and boyhood is so personable, so downright human, that readers genuinely experience the thrills and the fears associated with growing up on the shores of the mighty Mississippi.

I don’t even remember where I picked up my copy of Life on the Mississippi. Probably some thrift store or maybe for sale at the library. Anyway, it has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I just recently decided to read it (I tried once, but…you know how you start a book and never finish it?).

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My copy has seen its better days…

Life on the Mississippi chronicles the life of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and his love affair with the Mississippi River. One could technically divide this book into two parts. In the first section of the book, Twain recounts his time as a steamboat pilot’s “cub” or apprentice. As a boy, he and his friends all wanted to be steamship pilots, and when Twain gets his chance to train for this lucrative profession, he thinks things are going to be smooth sailing (pardon my pun). What follows is a lot of frustration on young Clemens’ part as he discovers the vast amount of work and memorization that goes into becoming a steamship pilot. He tells tale after tale of his time as an apprentice, many of which are funny, and all of which are told with Twain’s distinctive style that makes the characters seem alive.

It’s common knowledge that Twain was not a Christian. In fact, he often mocks Christians in his novels through the use of satire. But, as strange as this may sound, there were several points in this book when I felt like Twain had hit the proverbial nail on the head about what our walk with Christ should look like. One such incident occurs in the book’s first section.

As part of his training to become a river boat pilot, young Samuel Clemens has to learn every curve and bend in the Mississippi River. Every. Single. One. And, to further complicate the matter, the river is constantly changing. On one trip down, a pilot may find a mini peninsula on the east side of the river at point X, and on the next trip down, find that the said peninsula has been replaced by an inlet. Obviously, the prospect of learning such a colossal amount of information frustrates young Clemens, but his trainer – Mr. Bixby – refuses to let him give up on the assignment. Eventually, Clemens begins to get the hang of learning the river, stating,

“The faculty is memory. He [the pilot] cannot stop with merely thinking a thing is so and so; he must know it.”

One day, when Samuel is “bowling down the bend above Island 66, brimful of self-conceit and carrying my nose as high as a giraffe’s,” Mr. Bixby announces he is going to turn the wheel over to Samuel while he runs a little ship-board errand. Before he leaves, he asks his “cub” if he knows how deep the water is in the upcoming part of the river. Samuel replies that one “couldn’t get bottom there with a church steeple.” The pilot, seeking to shake his apprentice’s confidence, asks him if he is certain. Samuel replies confidently that he is.

As Samuel is sailing along, he begins to get nervous. His imagination runs away with him as he contemplates Mr. Bixby’s question regarding the upcoming terrain. Before long, he imagines the boat is heading into very shallow water. He panics and frantically calls for help as he tries to right the boat’s path of destruction.

Mr. Bixby, hearing the alarm, steps calmly back into the room, smiling. The small audience that has witnessed the inexperienced cub’s hysteria begins to laugh, and young Samuel knows he has just become the brunt of a harsh lesson. Mr. Bixby asks,”Didn’t you know there was no bottom in that crossing?” Samuel replies in the affirmative. Mr. Bixby replies with a profound statement:

“You shouldn’t have allowed me or anybody else to shake your confidence in that knowledge. Try to remember that.”

This made me think. Isn’t our walk with God kind of like young Sam Clemens’ river boat mishap? We know that Jesus promises he will never leave us. We know that he promises we will be the head and not the tail, the lender and not the borrower. We know he promises us a place with him for eternity. But then, someone or something plants that tiny seed of doubt. And our minds run with it. Before we know it, we think we see shallow water ahead and panic. And then, Jesus steps back into our pilot house – not laughing like Mr. Bixby and the crowd – but with love and compassion. And he asks us why we doubted what we knew to be true. Why did we doubt his presence, his grace, his favor, his love? He reassures us in the way that only He can, and then he instructs us to never let our confidence be shaken. Because, as the Bible says, “He who promises is faithful.”

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Has life changed from the days of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River?

The second half of the book details Twain’s trip of the entire Mississippi River as a now-retired steamboat pilot. The days of the glorious river boats have long since faded. The ships are now a small reminder of the past. Yet, Twain finds no difficulty in reviving old memories and making new ones as he sets sail and explores the Mississippi’s treasures – all the way from New Orleans to Minneapolis.

On his journey, Twain stops in his old stomping grounds of Hannibal, Missouri. There he relives several old memories, including the time in which two of his childhood friends died.

As a young boy, Samuel became very scared after one of his more “wicked” compatriots – Lem Hackett – drowns. On the night of Lem’s death, a marvelous storm rips through the town of Hannibal, and Samuel believes that Heaven and the angels are “discussing this boy’s case and observing the awful bombardment of our beggarly little village with satisfaction and approval.” Samuel reflects on the eternal plight of Lem, which causes a great stir in him to become “good.” However, with the end of the storm and the dawn of a new day, Sam gradually forgets this promise. Until Dutchy drowns.

Dutchy was a “good” boy, one who once recited 3,000 Bible verses in Sunday school “without missing a single word.” One day, when Sam, Dutchy, and some of the other Hannibal boys are having a competition to see who can stay under water the longest, Dutchy gets stuck on some hickory hoop-poles underwater and drowns. That night, another storms rips through Hannibal, and this time, Sam is confused. Because he thinks the storm is God’s way of showing displeasure with the one who has died, he says, “all heart and hope went out of me, and the dismal thought kept floating through my brain, ‘If a boy who knows three thousand verses by heart is not satisfactory, what chance is there for anybody else?'”

While Sam Clemen’s theological basis may not have been correct, his reasoning most certainly was. Because really, who is good enough to satisfy God? The sad thing is what follows Sam’s encounter with Dutchy’s death. He decides “that if Dutchy, with all his perfections, was not a delight, it would be vain for me to turn over a new leaf, for I must infallibly fall hopelessly short of that boy, no matter how hard I might try.”

If only he had known that trying isn’t the answer. It’s not about how good you are. In God’s eyes, Lem, Samuel, and Dutchy were all on the same level, all sinners who had violated his standards. Sam’s new leaf didn’t need to be a renewed vow to “be good.” All God asks of us is to trust. All he wants is for us to trust Him with our lives and to believe that He has atoned for all our mistakes. All He wants is for us to accept His gift of salvation that He gives with unending grace.

From a literary standpoint, Life on the Mississippi is a characteristic Mark Twain piece of literature that allows readers to gain a deeper understanding into the man behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. So, if you love those books, this autobiography is not something you’ll want to pass up. However, for those readers who didn’t particularly care for Twain’s novels, Life on the Mississippi may not be the “book of the year.” While I didn’t fall in love with the story, I did learn something from it, albeit those lessons may or may not have pertained to America’s greatest river. All in all, Life on the Mississippi challenges readers to examine the world around them in a new way, whether that be by gaining new insight into the lifestyle God has called us to live or by simply observing the drastic changes our country has undergone since young Sam Clemens’ days as a steamboat cub.

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Nothing escapes change…even Twain’s mighty Mississippi.

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