Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book #28 - Life on the Mississippi (Mark Twain)

For the holidays, I'm driving across the US to visit relatives in both Atlanta and Cincinnati. Since I live in San Francisco, this entails a lot of driving. Thousands and thousands of miles worth in fact. And isn't this a fundamental part of who we are as Americans? I'm talking about one of the inalienable rights our founding fathers gave their lives for...the right to load up our cars with suitcases and bourbon, and drive across the endless landscape with our sunglasses on and the radio blaring.

Tonight I'm staying in Meridian, Mississippi, having crossed the great Mississippi River about 150 miles ago. And thus it's fitting that I'm currently reading Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi". This book, at least so far, is also about travel, about that American restlessness to move across the landscape. Twain was born in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri in 1835. At the time of his childhood this must have been a remote location indeed, except for the river. Near the book's beginning he tells of how the highlight of each day in his childhood Hannibal was when the riverboat came in. Otherwise the town was slow and sleepy. No wonder an intellectually gifted and curious child like himself grew up fascinated by the river. The same pull of adventure and the outside world that has lured countless of generations of young people also beckoned to Twain, and drew him to seek his adventures on the river. He fled Hannibal and apprenticed to become a steamboat pilot, and much of the rest of what I've read so far describes, humorously, his beginnings as a cub riverboat pilot. It's hard to tell what is the truth and what is exaggeration, as Twain describes how a pilot must know every bit of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans, lest he run his steamboat aground, or worse, especially when piloting at night when he can't see the way. Is this really true? I've had the same 35 mile commute each day for 12 years, and yet I'm not sure I could drive in the dark without headlights.

There is a wistful mood to this book. Clearly by the time he wrote it his river days were long past, and he describes how when he started to train as a riverboat pilot, the old days of rafts and flatboats on the river were long past, replaced by the steam boats. Thus in just the first 50 pages, Twain delves deep into two very American themes...the road trip (as mentioned above) and the nostalgia for a mythical American past. And perhaps the two really go together. For wasn't the movement of early Americans from the east coast out into the frontier really the ultimate American road trip? Yep, just like "On the Road", except the pioneers took all their worldly possessions with them and often died on their way, and didn't do nearly as many drugs. OK, maybe not. It's hard to tell after driving for 12 hours and then quaffing a couple of shots of bourbon. And I gotta hit the road again early tomorrow morning. It's the American way!


J.D. said...

I live about forty-five minutes from Hannibal and have visited there quite often just to see if I could put myself in Twain's childhood mindset. There is something about the Mississippi that's still arresting today. When I stand near its edge and block out everything else, that's when I feel closest to the history of this country, not when I visit museums--which I enjoy, but they also give me the feeling that they're prison cells for the past.

Twain, by the way, was actually born in Florida, Missouri, which is only about twenty-five or thirty minutes from where I live. Many people don't know that because of the strong association with Hannibal.

Robby Virus said...

One can imagine back when the country was hardly settled, and the woods thick and dangerous, that the river must have beckoned like a highway.

I've never been to Hannibal. Been to Cairo old river town...a metropolis in its day, but very sleepy now.