I'm reading this Mark Twain book for the first time. In my younger days, I read Science Fiction almost exclusively, with only the occasional mystery for leavening -- Sherlock Holmes and later, Travis McGee. I was fortunate to encounter Heinlein and Sturgeon, Clarke and Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth and other non-hacks early on, so it was well-written SF; but I missed some books and Life On The Mississippi is one I should have read earlier. I suppose after childhood encounters with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I thought of his work as kid stuff, but I've known better for decades. (The essay Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, for example.)
Life... reads a bit like SF; Twain was chronicling a way of life and a line of work that was unfamiliar to most readers and rapidly waning even as he put pen to paper, so he's obliged to provide a great deal of background. His eye for character, scene and story is unmatched, his turn of phase deftly snarky* -- but the prose he employs...! It may be from Twain that many of us picked up a taste for the em-dash and semicolon, and from whom we learned to drop in a comma any time we felt the need to draw a breath. Modern (and very smooth) styles -- Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, as "clean" a pen as you'll find -- tend to be sparing of the less-common marks of punctuation and rather less conversational; even Twain's fellow (if a generation or two later) Missourian, Robert A. Heinlein, was not so fond of the conversational style as Samuel Langhorne Clemens. I think we owe him much for that; at a time when "good" writing aped classical languages and aspired to stilted formality, Mark Twain loosened his tie, sat down, put his feet up and had a chat with the reader.
Not quite halfway through the book at present. At this point, Twain is taking a sentimental trip downriver on one of the few remaining steamboats, twenty-odd years after his time piloting. By then, well after the Civil War Between The States, the modern Mississippi was already taking shape; tugboats with their long lines of barges had replaced steamboats for serious cargo hauling; the railroads were in ascendance and growing. A few steamboats still plied their trade, carrying passengers and minor freight from one river town to another, and pilots still told tall tales, looking out at the vast river from their high, glassed-in pilot-houses, reading reefs and shoals in the motion of the water and steering accordingly.
* Describing the span of years that elapsed between LaSalle's early exploration of the mighty river and the beginning of "anything like a regular and active commerce" upon it, Twain tells us, "...seven sovereigns had occupied the throne of England, America had become an independent nation, Louis XIV. and Louis XV. had rotted and died..." In that order? Ouch!
3 months ago