- Historic Sites
Going Home With Mark Twain
WILLIE MORRIS revisits a book that nourished him as a boy and discovers that the landscapes the young Samuel Clemens navigated are in fact the topography of Morris’s own life
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
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.
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.