Friday, April 08, 2016

Life On The Mississippi

     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.
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* 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!

9 comments:

Blackwing1 said...

If I may be so bold as to offer another recommendation, Twain's "Roughing It" is one of his best. If you haven't read it before it's a portrayal of the Nevada silver rush, and his descriptions of the characters and events are absolutely wonderful.

The latter portion of the book drags a little (at least for me) with his venture from San Francisco to Hawaii, but still eminently worth reading.

One of my favorite childhood SF authors was Andre (Alice Mary) Norton, and reading the Time Traders, Zero Stone and Solar Queen series was great adventure at a young age. Even today, I'll occasionally re-read one of her "juveniles", and find I enjoy them almost as much as I did as a kid. Were you luck enough to find her books? May the gods bless all of the librarians back in the day, for pointing me to the Sacred Trio (Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke) as well as some of the other authors of MY golden age of SF.

Roberta X, remotely said...

I was a big Andre Norton fan as a child, and I continue to enjoy her work. "Galactic Derelict" was one of the first grown-up SF novels I read and I was hooked! She also wrote a few Westerns and they're entertaining and believable.

Shermlock Shomes said...

"Innocents Abroad" was one of my favorites by Twain and I remembered one of his vignettes when eating some street food overseas:

"I never shall want another Turkish lunch. The cooking apparatus was in the little lunch room, near the bazaar, and it was all open to the street. The cook was slovenly, and so was the table, and it had no cloth on it. The fellow took a mass of sausage meat and coated it round a wire and laid it on a charcoal fire to cook. When it was done, he laid it aside and a dog walked sadly in and nipped it. He smelt it first, and probably recognized the remains of a friend. The cook took it away from him and laid it before us."

The Neon Madman said...

Yes, please do read "The Innocents Abroad", and "Roughing It". You owe it to yourself. The first is simply the greatest travel boak ever written, and the second immerses you in a fascinating period of American history.

I am a huge Twain fan. A great writer, and at his best there has never been anyone who could match him in satire. Twain's wit was a rapier - Swift wielded a meat ax compared to him. Fascinating guy too - benefactor to Helen Keller and U. S. Grant, knew Tesla.

Man, I would have loved to have spent an afternoon with him over drinks and cigars.

Anonymous said...

Another vote for Innocents.
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3176

73, Jim

D.W. Drang said...

I've read somewhere that Mr. Clemons' best writing was his non-fiction, and that, in fact, he would take a great trip (Innocents Abroad, Tramps Abroad) and then write a novel, which would suffer because he used up his sharpest wit on the non-fiction.

(And when did we stop referring to Samuel Langhorne Clemons by his legal name? When I was growing up we were admonished not to use his nom de plume, nowadays one would think he was born named for a nautical measurement)

fast richard said...

I've never understood why anyone would be so crass as to insist on calling Mark Twain by his "legal" name. It was a practice pushed only by the most stodgy and humorless of teachers and librarians.

I only read Life on the Mississippi a couple of years ago. Having grown up in a river town, I should have read it much earlier. He even mentions the town where I grew up and a couple of other places I knew as a child.

David aka True Blue Sam said...

Good writing sticks with you. I read Life fifty years ago and remember much of it. Yesterday was Jefferson's birthday and I brought up a kid on YouTube playing Jefferson and Liberty on fife. That song has an important role in Andersonville by Mackinlay Kantor, which I read 45 years ago. That memory brought tears to my eyes when I heard that kid play. It's a shame kids don't have time to read today.

Ken said...

I reread Literary Offenses every few years (and I enjoyed Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans...for all their flaws, there's still something about them).

One of my formative-years SF favorites was Norton's Plague Ship. Another (I think I mentioned it before in this space) was Ralph Milne Farley's The Radio Planet, which turns out to have been part of a longer "Radio Man" series of stories. I want to read the rest -- the House of Bezos seems to be able to get them.