The History Book Club discussion

Life on the Mississippi
This topic is about Life on the Mississippi
53 views
AMERICAN HISTORY > 2. HF - LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI - CHAPTERS 6 - 11 (35 - 70) (10/31/11 - 11/06/11) No spoilers, please

Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Oct 30, 2011 04:39PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
Hello Everyone,

This is a memoir of the steamboat era on the Mississippi River before the American Civil War by Mark Twain, published in 1883.

The book begins with a brief history of the river from its discovery by Hernando de Soto in 1541. Chapters 4-22 describe Twain's career as a Mississippi steamboat pilot, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

The second half of Life on the Mississippi tells of Twain's return, many years after, to travel the river from St. Louis to New Orleans. By then the competition from railroads had made steamboats passe, in spite of improvements in navigation and boat construction. Twain sees new, large cities on the river, and records his observations on greed, gullibility, tragedy, and bad architecture."

About the Author:

Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, led one of the most exciting of literary lives. Raised in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain had to leave school at age 12 and was successively a journeyman printer, a steamboat pilot, a halfhearted Confederate soldier, and a prospector, miner, and reporter in the western territories.

His experiences furnished him with a wide knowledge of humanity, as well as with the perfect grasp of local customs and speech which manifests itself in his writing.

With the publication in 1865 of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain gained national attention as a frontier humorist, and the bestselling Innocents Abroad solidified his fame. But it wasn't until Life on the Mississippi (1883), and finally, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), that he was recognized by the literary establishment as one of the greatest writers America would ever produce.

Week Two:

During the week of Oct 31 through November 6, we are reading pages 35 - 70::

WEEK 2
Chapter 6 - A Cub-pilot's Experience p35
Chapter 7 - A Daring Deed p41
Chapter 8 - Perplexing Lessons p47
Chapter 9 - Continued Perplexities p53
Chapter 10 - Completing My Education p59
Chapter 11 - The River Rises p64

Remember, these weekly non spoiler threads are just that - non spoiler. There are many other threads where "spoiler information" can be placed including the glossary and any of the other supplemental threads.

We will open up a thread for each week's reading. Please make sure to post in the particular thread dedicated to those specific chapters and page numbers to avoid spoilers. We will also open up supplemental threads as we have done for other spotlighted reads.

We look forward to your participation. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other noted on line booksellers do have copies of the book and shipment can be expedited. The book can also be obtained easily at your local library, on iTunes for the iPad, etc. However, be careful, some audible formats are abridged and not unabridged.

There is still time remaining to obtain the book and get started. There is no rush and we are thrilled to have you join us. It is never too late to get started and/or to post.

Alisa will be moderating this book and discussion.

Welcome,

Bentley


This is a link to the complete table of contents and syllabus thread:

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/6...

TO SEE ALL WEEK'S THREADS SELECT VIEW ALL

Life on the Mississippi (Signet Classics) by Mark Twain by Mark TwainMark Twain

Remember this is a non spoiler thread.


message 2: by Alisa (last edited Oct 30, 2011 05:52PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments He buys passage on a journey to New Orleans and befriends the pilots. He meets Mr. Bixby who starts to show him the basics of steering during the voyage out of New Orleans, and they wake him in the middle of the night to pilot. He is soon surprised to realize he has to memorize all the points along the river going both ways in order to navigate, in daylight and darkness. The thought of memorizing every pile of sticks or broken cottonwood branch is somewhat daunting. The pilots discuss their experience navigating the same bend in the river. They are all in awe as Bixby navigates Hat Island and gets them over a sand bar. Just when Twain feels like he has learned the names of all the points along the river, Bixby instructs him on learning the shapes of each place the the importance of memorizing it. Just when Twain thinks he understands shapes and how to see things in the darkness, he learns that the shapes along the river are always changing too. Bixby spies on him one day while he is piloting through unfamiliar territory but comes to his rescue before he gets in trouble, and uses it to teach him about how to develop instincts. Twain laments that after learning the science of the river patterns he does not see the physical beauty of the river in the same way, it now has a different meaning. Navigating the river is complicated by changing water levels as well as the small skiffs and rafts that are on the river at any given point. He describes the interaction between the steamboat men and those on the smaller boats, and although there is an informal manner in which they interact there is lots of profane language and unpleasantries.


message 3: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
It was interesting hearing Twain describe how dangerous it was to go downstream because of the current and it was not advisable to do at night. Bixby navigating Hat Island was a marvel. Learning shapes at night must have been a real challenge; you certainly see why the pilots got the money they did then. Destroying a quarter of a million dollars in terms of a steam boat and the lives alongwith it would have been a tremendous loss so that must have made a good pilot a very important and valuable commodity. I have to ask what they meant by calling Mr. Bixby - " a lightning pilot" aside from his great prowess.


Steve | 43 comments I found the story of landing at Jones's plantation at night to be pretty funny. The mate told Bixby that they needed to land at Jones's plantation, and Twain was loving it (Bixby had been berating Twain regularly) because he was sure there was no way that it could be done in the pitch black. Bixby located it with no problem, and even asked if they wanted him to land at the upper or lower end of the plantation. Even after they had landed, handled their business, and continued on their way, Twain still just considered it a lucky accident.

I guess it was all part of Twain's realization that Bixby was right - he really would have to memorize every detail of the always changing river if he ever wanted to be a pilot.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Steve, the Jones landing navigation was great. Seems like every time Twain thinks he knows what he is doing and is the man in control Bixby comes along and confuses him with something new and makes it look effortless.


message 6: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Oct 31, 2011 02:12PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
What did folks think about Twain in Chapter 10 comparing piloting to a "science"? Since so much of what Bixby taught him dealt with "instinct" I wondered at that analogy.

I loved the exchange between Bixby and Twain in Chapter 10: I think I was a fool when I went into this business said Twain and Bixby agrees with him and said Yes, that is true and you are yet! (lol)


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Bentley, I got the impression that his 'discovery' of the science of piloting was a bit of a let down for Twain. He seems to fancy himself throughout the learning process as someone that can learn the mechanics and have the expectation that that is all there is to it. In his description of his dream as a young man to become a steamboat pilot he seems to romanticise what it will take to actually become one.

Good question. What do others think about this?


message 8: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
Interesting response Alisa - thanks - wonder like you what others thought when they read or listened to this segment. I also thought that Twain was the kind of person who figured he was smart so how hard could this be? (smile)


message 9: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 475 comments Writing is just stringing words together, so how hard can that be if you like to read. Try it!

I read this book many years ago and about the only part I can remember was his complaining about having to learn the river upstream and downstream. I tell my wife and son they were born too late as they remember highways like river boat pilots had to memorize rivers. She is always telling me to change lanes to miss potholes that she knows are in my lane long before they are visible.


message 10: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
Patricrk wrote: "Writing is just stringing words together, so how hard can that be if you like to read. Try it!

I read this book many years ago and about the only part I can remember was his complaining about hav..."


Patricrk, maybe I missed the meaning of what you were trying to say in the first sentence. But I believe you are saying that things are always harder than they seem.

Your wife and son are amazing; I guess they are able to foresee what is ahead. Twain I think must have been the belligerent sort when he was young and he was ambitious; but probably rather impressed with himself. His father had been a lawyer and judge but was stern and oppressive; many who knew his mother thought that Twain took after her, specifically in terms of his courage and his way with words. He was a man of extremes; so probably just like everything else in his life he just plunged in. I imagine that he was taught a lot of life's lessons by having to slow down and see every nook and cranny and bend and crook in the Mississippi. His life and others lives depended upon it.

Being that you were from an area that depended upon the river and is often impacted by it; how did the Mississippi affect your life one way or the other when you lived in the area.


message 11: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 475 comments Bentley wrote: "Patricrk wrote: "Writing is just stringing words together, so how hard can that be if you like to read. Try it!

I read this book many years ago and about the only part I can remember was his comp..."



[Bentley said] Patricrk, maybe I missed the meaning of what you were trying to say in the first sentence. But I believe you are saying that things are always harder than they seem. Exactly!

Actually life wasn't impacted too much by the river. We lived about three miles from the river, we sometime rode bicycles beside it and occasionally took the ferry to the other side but mostly didn't concern ourselves about it. It is more a ship and barge highway at that point and it still was a shock to me to be walking at work and see a ship going by. If you could just see a little bit of ship, the river was low. If you could see a lot of ship, the river was high. These are ocean going grain freighters mostly though some smaller oil tankers. Lots of barge traffic, though that was never visible unless you were on or above the levee. In that part of the world, the river banks and levee are the high ground and the slope is away from the river.


message 12: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
Great post Patrickrk; I guess the river makes known its presence when it wants to; but glad that most of the time things were uneventful.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments I was quite intrigued by the conversation abmong the pilots. One the one hand it seemed similar to a conversation of 'old salty dogs' (meaning men of the sea), doing a bit of boasting about how they would all navigate that one portion of the river. Twain seems to hang onto their every word and a bit reluctant to speak up, then Bixby comes into the pilot house and they all seem to stop and admire what he is doing. It seemed like a fascinating glimpse into the interaction of these men.


message 14: by FrankH (new)

FrankH | 76 comments It is just like a young man to be carried away by the romance of the river without initially grasping its intricacy or natural science and -- worse yet -- how he must account for it. But, to hear Bixby tell it, the apprenticing of the steamboat pilot includes the development of such a prodigious memory and concentration as to discourage even the most apt pupil. Have we done the math here? How many trips up and down this very long, shape-shifting river -- with at least half the mileage enshrouded in darkness -- did it take for Bixby himself to 'memorize' it? Is it a matter of days, months, years to master it? Could there be just a smidgen of exaggeration here, played for dramatic effect by Bixby on the impressionable student?


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments FrankH, to be sure, Bixby seems to know how to play to his students. The only real tool to master this job seems to be instinct and learning the terrain, repeatedly, in many conditions. I'm struck by the lack of maps. Seems like they would have something to know where they are.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments I thought the description of the other small skiffs and rafts the steamboats encountered was interesting, particularly the small skiffs they encountered of people who were living on their skiffs for months at a time during the flood season, and then would return to their homes after the flood season. It points out to the hardships and uncertainty that people who lived along the river had to endure.


message 17: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 34795 comments Mod
I think that is still the case for many; Mother Nature seems to be timeless and always in charge.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Well I think that is true as far as being influenced by natural forces but it seemed odd to think that people would literally live on the river during flood season, in a small skiff no less. The passage in the book illustrates a population that regularly did this.


message 19: by Kris (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kris Fernandez-everett (baby_lemonade) i think anyone who grew up around boats, as i did, could chuckle his or her way through this set of chapters... as a young kid, i was absolutely dying for my dad and grandfather to show me how to drive the boat -- i mean, how hard could this be? it's just water... i'll never forget how they smirked when i got 'control' of a small skiff -- and ran it straight onto a jetty full of rocks...

a good lesson that nothing in life is as easy as it seems -- and that there are dangers that always lurk beneath the surface... it takes maturity, practice and recognition of subtle nuance (ripples, feathered waves, the level of exposure of a root in the water) to call yourself a "pro" at anything -- and the river is a great metaphor for that...


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Great observations Kris, and so true.


message 21: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim | 106 comments FrankH wrote: "It is just like a young man to be carried away by the romance of the river without initially grasping its intricacy or natural science and -- worse yet -- how he must account for it. But, to hear B..."

I often "zone out" during extended descriptions of technical detail in books. However I found the detail of piloting riverboats fascinating (maybe the salty characters help!). Activities always look so much simpler from a distance, leading us to groan, "What the *bleep* is wrong with those people that they can't..."


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Isn't that the truth? No doubt what makes this river hard to navigate as a pilot is all the stuff you can't see (sand bars, snags, currents) and what you do see makes it all look so easy. I still marvel at how a big ship is docked.


message 23: by Katy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Katy (Kathy_H) I loved his account of trying to "learn the river." The description was so entertaining. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Twain's writing.


message 24: by Heather (new)

Heather (dolleygurl) | 27 comments Alisa wrote: "Bentley, I got the impression that his 'discovery' of the science of piloting was a bit of a let down for Twain. He seems to fancy himself throughout the learning process as someone that can learn..."

I too got the impression that it wasn't all that he expected it to be. There is the scene early on in the section where he wants to control the boat himself only to fail miserably. I think we all have experiences like that at some time or another in our young adult hood. It never looks as hard as it really is!


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Heather you are right, and because he was a young man at this stage he was perhaps dissappointed that he had a lot to learn. I am sure he thought he was ready for the world, and expecting it would also be ready for him.


Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1220 comments Did you all notice the reference in the dialogue to "mark twain" as in "mark 2." I guess that must be the source of Clemen's pseudonym.


Bekah


Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1220 comments More on the above:

From Wikipedia:
Twain used different pen names before deciding on Mark Twain. He signed humorous and imaginative sketches Josh until 1863. Additionally, he used the pen name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass for a series of humorous letters.[100]
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."
Twain claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention. In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:
Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them "MARK TWAIN," and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; ... At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner's discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.[101]
Twain's version of the story about his pen name has been questioned by biographer George Williams III,[102] the Territorial Enterprise newspaper,[103] and Purdue University's Paul Fatout.[104] which claim that mark twain refers to a running bar tab that Twain would regularly incur while drinking at John Piper's saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.


Hope this is okay,


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Becky, probably more appropriate for the Glossary thread but it is fine here since there are clear references to it in these pages of the book. I like the bar tab story, it seems just as plausable as his own explanation which you kindly posted here. Ha!


message 29: by Heather (new)

Heather (dolleygurl) | 27 comments Becky wrote: "Did you all notice the reference in the dialogue to "mark twain" as in "mark 2." I guess that must be the source of Clemen's pseudonym.


Bekah"


I did catch that too and thought that it was a sly way to slip his name in - but your extended info makes more sense. Thanks.


message 30: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Taylor (jatta97) | 43 comments I started the book late and have been reading slowly. I'm impressed by the respect shown to Bixby. Clemens has immortalized the pilots' dedication to their task and respect for their skills.

I suppose piloting is like a science in that understanding depends upon accurate gathering and recording empirical data. With the correct data set, the student can begin applying the general rules given by his teachers and learn the dynamics of his world.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments Jeffrey wrote: "I started the book late and have been reading slowly. I'm impressed by the respect shown to Bixby. Clemens has immortalized the pilots' dedication to their task and respect for their skills.

I..."


Jeffrey, glad you are joining the discussion it is not too late at all, and everyone reads at their own pace.

Piloting in those days seems to be a somewhat crude science, with some of the 'science' being the pilot's memorization of the names of crossings and where there were trees and snags. It would take a unique skill to successfully navigate a complicated river. Twain shows his admiration for Bixby, and seems that other pilots and cubs come to know him as a man with special skills.


Cheryl (Cheryl319) | 372 comments I like Jeffrey's definition of 'science' - collecting data and using it to make judgements about piloting the boat. Instinct is still based on this data. And as Twain lamented, that data was always changing.

In some of the sarcastic comments Bixby makes to Twain I see where he could be a major influence on Twain and his style. My favorite was when he called Twain "...more different kinds of an ass than any creature I ever saw before."

What was the bit at the beginning of Chapter 11 about the skiff calling for a paper, being thrown a religious tract, and cursing? Would the skiffs go up to the steamboats looking for newspapers, and in order to get rid of the skiffs, which posed a hazard for the steamboats, the steamboats would throw them religious papers (which according to Twain no one wanted) because their cursing would discourage the other skiffs from bothering to ask? If I'm reading it right, I'm very amused at Twain's religious humor here.

So was the bit about the sleepwalking pilot at the end of Chapter 11 another tall tale?


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments I think the newspaper and the skiffs was indeed a ploy for the steamboats to rid themselves of the skiffs. You can imagine how crowded the river must have been with all sorts of activity. I'm sure this was also Twain bragging about the importance of the steamboats relative to whatever and whoever else was on the water.


Cheryl (Cheryl319) | 372 comments I agree about the bragging. By this chapter he also seems to be beginning to feel that way about himself as a pilot and all he has mastered, although at this point that feeling certainly pales in comparison to his awe of Bixby and the other pilots.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments He seems to have an intact ego, that's for sure. He does hold the other pilots in esteem and fancies himself among them.


Alessandra | 12 comments Mr. Bixby sounds like the sort of fiercely dedicated teacher some people are fortunate enough to have had.

I appreciate how Twain underscores his own youthful mulishness and incomprehension in such a humorous way. He clearly has a great deal of respect and affection for Mr. Bixby.


Alisa (MsTaz) | 5614 comments I like Bixby, he sounds like a great teacher and one which Twain admired, even though sometimes I think he drove him nuts.


back to top

unread topics | mark unread


Books mentioned in this topic

Life on the Mississippi (other topics)

Authors mentioned in this topic

Mark Twain (other topics)