Life on the Mississippi Themes

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Mark Twain's 'Life on the Mississippi' is a chronicle of two journeys: memories of Twain's days on the river as a youth before the Civil War and an account of the changes he observed when he traveled along the river later after the war.

Background to the Text

You may already know that Mark Twain grew up in the American South and spent time in his youth along the Mississippi River. Much of his Life on the Mississippi is a fictionalized version of experiences from Twain's own past along the Mississippi. When Twain (Samuel Clemmons) was a young man, he traveled along the river and did several different jobs, becoming acquainted with the people and places that make up the culture of this unique part of America.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Organization of the Story

The first half of the text was published in 1875 as a seven-part series in the Atlantic Monthly. Though the text was actually written after the Civil War, these first 20 chapters describe life on the river before this iconic historical event took place. Many scholars and readers feel that this section is the strongest part of the book, providing the reader with engaging pictures of life on the Mississippi in a simpler time.

In fact, the author begins the book with a discussion of the archaeological history of the river and early exploration.

One of Twain's early experiences on the Mississippi is the time he spent as a pilot cub on a steamboat. A pilot cub is like an assistant, learning the skills of piloting a ship while working as a junior member of the crew. The youthful Samuel Clemmons met steamboat Captain Horace Bixby on a trip to New Orleans. Twain became a steamboat captain's apprentice, giving him unique learning opportunities and skills that he shares with the reader in Life on the Mississippi.

Twain writes about his love for steamboats. He was himself a skilled pilot, and he learned how to read the notoriously treacherous currents of the mighty Mississippi River. His early education as a pilot comprises some of the best material in the memoir.

Early Steamboat on the River
early steamboat

The first section ends with the outbreak of the American Civil War, which forced Twain and many others to move westward to seek other occupations.

Second Section of the Text

Unfortunately, the second part of Life on the Mississippi was written, in large part, to fulfill Twain's publishing contract. It is not quite as engaging as the first section, partly because it is not as heavily based on personal experience. Twain did return to the river in later days, after the Civil War. But his descriptions seem more fictionalized than memoir in this second section of the book.

In this section, the premise is that the author wants to return to see the changes and the progress along the river as industrialization takes hold and culture changes after the war. In the text, the author, serving as a reporter and a writer chronicling the Mississippi river culture, brings along a poet and a secretary, and they travel in disguise in order to get a more authentic experience from the journey.


One obvious theme of Life on the Mississippi is that of change and progress in both nature and culture. The initial discussion of the origins of the river itself adds focus on the natural changes that take place over time. Some aspects of river life and the environment itself have and will continue to remain the same.

Nature on the River
Nature on the River

In contrast, human activity changed greatly from the time Twain lived and worked on the river as a youth until he returned later in the century. Technology moved forward, and the purely Southern culture had become more integrated with that of the North.

Here is an example of cultural change that Twain observed:

''It isn't as it used to be in the old times. Then everybody traveled by steamboat, everybody drank, and everybody treated everybody else. Now most everybody goes by railroad, and the rest don't drink.''

-Life on the Mississippi

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