Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life on the Mississippi (1883)

A friend and I once compared notes on 19th-century writers and found that we had completely opposite reactions to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. For me, as much as I've tried, even the relatively shorter works of Dickens such as A Tale of Two Cities or even A Christmas Carol are deadly turgid, impenetrable, exhausting to try and crawl through. My eyes glaze over paragraph by paragraph. This was a popular writer? Whereas Twain, particularly in his nonfictional memoir/travel books, is basically as refreshing as a nice drink of water, for me one of those ideal kinds of reading matter for places like airplanes, dentist waiting rooms, and motel rooms late when sleep is impossible. Life on the Mississippi is a later volume of this type of Twain's work (The Innocents Abroad came first, then Roughing It, which I think is the best), chronicling all things Mississippi River, including Twain's own career as a riverboat pilot when he was a young man. (In fact, Samuel Clemens's pseudonym comes from riverboat parlance, which is explained here, though his reasons for adopting "Mark Twain" is only obliquely covered.) It comes with a wonderfully discursive structure—much like the river itself, I suppose, or at least that probably had to be his excuse this time around—rambling easily from factual history to various legends and anecdotes and dipping frequently into the intricacies of the piloting trade.

In case it's not at the library. (If you happen to be flush, do yourself a favor and get the Library of America edition, which also includes Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson in a single volume that is physically a pleasure to read.)

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