Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

I'm still in my Mark Twain phase. I'm sure I will get over it soon, but I have just enjoyed listening to Life on the Mississippi read by Norman Dietz. The audiobook box reads "performed by Norman Dietz," which captures the effect well. I felt Mark Twain was speaking directly to me as I enjoyed 14 and a half hours of recollections and yarns about his days on steamboats and an account of a journey to revisit his youth.

Twain has always divided librarians. In his day, a few quality-conscious librarians thought his works were not appropriate for library collections - you would not want youth following his poor examples of behavior. Until the 1980s and wide application of newer cataloging rules, librarians disagreed on whether to file his catalog cards under Clemens or Twain. In various libraries still, I notice how inconsistently the Twain's memoirs/travel adventures are treated. Sometimes they are shelved as nonfiction in the biography or literature sections, but they often are grouped with the novels in the fiction section. I'm sure Twain would himself be amused by all the trouble he is still causing.

Several cases can be made for Life on the Mississippi, Innocents Abroad, and Roughing It being shelved with fiction. Twain was far more committed to humor than truth, often telling outright lies about his past; Twain created in himself a character that resembled the real person but with extra adventures that can not be true. With the popularity of Library of America publications and other collections, the novels and memoirs are often lumped together in volumes. You might as well put those and all the individually bound memoirs in fiction where they will more easily be found.

Life on the Mississippi is a worthy book no matter where you put it. It starts with a bit of recollecting and then several short chapters on the history of the river. After joyfully noting every fact and story about Mississippi geography, exploration, and commerce that he could find, Twain returned to his own past and told about being an apprentice pilot learning all the dangers of the river. He made fun of his own ignorance and laziness and all the lessons he had to learn about life as well as piloting. The Civil War ended his river life. The last half of the book is an account of returning to the river in the 1880s as a famous author trying to be anonymous while he examined how the people, towns, cities, and river had changed. He started in St. Louis, wandered down to New Orleans, and then headed north to St. Paul and Minneapolis, with many stops along the way.

Amid the reporting, Twain inserted stories about riverboat gamblers, boat races, floods, murders, and ghosts. He also provided much "how-to" information for navigating the river and making a life along its shores. It is the Moby Dick of the Mississippi without the tragic ending. Classes in nineteenth century American history could use the book as the centerpiece of their study. Put it with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and you have a lot of American social history.

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Recorded Books, 1997. ISBN 1419310895

Dover Thrift edition, 2000. ISBN 0486414264

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