Narrator Grover Gardner does a wonderful job of capturing the home-spun charm of Mark Twain’s fictionalized experience with the river. The book has two general storylines—Twain’s training to be a steamboat pilot and his taking a steamboat trip on the river two decades later. There are many diversions along the way, but I loved the first storyline which goes through about Chapter 17 (this corresponds in large part with Old Times on the Mississippi, a series of articles Twain wrote for The Atlantic Monthly). This section contains some of Twain’s best writing, at least in my enjoyment of it, and I wanted to spend a minute passing it on to others.
After a few chapters about the history of the Mississippi River, Twain launches into the story of how we was trained to be a riverboat pilot. Like other of Twain’s works such as Innocents Abroad or Roughing It, the first person narrative recalls embellished or created events hanging loosely around what really happened. Twain makes his younger self the butt of jokes so the reader can laugh at him as well as with him. But there is something deeper going on in the early section of Life on the Mississippi that makes it endearing, maybe because it is a “coming of age” story. The general lessons Twain learns from the pilot during his education about the river can be also be applied to life.
The theme that I found most moving in this section centers around a loss of innocence during his education. Twain approaches this theme several times, but the following excerpt proves to be moving—his knowledge of the river has forever blocked the beauty he knows is there. From Chapter 9:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?