Going Home With Mark Twain

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Reading Twain as a boy on rainy days in the old library in Yazoo City, I felt, Why, that town’s like this one now.

It was my river too, in so many ways years later. Twentyeight miles to the west of us, it was a living presence to my contemporaries and me: the towns along its mighty traverse, its bluffs and promontories, its tales and lores, its fealties and treacheries. In his opening history Twain notes that the Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboat. Not the least of these was the river that ran past my own town, the Yazoo, a notable winding stream that takes in the Tallahatchie, the Sunflower, and God knows how many less ambitious rivers and creeks in its southward course through the Delta before it empties itself into the greater river a few miles north of Vicksburg. One of the indelible images of my boyhood was the way the Yazoo appeared and reappeared before us everywhere in its unremitting twists and turns around the swamplands and thickets, its grassy banks lined with willows, the cattails dancing in a whispery breeze, the duckweed thick and emerald green in the melancholy brakes of cypress, the cotton blossoms in the vast surrounding fields dazzling white, and soon to turn blue, then lavender. Little wonder I have forever been fascinated by rivers, just as he was. Do not for a moment think my country was not Mark Twain’s.

THE FIRST HALF OF LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, MOST OF it originally published in 1875 as a seven-part series in The Atlantic Monthly , is imaginative literature of the highest order: the cub pilot’s agonies in learning the dire complexities of his trade and all that was required of “a pilot’s peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi,” the river’s immense perils, the inherent romance yielding as romance often does to exact and tortuous knowledge, the comedies and tragedies along the way. Seven years later, and more than two decades after the action in the Atlantic serial, he would return again to the river to gather new material with the purpose of doubling the length of the narrative for one of those bulky “subscription” books of the day, which explains much of the extraneous padding of some of the chapters in the second half. After his piloting years, which he always recalled as the best of his life, by his own listing he became a silver miner in Nevada, then a newspaper reporter, next a gold miner in California, a reporter in San Francisco, a special correspondent in the Sandwich Islands, a roving correspondent in Europe and the East, a platform lecturer—”and, finally, I became a scribbler of books, and an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England.” But “after twenty-one years’ absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there.” By all descriptions this later reportage was a painful task for him (and the subsequent sales of the book were disappointing), but I am glad that he took it upon himself to go back. He had been living in the East for some time, with growing feelings of disdain toward the South and its “decayed and swinish forms of religion,” “decayed and degraded systems of government,” “sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless longvanished society” as inculcated by the legacy of Sir Walter Scott. To paraphrase from a later book called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , I have never known a white man so down on Sir Walter Scott.

As a writer he had to come home for a while, to reacquaint himself with the authentic landmarks and feelings and memories and events of his own beginnings, the bittersweet pull of certain phrases, the old echoes, which is something I know about too. And for him there was a lagniappe (in the New Orleans section of Life on the Mississippi he explores the multifarious origins and uses of this efficacious Louisiana word): the second half of the book forced him back to Huckleberry Finn , over which he had been agonizing for a long time. His return to the South and Hannibal and the river, likely emanating from profound artistic necessity, was a catharsis for him, I think, so much so that in inextricable ways Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn are spiritually bound together. It is far from coincidence that he provides a rough plot in Life on the Mississippi for Huck’s novel, “a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts, during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more.” The section on the raftsmen in chapter 3 of Life on the Mississippi was originally written as part of Huckleberry Finn and then lifted to shorten the manuscript. I find this intriguing. This is the way good writers who are emotionally invigorated and under deadline work, and always will.