Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Day#1

--The narrative begins with a history of the Mississippi's "discovery" by European explorers. What does this history suggest about Twain's vision of American history?

--"Life on the Mississippi" was drafted during the famous 6 year gap between when Twain started and completed "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The selection that he includes in chapter 3 was initially included, but then later removed from the novel. It has been read as a version of the classic early form of regionalist literature, the "tall tale." What does this 'tall tale" tell us about the region and its people?

--Twain's narrative of learning to become a steamboat pilot offers a very different version of relation to the landscape than we have seen previously in this class. In what ways is it different? What is the steamboat pilot's attitude toward the landscape? How is his vision and knowledge of the space of the landscape different from Thoreau's romantic appreciator of the landscape?


  1. Here's what I know about Twain: he was not a fan of romanticism. In Huck Finn, there was a scene that was an allegory for dying romanticism as a ship named after a well-known romantic writer was forsaken, broken down and sinking on the river. With that knowledge in mind, it was incredibly clear that he didn't buy into the romanticism of the steamboat life and river landscape.

    Throughout Twain's "training", it's clear that he finds most of the nuanced captain duties and responsibilities (which are rather romantic things) to be absurd. He laughs at what he is expected to remember about different parts of the river, and seems to regard it as asinine knowledge. He thinks it's a waste of time to know where to steer based on the peaks and forks of hills. He thinks it's stupid the captain doesn't give his partner vital information just because the partner didn't abide by proper protocol when they changed duty.

    It's obvious that Twian viewed all of these things as the romantic charms of steamboat life as a child, but he grew disenchanted with the whole idea as he grew older and actually saw, up close, that they were just silly.

    Unlike Thoreau, he didn't find the subtleties of different parts of the river as fascinating, he found them as dumb and over the top. He didn't reminisce about wonderful times spent out in nature, we was frustrated by them.

    He, quite plainly, was not much of a romantic.

  2. The "tall tale" that told through the Huck Finn narrative tells us a few things about the region and its people. First off, the people are extremely superstitious. Dick Allbright states that the "haunted" barrel that is following their raft has been following him on every voyage he has undertaken, though only at night. There is no way that a barrel floating down the river can suddenly disappear when daylight hits and then magically reappear at night, nor can it cause the accidents that occurred on the raft, though the men truly believe that. They are too scared to even bring the barrel in from the water for fear of it being an omen of death.

    In the narrative, the crew members of the vessel describe the water of the Mississippi and how much more bountiful it is than the other rivers in the surrounding areas. The natives of the Mississippi have great respect and reverence for their homeland. They are proud of where they come from.

    Lastly, the people, or more specifically the men, don't know how to care for children, for they obviously don't know that it is unacceptable to shake/strangle a little baby.

  3. Twain's vision of American history is very interesting. Instead of focusing on all the excellent progress around the country and the world during these periods, he calls the explorers "snails" for having taken so long in exploring and living along the Mississippi. It was a very interesting sense of history, as if the the lens was continuously focused on the Mississippi River while other actions and events didn't seem to matter. The unrelenting focus on the river is prevalent throughout "Life on the Mississippi." Twain goes into great detail as to the importance of the river in the world, America and his own life. It's an interesting image to think of the Mississippi being at the center of the country and also the center of Mark Twain's adolescent life.

    Mark Twain's ability to spin truth from lies is stunning. In fact, that is a theme that runs in a lot of his work, especially "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The "tall tale" functions in many ways. It paints of vivid picture of the people of this region (e.g. superstitious, rowdy etc.) and the society in which these people are produced. Several such "tall tales" appear in his work and often are much more interesting than the actual plot. I also thought the old man on the steamboat could be a relative to Twain's King and Duke characters.

    While Thoreau takes a spiritual and romantic look of the river, Twain is operating much more analytically. Twain is constantly drilled about facts about the river until the point he becomes frustrated. It even diverts from Jewett's examination of landscape as well. This purely analytical and focus on the reality may possibly be the emergence of Twain's realist writing.

  4. In this novel the Mississippi poses many challenges, and Twain seems to have a healthy respect/fear of the river, especially when learning how to navigate it. He repeatedly emphasizes the idea that the river is constantly changing and that in order to understand it one has to know the “shape” of river in order to navigate it properly. There is a constant danger of running the steamboat ashore or into debris. The pilot’s view of the landscape is that the protection of the boat is paramount, and thus nature in a way is the enemy. However the overview of the history of the Mississippi draws upon its’ amazing qualities, so it seems Twain has a love-hate relationship with it similar to how a fisherman views the ocean.

    Thoreau has a more idealistic view of nature by drawing upon how perfect it is and how society in many ways is the antagonist. He uses it as his muse; a catalyst of inspiration from which he is able to reflect upon so many ideas. Thoreau also tends to focus on the smaller aspects of nature such as the ripples in the water while Twain focuses on how many spots, bends and piles of lumber he has to navigate in order to become a true pilot of the Mississippi. In short Twain’s understanding of nature in this novel seems to be less romantic than Thoreau.

    Oh and it was interesting to find out that the term “mark twain” was riverboat jargon. I looked up Twain’s biography on Wikipedia and found the following information if anyone else was unsure what exactly it meant;
    “He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for "two". The riverboatman's cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning "according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms]", that is, "The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass".”

  5. The tall tale directly exposes the education and class of the people of the region. Let me put it this way, rarely tall tales are spread by the classy and well-to-do. They have already lived the life of their dreams, one could say — they don't need imagination. No, the tall tale is specifically saved and carried out by those who need the entertainment, those who have the time to come up with the ridiculous and pass it as quasi-truth.

    These are river people — hardly what Marx would call the petite bourgeoisie. And the way they talk and characterize the misunderstood is blatantly exaggerated and full of unbeknownst hyperbole. Their day-to-day borders on tall tale. Haunted barrels?


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