by Mark Twain
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Genre: Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Folio Society
Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write.
Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.
I have to admit, here, to a bias; a prejudice. It’s a bias that I have fought against a spare few times in my life, but by and large, it has ruled my reading life. The bias is this: It is my perverse nature to avoid books and authors considered to be classics.
I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like. Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows? I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.
This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain. I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.
The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism. The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start. The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes. Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.
So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started. What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour. Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.
Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read. And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.