Thursday, January 1, 2009

Mississippi Yearning


I spent New Year's Eve in Cincinnati, getting ready for the return road trip back across the US. And as befits this old river town, I finished "Life on the Mississippi" yesterday.

I've noticed that there are several book bloggers that I follow who seem to read more than one book at once (at least they have more than one book in their "currently reading" list). I used to do that as a kid, but I no longer have the requisite mental facility to leap back and forth between books and keep it all straight. But for people that do, "Life on the Mississippi" would make a great book to read while reading others, as the book's chapters are short, and each one reads (for the most part) like an independent story or anecdote. The book kind of meanders, much like the course of the Mississippi itself, and I'm not sure that plowing straight through it, as I did, is the best way to experience it. It might work better read more slowly and taking short side trips away from the book on occasion. Which, of course, is the same thing that makes road trips fun (see previous post).

I said in my last post that the first part of the book is wistful and nostalgic in numerous places, and the second half of the book does not vary from this. In the first 1/3 of the book Twain recounts his days as a steamboat pilot in training, while the last 2/3 of the book jumps ahead a couple of decades and recounts Twain's return to the river. At this point he's a famous writer, and wants to travel down the river to see how it's changed, and to see if he can find his old pilot friends. Well, it turns out the river has changed greatly. The steamship trade seems to be dying out when Twain returns, due to increased use of tugboats and barges, rather than steamships, as well as to the rise of the railroads as an alternative means of transportation. There are still a few steamboats, though, and Twain makes his away along the river in several of them, meeting some of his acquaintances from his riverboat days. The US government has also dredged channels and installed lighting and buoys at dangerous shoals, so the more dangerous days of riverboating have past. And furthermore, the piloting profession has changed in a number of ways as well, most notably with unionization of the pilots. And of course this all makes Twain nostalgic.

In addition to the wistful air, Twain writes with a sense of history, which I think many Americans no longer have. The combination really helps make this book into a story of the conquering of the American frontier. In addition to describing the changes in life on the river, Twain also repeatedly describes how old, small towns along the river have grown into large cities, and new towns have sprung up where none had been before. Many other towns, once thriving, have died when the railroads passed them by, or when the river changed it's course and left them far from the water. The river, and the American society that grew up along it, are both constantly changing. And Twain himself has changed along with it all, growing from an adolescent river pilot into a famous writer, and indeed an American icon. It's a portrait of a young nation in constant change, growing into the modern era.

And speaking of history, one recurring theme of the book is the Civil War. The Mississippi and its tributaries run from the north to the south, from free states to slave states, and some notable battles of the Civil War were fought on the river's shores. In one chapter Twain gives an account of the battle at Vicksburg. But more interestingly, at least to me, were Twain's occasional pontifications on the Civil War. The most interesting of these was when he blames the Civil War on Sir Walter Scott. In Twain's estimation, Scott's novels inflamed the south's sense of romance and chivalry, leading to an unwinnable, disastrous war. Hmm, well, OK, that's something that wouldn't have occurred to me. Twain also discusses how at the time of his travels down the Mississippi (I'm guessing about 1880), that if the topic of the Civial War was raised in conversation in the north, the topic would fade out as people had moved on and had little interest in rehashing the war. In contrast, any conversation that one had in the south, no matter how far afield, would seem to turn to some aspect of the Civil War after a minute or two. Twain accounts this to the fact that the south, and not the north, was invaded, and the civilian population suffered greatly, which added bitterness and trauma to their loss. Indeed, I think even to this day, over 140 years later, the war's wounds in the south are not entirely healed. Some southerners still refer to the war as "The War of the Northern Aggression". I think time (and immigration) will eventually heal this wound, but it's remarkable that even today that reverberations of the effects Twain noted 120 years ago still occasionally echo in the American psyche.

3 comments:

Amateur Reader said...

I had not realized that this was mostly a travel book, not a memoir.

You make it sound very appealing. I will definitely read it to prepare for my long-desired road trip in search of the best Missisippi hot tamale. And the best barbecue. And the best fried chicken. Maybe that should be three separate trips.

Robby Virus said...

Wow, I have not heard of the Mississippi hot tamale, but I am definitely intrigued now! And I too love fried chicken and barbecue...mmm, barbecue...

Trish said...

One of my favorite aspect of Twain's writing (aside from the satire, which I love) is that wistful and nostalgic tone you reference. I haven't read this one, but I just finished re-reading Tom Sawyer and it has me hungry for more of his works. Like Amatuer, I didn't realize that this one was more of a travel book. I'd love to read some of his works about California (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), but I haven't gotten to those stories either.

Your wonderful review has made me want to search this one out soon!