The History Book Club discussion

Life on the Mississippi
This topic is about Life on the Mississippi
48 views
AMERICAN HISTORY > 3. HF - LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI - CHAPTERS 12 - 17 (71 - 109) (11/07/11 - 11/13/11) No spoilers, please

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 44168 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 Three:

During the week of November 7 through November 13, we are reading pages 71 - 109:

WEEK 3 - NOV 7 - 13
Chapter 12 - Sounding p70
Chapter 13 - A Pilot's Needes p75
Chapter 14 - Rankd and Dignity of Piloting p82
Chapter 15 - The Pilots' Monopoly p87
Chapter 16 - Racing Days p96
Chapter 17 - Cut-offs and Stephen p103


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 Twain Mark Twain

Remember this is a non spoiler thread.


Alisa (mstaz) It may be late this evening before I add my more detailed notes but want to open this thread to give everyone a chance to start commenting. Some interesting fun stuff - Bixby continues his teaching ways by planting the seeds of doubt, and Twain gets into a bit of a one-up-manship with one of his colleagues. and that's just for starters! Comments?


Alisa (mstaz) Piloting in low water they used a technique called 'sounding' where a crew goes out in a yawl and determines river depth with a stick and bouy points marking the way for the captain. At night the bouys and the yawls were lit using candles and lanterns. For a cub pilot to go out on a sounding mission is exhilarating. Twain gets tricked by a fellow cub on one occassion and misses his chance one night to go out on a sounding mission. Both Twain and his fellow cub Tom are vieing for the attention of a pretty young woman passenger and want to be noticed. When Tom is out in the yawl the steamboat captain confuses the light on the bouy and yawl and ends up running into the yawl, sending the sounding crew into the river including Tom. Tom barely makes it back to the steamboat, and two other crew members are lost.

Memory is a critical tol for a pilot. He likens the need to memorize the river with memorizing everything about a street in New York. He marvels at the extent of others memory, most notably Mr. Bixby, but goes onto describe the anguishing level of detail at which Mr. Brown seems to recall everything. Mr. Brown talks endlessly starting a story with one point and ending with another. Besides memory a pilot needs quick judgment and a cool head. He learns a lesson about trusting memory when Mr. Bixby purposefully rattles his confidence in his memory while piloting a segment of the river he knows very well.

Twain loves piloting in part because it is truly independant work, a pilot is 'a king without a keeper.' The prestige of the boat and the crew are interdependant.


message 4: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments I really liked the story of the $125 pilot and the slow boat stories.


Alisa (mstaz) Patricrk the $125 pilot was great. Twain is so smug sometimes, makes me laugh.

I also likes how he describes the pilot that was thrown off the boat in New Orleans. Sounds like quite a colorful character! I can imagine tese rougue travelers of the river being unusual characters.


message 6: by Heather C (new)

Heather C | 27 comments I really enjoyed the segment where Bixby teaches him a lesson in being sure of himself - that would have to have been embarrassing.

There were two things that I found very new to me -
1. The fact that there was a hierarchy based on what ship you worked on and
2. The monopoly of pilots (that would have sucked to have had to go through this if you were not one of those early members).


Alisa (mstaz) Bixby seems to take great joy in teaching him these 'lessons.' Necessary, to be sure, but he seems to do it in a sly and memorable way. Just when Twain seems to have things figured out - or thinks he does - along comes Bixby. It's quite humorous.

The pilots association sure had a short life but seemed to serve it's purpose.


Kris Fernandez-Everett (baby_lemonade) wow, these chapters were just incredibly dry to me -- all of those measurements in the second to last chapter just drove me crazy... i've read enough twain to know that he and i go through periods when i want to throw the book at the wall because of exposition overload, so i know things will pick back up again... perhaps that's the theme of the river getting back at me -- there are lulls and there are rapids, but without one, the other wouldn't exist :-)...


message 9: by ☯Emily (last edited Nov 14, 2011 09:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

☯Emily  Ginder Kris wrote: "wow, these chapters were just incredibly dry to me -- all of those measurements in the second to last chapter just drove me crazy... i've read enough twain to know that he and i go through periods ..."

That's exactly how I'm feeling. Just can't get through this book and am finding other things more profitable to read or to do!


Alisa (mstaz) The measurement section was probably not my favorite but he seems to pick up again in the chapters we are reading this week. (Post will go up later today). There is some randmoness to the tempo and content of the book. I suspect he likes throwing the occassional curve ball to his reader. Great analogy about the river.


Theresa | 84 comments I thought the pilot's association was very interesting. I tried to think of a modern version of this, but came up blank. It seemed like it was really out to punish those pilots that didn't join right away. I also found parts of this book dry but it did pick up again for me later.


message 12: by Alisa (last edited Nov 15, 2011 08:11AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alisa (mstaz) Theresa, it seemed like a cross between a labor union and benevolent association, with the pilot members getting a labor protection as well as other monetary benefits to the members and their widows. It was more beneficial to those who joined right away, but also limited new members and set some standards, and degraded the old cub system under which Twain learned.


Theresa | 84 comments yes, I did see the similarities to a labor union. I think someone else mentioned it but the story with Stephen had me cracking up! I think we all know people somewhat like that :)


Alisa (mstaz) Stephen, what a cad! Yes, I suspect many of us have encountered the type. You have to give him credit for being creative.


message 15: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Theresa wrote: "I thought the pilot's association was very interesting. I tried to think of a modern version of this, but came up blank. It seemed like it was really out to punish those pilots that didn't join rig..."

Mississippi river pilots now have to a state license (in Louisiana) and the group (several years ago) was in the news for all the nepotism and high fees.


Alisa (mstaz) Patricrk, so the legacy lives on, eh? :-) Interesting. There has got to be a ton of traffic on the river, and I think there are still a few points that use ferries, aren't there?


message 17: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Alisa wrote: "Patricrk, so the legacy lives on, eh? :-) Interesting. There has got to be a ton of traffic on the river, and I think there are still a few points that use ferries, aren't there?"

Yes, there are still several ferries. The parish (county) I lived in was split by the river with courthouse on the west side and the bulk of the population on the east side and no bridge. I didn't have to cross the river very often but my wife was an attorney and she was on the ferry lots of times.

The pilots in this case were the ones who take ocean going ships up the river. The port area near us was one of the largest tonnage ports in the USA because of all the grain and oil that came through it. I don't know what the tugboat captains license requirements are but they are probably closer to what Twain was doing in going up and down the river with cargo in barges.


Alisa (mstaz) Patricrk wrote: "Alisa wrote: "Patricrk, so the legacy lives on, eh? :-) Interesting. There has got to be a ton of traffic on the river, and I think there are still a few points that use ferries, aren't there?"
..."


That makes sense about the boats that get those big ships to some of the ports from the delta up into Louisiana.

I recall seeing a few parish ferries when I was there for work in the early '90's, but never took one myself. Interesting that some of the parishes are divided by the river, that's wild!


message 19: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim | 117 comments I also found the section about the pilot's association interesting, both for it being a curious labour relations body and the description of how it fared in good times versus bad.

The ongoing comments about "cut-offs" and shifts in the river is quite something. I'm not used to hearing of such dramatic changes in such short periods of time. Is that still going on to any great extent? I assume the river's now more "managed" than it was?


message 20: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Jim wrote: "I also found the section about the pilot's association interesting, both for it being a curious labour relations body and the description of how it fared in good times versus bad.

The ongoing co..."


The Corp of Engineers is responsible for managing the river now and keeps it under control. It is a job of constant vigilance.


Alisa (mstaz) it is interesting to note how the course of the river can change. realy amazing to think about the power of the currents and the various changes of direction over time no matter what force is at play - whether prompted by a man-made manipulation or otherwise.


message 22: by FrankH (new)

FrankH | 76 comments As I think Twain indicates (readers can correct me), two key concepts powered the rise of the pilot's association: a) it was easier for the underwriters to vet a group than a succession of individuals (I'm not sure if the insurance was on the boat or the cargo) b) association pilots, unlike the free-agents, could leverage near real-time updates on the vagaries of the river via the notes from other association pilots traversing the same section of the river days before. The irony, of course, is that the scrappy, non-assn. pilots were more skilled and knowledgeable, at least at the start, and that the early adapters on the assn side, in Twain's book, were a bunch of inept freeloaders. But you just love it when the tables are turned and you get the exasperated captain or merchant going hat-in-hand to the association, asking about pilots and instead hearing about assn. 'standards' on hiring. An interesting side-bar on American Labor history and a story begging to be told by a humorist like Clemens.


message 23: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Taylor (jatta97) | 100 comments I expect both boat and cargo were insurable, each would have different insurors.

I'm totally enthralled by this section and this book. Clemens infuses his characters with life and the context is so detailed that it brings the story to life. When I have the book in hand I am on board as the events unfold. Clemens' exposition is complete and through. He gives us the history of the river, the details of piloting and running the boat, the sociology and economics of this mode of transportation. With the pilot guiding the boat in his sleep, while Twain his breaking his soul upon the rocks of the river trying to learn this trade, Clemens has even given us an encounter with the mythology of the river.

I'm totally impressed with how good Bixby was as a teacher. His cub wasn't just cheap labor as Twain sometimes claims, Bixby was treating him as a master trains an apprentice and doing so with élan. Of course, the teacher got his benfit from the relationship too!


Alisa (mstaz) I like Bixby, I think he has a clever way of instructing. He doesn't let Twain get in trouble but he certainly finds ways to put him to the test. I suspect one reason why Bixby was respected was how much he taught various cubs in his time.


Cheryl (cheryl319) | 372 comments I also found the parts about the pilot association interesting - especially that the best pilots founded it as a trick, and the trick ended up backfiring on them.

One of my favorite Twain quotes is "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." When Twain mentions about blushing when Bixby takes him downs a notch, it reminds me of that quote.

The chapter on cut-offs made me question my earlier judgment about the cut-offs being exaggerated by Twain. In Chapter 17, he goes into a very satiric and exaggerated explanation of 'science' and 'proof' after giving detailed mileage accounts of several cut-offs.

In my Google research, I found some more articles that make me believe he was only slightly exaggerating. There are articles about cut-offs at Vicksburg in 1863 and 1876:

1876 Vicksburg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicksbur...

1863 Vicksburg: http://www.nytimes.com/1863/02/02/new...

This story of the Yazoo steamer sounds similar to Twain’s tale of the passage through the new American bend cut-off:
1884 - Tensao Parish: river shortened 12 miles: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-...

There have also been man–made cut-offs as well, one that shortened the river 150 miles according to this excerpt on Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=lh0J...

So I guess I’ve found my area of fascination…


Alisa (mstaz) Cheryl, interesting note about the cut-offs. You have to think the river has been subject of a lot of change, some man-made and of course through natural forces. It's interesting to see how the river has changed geographically.

I too found the discussion of the pilots association intriguing.


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)