Life on the Mississippi

Mississippi at New Orleans 1873

We would be passing through Louisiana and New Orleans on our short break on the Gulf coast, so it seemed a good idea to find out more about the great Mississippi river whose estuary is located around there.

life-on-mississippi-coverWhere better to start than with Mark Twain’s book Life on the Mississipi, written in 1883, and now available free on Kindle. This book made Twain’s name, both metaphorically as a writer, and literally in that it gave Samuel Langhorne Clemens his nom de plume, which you will understand if you read it.

Essentially this book is devoted to the great river, which he characterises as the ‘second great valley of the world, being exceeded only by the Amazon’. Modern knowledge in Wikepedia puts the Mississipi-Missouri at fourth in the world by length (behind Nile, Amazon and Yangtse) and fifth by area drained.

Most interesting to me is the first part, where Twain describes how, as a callow young man, he was taken in hand and trained to become a pilot of the steamboats that then plied the great river. He gradually learned the art of navigating the boat up and down a thousand miles of river in all weathers, in light and dark, with shifting water levels almost hour by hour. He could spot the reefs forming, whether it was safe to pass over, understand when it was safe to cut through sections that were only passable in full flow. He learned to recognise almost every inch of the featureless banks, where the favourable currents flowed, how to avoid other boats and the logs that frequently passed by.

The narrative is brought to life by numerous examples and fascinating stories of the characters who then plied the river.

The complexity of what was learned can perhaps be appreciated by comparing it to ‘the knowledge’ of a London taxi driver, where the two-dimensional layout of London’s streets is learned by heart, together with the best ways of routing from one area to another. I would suggest that the experiential knowledge of the steamboat pilot is an order of magnitude more difficult to acquire, given the number of dimensions and factors to be considered in real time on the then-wild river.

These were truly heroic individuals, operating at a level rarely achieved by human beings. Indeed the pilot basically ruled the boat’s schedule ahead of the captain.

The era when steamboats dominated the Mississipi lasted only about 30 years, up to around the time of the civil war, when it played a significant role.

In the later part of the book, some 25 years later and now an established writer, Mark Twain returned to the Mississipi, passing through his old haunts to see what had changed.

The river was now somewhat tamed and shortened, freight travelled by barge train, the steamboat fleet was decimated to a be just a passenger fleet, and the role of the pilot deskilled to the degree that the captain now definitely ruled the roost on the ship. Twain gives more reflections and stories on how the times have changed, always interesting but perhaps more like a sequence of journalistic vignettes.

Along the way we are given insight into the river’s changing role in the history of the United States, from denoting the western border for early settlers, to a national border for French and Spanish dominions, to a primary communication route between north and south, to a springboard for settlement of the West.

Indeed this is a fascinating story, providing food for much reflection as I myself gazed into the waters of the main channel by Canal Street, New Orleans – where the width is only about 750 feet, compared to one mile near the Missouri confluence, but the depth is said to be 200 feet. Now that is deep.

Twain’s book is of further historical interest, in that it is said by Wikipedia to be the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript.

The image of the Mississippi at New Orleans 1873 is from a woodcut by A. Measom Jr, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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