This is a book that, without the contextual essay in the beginning, would have formed a great question mark in my mind—perhaps on its way back to the library in a big hurry. Johnathan Raban writes that Clemens had a terrible time writing a travel book that William Dean Howells proposed to him from a series of articles he originally had written for the Atlantic Monthly. Problem was, making more than the existing seven chapters proved to be more difficult, apparently, than he thought.
As a result, Raban explains so aptly, “Reading Life on the Mississippi, it is not the river one sees first, but the writer’s desk—a desk littered with magazines, books, brochures, writing pads” (xiii). In other words, as readers we feel Twain’s struggle to find enough material to speak about. We can picture him surrounding himself in the research. He tells folktales, relies on maps, other people’s stories, too much material that is, in effect, outside of himself. The result is disjointed—quite literally it needs a major revision. Says Raban, “Few books expose the halting progress of their own authorship so plainly” (xiii-xiv). Truly we see both the best and the worst days of Twain’s writing in this book.
It’s a great one for me to read as a model for a few reasons: surely parts of it are quite funny, so it’s evidence of American humor writing; also, it’s either a model of a travel book or a model of how not to do a travel book, depending on which way I want to read it; but perhaps most interesting, the book is at least in places an attempt to define and distinguish among the regions of the U.S. Parts of the book, for that reason, are particularly fascinating, because even if what Twain says is true only historically, they’re interesting and relevant to what I’m about to write.
First, though, it might help to look at the way he structures the book as a travelogue; Twain deals with the history of the river, which is appropriate within the purpose of his book. We also find out about his experiences as a “cub pilot” of a steam boat, also important historical information – but the appeal of it has some interesting connections. First, of course, we as readers of the present relate to the persona of Mark Twain/Sam Clemens as a mythical figure of American Literature/History; the stories are clearly exaggerated—they’re as tall as the tales about Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan or any of the others we’ve heard for ever and ever. Even if we shrink the tales down a size or two, though, reading about Twain’s life experience has a voyeuristic appeal. Maybe “voyeur” is too strong a word—but we like to see inside him. To a certain extent, I think the appeal of the narrative criticism I’m interested in is the revelation-of-self of the critic. We’re interested in the person who’s talking, even if s/he isn’t a mythical persona. An invisible, omniscient voice is authoritative and, ultimately soporific—kind of like Ben Stein’s bland teacher voice-over in The Wonder Years “…anyone?...anyone?” What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all that makes sense, is that indeed we do like to find out about Mark Twain’s life—but we like to find out about the traveling writer, even if s/he isn’t a mythical person, because the person is a key part of the journey.
And/but/so….later, Twain begins to examine regional differences, which is interesting, but sort of disappointingly dated and not helpful. He was writing shortly after the Civil War, when such regional differences were painful. In a chapter, “Southern Sports,” Twain takes up the topic of conversation about the war to illustrate just how the tensions regarding the war show up in the various regions. He says that in the North people might mention the war once a week or as much as once in four weeks because, in “dinner company of six gentlemen [...] it can easily happen that four of them [...] were not in the field at all” (275). However, in the South, “every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war.” Thus, the “war is the great chief topic of conversation” (275). So we shouldn’t surprised when things are “’placed’ as having happened since the waw; or du’in’ the waw’ or befo’ the waw’ or right aftah the waw;” because that is evidence of how much everyone was affected by the events of the war (275). He goes on to tell a few stories about why all the southern men are called Colonel, and so on, but for the most part, he’s going for local color and that’s all.