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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser


Life on the Mississippi

Twain, Mark




Twain's Life on the Mississippi is part an autobiography of his time training to be a riverboat pilot. Mark Twain grew up in a small town where the arrival of a riverboat was the big deal, and so he set his heart on it.

He talks about how hard the job was. The Mississippi, you see, is what geologists would call a mature river -- it's winding and shallow -- and so it was difficult to keep the boats from running aground. "There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart." This was made especially hard at night.

Wages were good for pilots for a time, but that attracted a lot of pilots, driving wages down. Some of the pilots formed an association to restrict their trade, which worked well. In the end, though, towed barges and the railroad undercut.

"Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature."