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Going Home With Mark Twain

June 2024
26min read

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

MARK TWAIN WAS BORN ALMOST EXACTLY A century before I was into a small-town Mississippi Valley culture that, despite the centennial difference, bore remarkable resemblances to my own. I took his work to my heart at an early age and have retained my regard for the best of it ever since. Shortly before my sixtieth birthday I returned to Life on the Mississippi for the first time since high school in my little town in Mississippi. It rings even more striking and true for me now, not least, I think, because I too became a writer, and I learned immeasurably from him. If good literature embraces the dreams of young readers over the many years, then Mark Twain reappears to me dreamlike as I age; he was magic to me as a fledgling writer, and still is.

His words have ineluctable resonance for my own life and my own times. He caught the essence behind things; he taught me that a writer should be a good “reporter” and that he must go with his own intuitions. When I was the editor of Harper’s Magazine in the 1960s, the framed original posters of the Harper’s serial of Joan of Arc hung on the walls of my office (by some accounts he considered it his finest work, but in this case he may have been mistaken). The magazine and its writers grew in esteem together during the 1870s and 1880s. The biographer Justin Kaplan reports that an English tour guide told some tourists in 1882: “You Americans have Mark Twain and Harper’s Magazine .”

Sometimes, when working on weekends, I would tarry before the ancient cabinet containing the individual cards on the articles and stories going back to 1850, catalogued by author and title, with date of acceptance and publication and amount of payment, and look under “C” for Clemens. On one such lonely winter’s afternoon it mystically occurred to me that if I had been the editor of this magazine then rather than now , I might have been a friend of Mark Twain!

Once, in a later Mississippi twilight, from the work-room of my cabin on the Bogue Chitto River, I heard vociferous voices from the riverbank. They were coming from my son and a friend of his, and it suggests something, I suppose, about the tenacity and endurance of Mark Twain that they were reciting from memory the raftsman’s peroration from Life on the Mississippi , their shouts blending with the summertime cicadas and echoing down the river: “Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw! Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’mailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m bout to turn myself loose!”

Life on the Mississippi , in the most lasting sense, “carries the news” to my generation, and shall to those after mine, of what his people and places were like, the way things looked and felt in the locales of his growing up and his later return to them in maturity. Life on the Mississippi is written with flamboyance and beauty and the affecting precision of a craftsman. How can one compete with this? “Some of these chutes were utter solitudes. The dense, untouched forest overhung both banks of the crooked little crack, and one could believe that human creatures had never intruded there before. The swinging grape-vines, the grassy nooks and vistas glimpsed as we swept by, the flowering creepers waving their red blossoms from the tops of dead trunks, and all the spendthrift richness of the forest foliage, were wasted and thrown away there. The chutes were lovely places to steer in; they were deep, except at the head; the current was gentle; under the ‘points’ the water was absolutely dead, and the invisible banks so bluff that where the tender willow thickets projected you could bury your boat’s broadside in them as you tore along, and then you seemed fairly to fly. …”

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.

AMONG THE MOST MOVING PARTS OF LIFE ON THE Mississippi for me are those about his old Hannibal and his return to it, his hail and farewell to it, those many years later. The distance in years does not matter. His Hannibal, Missouri, and my Yazoo City, Mis- sissippi, are symbiotic for me, evanescently linked in detail and sensation and remembrance; the two most vivid towns of my youth were my own and his—his fictional Hannibal, which in breath and substance, if not in exact geography, was as Southern a place as my own. Reading him as a boy on rainy days in the muted old library in Yazoo City, I felt palpably in my heart, Why, that town’s like this one now. Much as he tried, Mark Twain would never get away from Hannibal. Thank God he could not. When he was young, he once wrote, he could remember just about everything, “whether it happened or not,” and Hannibal was at the core of his being as a writer. No matter how far away he was, it tugged at him. “Memory believes,” Faulkner said, “before knowing remembers.”


Here, from Life on the Mississippi , is his Hannibal in the 1840s, a favorite passage of mine: “Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis, and another downward from Keokuk. Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing. Not only the boys, but the whole village, felt this. After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the wall, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep—with shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the ‘levee’; a pile of ‘skids’ on the slope of the stonepaved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of them; two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, rolling its milewide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense forest away on the other side; the ‘point’ above the town, and the ‘point’ below, bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant and lonely one.”

My Yazoo City lies on precisely the same parallel, a mere thirty miles due east across the Mississippi, as Lake Providence, Louisiana, “the first distinctly Southern-looking town you come to, downward bound. … level and low, shade-trees hung with venerable gray beards of Spanish moss; ‘restful, pensive, Sunday aspect about the place,’ comments Uncle Mumford, with feeling- also with truth.” That, too, could be a description of my boyhood Yazoo. In the nineteenth century the cotton growers, adventurous younger sons and brothers, came here from the older South, where the land had played out, seeking the rich alluvial earth. Later the merchants arrived to exploit the commerce of the Yazoo River, where riverboats were stacked with cotton bales ten and fifteen deep, and steamboats with names like Hard Cash, City of Greenwood , and Katie Robbins plied their trade from the upper Delta to Vicksburg. Surely the arrival of the grander steamboats at the foot of Main Street caused much the same commotion in the summer’s torpor as they did in Hannibal when Mark Twain was a boy: “The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to a common centre, the wharf.” This was part of my own inheritance; and by the time I came along, the river was still there, and the same main street and precipitous bluffs, although the wharves of the older time were mere remnants of their former glory.

The radio came, and the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, and the movies, but was my town in the 1940s all that drastically removed from the Hannibal of the 1840s? Mine too was a lazy town, stretched out on its hills and its flat streets, a lethargic, dreamy place. We had a closeness to the earth, and we were so isolated , although I do not think we knew that then. We sat barefoot on the porches in the summer nights and listened to the stories of the old people. Boat horns echoed from the river. From beyond the alleys came the high resonant laughter and the poetry of the blues, the words of the poor and dispossessed. All around town we listened to the extravagant lies of garrulous workingmen, and more or less believed them, not at all unlike young Sam Clemens with the village carpenter who traveled the world murdering people with the last name Lynch. The town and its people drowsed in the sunshine of a summer’s morning just as Hannibal had, and perhaps even more so, since there were no steamboats coming in. I knew the place better than I did my own heart—every bend in every road, the Indian mounds and white frame churches, the forlorn crossroads and cypress brakes, where the robin went for its first crocus. It was not in our souls, only in our pores, as familiar to me yet as water or grass or sunlight. The town was poor one year and rich the next, and everything in our cotton-farming surroundings pertained to usury and mortgage, debenture and labor. We lived and died by nature, and Saxons and Africans together cared for the whims of the timeless clouds. Our people played seven-card stud against God. In his garage my grandfather made me big wooden replicas of the great steamboats he had known along the Mississippi as a boy, in about the time that Mark Twain returned to the river to complete his book.

The earth here is spooky and seductive.The woods are profuse with creeping vines and ubiquitous moss. The land is full of ghosts.

THERE IS A STORM IN LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI IN 1882 , by my calculation less than a hundred miles from my own town. Mark Twain’s description of it is as familiar to me as anything I ever knew, so spookily so that I can almost feel it to this day: “The wind bent the young trees down, exposing the pale underside of the leaves; and gust after gust followed, in quick succession, thrashing the branches violently up and down, and to this side and that, and creating swift waves of alternating green and white according to the side of the leaf that was exposed, and these waves raced after each other as do their kind over a wind-tossed field of oats. No color that was visible anywhere was quite natural—all tints were charged with a leaden tinge from the solid cloud-bank overhead. The river was leaden; all distances the same; and even the far-reaching ranks of combing whitecaps were dully shaded by the dark, rich atmosphere through which their swarming legions marched. The thunder-peals were constant and deafening; explosion followed explosion with but inconsequential intervals between, and the reports grew steadily sharper and higherkeyed, and more trying to the ear; the lightning was as diligent as the thunder, and produced effects which enchanted the eye and sent electric ecstasies of mixed delight and apprehension shivering along every nerve in the body in unintermittent procession. The rain poured down in amazing volume; the ear-splitting thunder-peals broke nearer and nearer; the wind increased in fury and began to wrench off boughs and tree-tops and send them sailing away through space; the pilot-house fell to rocking and straining and cracking and surging, and I went down in the hold to see what time it was.”

When I was a boy in the lower Mississippi Valley, we were never for a moment very far from turbulent waters. In the spring during the heavy rains, the Mississippi to the west high and roaring, the muddy waters of its tributary the Yazoo overflowed into the town all the way to Main Street, just as Hannibal had been flooded. The Negro shacks on stilts in the bottoms along Highway 49-W were often covered over. We would see the open trucks with the convicts crowded in back, brought in to bolster the levees with sandbags, the black and white stripes of their uniforms somber under the ominous gray sky.

My parents and I moved into the house where I grew up, on Grand Avenue, ten years after the Great Flood of 1927, and our neighbors showed me as a child the watermarks inside their houses, almost as high as the ceilings. The Mississippi River itself had extended this far east through its broken levees then, and cottonmouths in considerable numbers floated in the swirling waters, the neighbors told me, and chickens, and various items of furniture.

In the town library I pored over the photographs of the ’27 flood and listened to the stories of the older people, and years later, when I read in Life on the Mississippi of the ’82 flood—a stunning déjà vu—I remembered those photographs and stories, especially of the black people: “Sometimes there was a group of high-water-stained, tumble-down cabins, populous with colored folk, and no whites visible; with grassless patches of dry ground here and there; a few felled trees, with skeleton cattle, mules, and horses, eating the leaves and gnawing the bark—no other food for them in the flood-wasted land. Sometimes there was a single lonely landing-cabin; near it the colored family that had hailed us; little and big, old and young, roosting on the scant pile of household goods; these consisting of a rusty gun, some bedticks, chests, tinware, stools, a crippled looking-glass, a venerable arm-chair, and six or eight base-born and spiritless yellow curs, attached to the family by strings.”

There was the matter, too, of our mutual respect for mosquitoes, so large in our area that local wags said they wore wristwatches. Mr. H. in chapter 34 speaks graphically of the colossal mosquitoes of Lake Providence on our exact parallel across the river, that two of them could whip a dog, that four of them could hold a man down, and that he had seen them try to vote.

Lake Providence mosquitoes were such, he said, that two of them could whip a dog, and he had seen them try to vote.

Yet the tumult of the elements in these river towns was not the whole of it, for in the violence of their extremes and the tension of their paradoxes lay other similarities between the Hannibals and Yazoos across the divide of time. The rough-hewn democracy of both, complicated by all the visible textures of caste and class, encompassed harmless boyhood fun and mischief right along with all sorts of treacheries and fragilities and ambivalences and deceits: murders and other lesser savageries, rank hypocrisies, churchgoing sanctimonies, racial hatred, entrenched and unrepentant greed. They were all there for a boy to see, in a self-contained place, no matter what his century.

AS A WRITER WITH A NEARLY ANGUISHED SENSE OF time passing, Mark Twain is deeply saddened, on his return to the river in ’82, that the exalted steamboating life he once knew and loved is just about gone. Along the way he often ponders the grand calling of the pilot, who deferred to no one in his imperious independence, and while recounting the steamboat disasters caused by wrecks and explosions, he takes such pride in reporting that “ there is no instance of a pilot deserting his post to save his life while by remaining and sacrificing it he might secure other lives from destruction ” that he put the phrase in italics.

“The towboat and the railroad had done their work,” he laments, “and done it well and completely. … Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of the 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.” The war had contributed to the decline, all but destroying the steamboat trade for several years, and the advancing railroads took away much of the freight and passenger traffic, so that the river edges of St. Louis and other cities looked dead to him beyond resurrection: ”… so straightaway some genius from the Atlantic coast introduced the plan of towing a dozen steamer cargoes down to New Orleans at the tail of a vulgar little tugboat.” And that is what one mainly sees today.

During the two and a half years of his apprenticeship as a cub pilot under the incomparable Mr. Bixby and other steamboatmen, Mark Twain tells us, he grew to know all the various and unmitigated types of the human species. “When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography,” he writes in chapter 18, “I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.”

In New Orleans Mark Twain encounters the incontrovertible Bixby again, the man who had taught him the river—“the man whom, of all men, I most wished to see”—now captain of the City of Baton Rouge . After all the stories he has accumulated of friends and associates of the earlier time perished in the line of steamboat duty, or in the war, or of natural causes, the reunion must have gladdened him. “The same slender figure, the same tight curls, the same springy step, the same alertness, the same decision of eye and answering decision of hand. … It is a curious thing, to leave a man thirty-five years old, and come back at the end of twenty-one years and find him still only thirty-five.” He and Bixby and a number of ladies and gentlemen take a swift tug to a sugar plantation fifty or so miles below New Orleans, and along the route they see a despairing sight, “a number of decayed, ram-shackly, superannuated old steamboats, not one of which had I ever seen before. They had all been built, and worn out, and thrown aside, since I was here last.”

Many of his river landmarks in Life on the Mississippi are my landmarks too—New Orleans, Natchez, the Rodney and Grand Gulf region, Vicksburg, Greenville, Memphis. And none more so than New Orleans: to him, and to myself today, the metropolis of the South—no matter Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta—and which in all its sorcery beckons me time and again just as it drew him back in affection and memory in 1882. There is no finer writing in the first half of Life on the Mississippi than the opening pages of chapter 16, with the steamboats leaving the wharves in late afternoons of the older days to commence the long journey upriver. Now, in 1882, he tours the Quarter with George Washington Cable, rides along a raised shell road with alligators swimming in the canals to Lake Pontchartrain, visits an ice factory (the ice-making establishments here, and in Natchez and Vicksburg, fascinate him, for in his time on the Mississippi “ice was jewelry”), reports that the telephone is everywhere, and judges the city’s electric lights better and more numerous than New York’s: “The finest thing we saw on our whole Mississippi trip, we saw as we approached New Orleans in the steamtug. This was the curving frontage of the crescent city lit up with the white glare of five miles of electric lights. It was a wonderful sight, and very beautiful.” I would give much to spend a day with him in New Orleans: walk the Quarter, pause in Jackson Square, ride the St. Charles streetcar, browse the bookstore in Faulkner House, dinner at Galatoire’s, nightcaps at the Napoleon. What would he make of the Superdome? Probably wish it had been his idea?


ON HIS ’82 RETURN he loiters in another place of his youth, Natchez, and also the notorious Natchez-under-the-hill, which “has not changed notably in twenty years; in outward aspect—judging by the descriptions of the ancient procession of foreign tourists—it has not changed in sixty; for it is still small, straggling, and shabby. It had a desperate reputation, morally, in the old keel-boating and early steamboating times—plenty of drinking, carousing, fisticuffing, and killing there, among the riff-raff of the river, in those days.” Today under-the-hill I could show him boutiques and restaurants and, not far out in the river, a casino boat.

The countryside along the river north of Natchez remains to me one of the most haunting in America. Mark Twain knew this neighborhood. The earth is spooky and seductive. In this southwest corner of Mississippi resides the core of the colonial, territorial, Confederate, and American history of this tortured and beguiling state. Before the Civil War this region was the richest in the United States, all of it undergirded by slavery. The splendid plantation homes, many of them now crumbling or derelict, were the apex of this culture. The woods are dark and profuse with creeping vines, snakes, and the ubiquitous moss. The hills and entangled embankments are deep, the older roadways tunnels of green, and the river is never far away. The land is full of ghosts.

Not far from here is Rodney, which Mark Twain knew from his steamboating days and mentions in Life on the Mississippi , a ghost town ever since the river changed course years ago. And the ghost town of Grand Gulf, where the river began to cut into the bluffs and where Confederate trenches, caves, and breastworks are still visible, was also familiar to him. Nearby is Bruinsburg, deserted today and surrounded by cypress woods along two forks of Bayou Pierre, where Twain’s friend Grant, along with Sherman, landed twenty-four thousand men from the Louisiana side of the river in ’63, that war’s closest equivalent to the Normandy beachhead. The most striking landmark of all is the Windsor Ruins, twenty-two enormous Corinthian columns giving the outline of an old destroyed mansion that ran red with blood as a hospital during the Civil War. As a pilot Mark Twain used the tops of these pillars to chart his course. Vines now cling to the fluted columns. Not far from here is Alcorn State, a small black university where in 1994 a quarterback nicknamed Air II finished third for the Heisman Trophy. Mark Twain understood such spectral and indwelling terrain. He saw it from the river.

He returned, too, to Vicksburg, his “’lofty hill-city,’” the Gibraltar of the South, where the scars of the war still remained for him: trees torn by cannonballs, earthworks, cave retreats in the clay bluffs. In my own growing up, Vicksburg was a magnetic place, only forty miles southwest of my town; driving with my grandparents among the markers and relics of the battleground as a small child, I wondered to myself what had happened here and why all these monuments, and my grandmother was always quick to give me our side of things. Since Vicksburg capitulated on July 4, people did not celebrate that holiday in my vicinity until World War I. Later, in high school, we came to this terrain with our girlfriends for picnics, and explored the stillscarred ravines and hills, and absorbed the prospect of the river far out in the distance. As teenagers, in 1948, we came down for the Freedom Train, which was traveling the nation with the original Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation and all sorts of other items, and in the lines of humanity waiting there to board, for the first time we saw that black people were not required to stand in back and let the whites go first, a spectacle that surely would have impressed Mark Twain as much as it did me.

Nearly twenty years after the Civil War, on revisiting that distinctive site of his piloting days, he affirms that the war history of Vicksburg is more interesting than that of any other of the river towns because it held out longer and suffered in all their phases “the siege, the mine, the assault, the repulse, the bombardment, sickness, captivity, famine. … at three o’clock in the morning, silence; silence so dead that the measured tramp of a sentinel can be heard a seemingly impossible distance; out of hearing of this lonely sound, perhaps the stillness is absolute: all in a moment come ground-shaking thunder-crashes of artillery, the sky is cobwebbed with the crisscrossing red lines streaming from soaring bombshells, and a rain of iron fragments descends upon the city; descends upon the empty streets: streets which are not empty a moment later, but mottled with dim figures of frantic women and children skurrying from home and bed toward the cave dungeons—encouraged by the humorous grim soldiery, who shout ‘Rats, to your holes!’ and laugh.” He records the recollections of a civilian survivor who at one point in the siege was heartily shaking the hand of a friend he had not seen in a while; he had invited the man to visit his cave for some prime whiskey after the night’s bombardment, when suddenly a shell descended, a chunk of it cutting the man’s arm off and leaving it dangling in the narrator’s hand. “And do you know the thing that is going to stick the longest in my memory, and outlast everything else, little and big, I reckon, is the main thought I had then? It was ‘the whiskey is saved .”

The most striking landmark of all is the Corinthian columns of Windsor Ruins. As a pilot Mark Twain used them to chart his course.

I COULD TELL MARK TWAIN OF THE TIME I STRUCK UP a conversation with a tourist from Iowa, who was driving to New Orleans and had stopped in Vicksburg for the night. “Say,” the man asked, “wasn’t there some kind of battle here?” I told him yes, and that that was why so many Iowa boys lay buried in the big cemetery down the way. The writer of Life on the Mississippi , who includes a yarn about the murder of river gamblers in Vicksburg in the steamboating era, might likewise be interested that in the 1990s four enormous casino gambling boats, encouraged to come here (as to Natchez and Greenville), because Mississippi needed their tax revenues, dominate the canal and river.

Other things I could tell him too. He sets a tableau in Vicksburg, in “the most beautiful of all the national cemeteries,” with the inscription over the great gateway: HERE REST IN PEACE 16,660 WHO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY IN THE YEARS 1861 TO 1865 . “The grounds are nobly situated; being very high and commanding a wide prospect of land and river. They are tastefully laid out in broad terraces, with winding roads and paths; and there is profuse adornment in the way of semi-tropical shrubs and flowers; and in one part is a piece of native wild-wood, left just as it grew, and, therefore, perfect in its charm. Everything about this cemetery suggests the hand of the national Government. The Government’s work is always conspicuous for excellence, solidity, thoroughness, neatness. The Government does its work well in the first place, and then takes care of it.” During the Korean War, a high school comrade and I were summoned out of school to play taps for a hero’s funeral at this precise spot in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. It was a fine spectacle, with a troop of soldiers and American Legionnaires and a special Army representative on hand. I was the echo that day, and I climbed up that green, sloping hill to the top of the bluffs. I walked alone among the gravestones of the boys who had died there for Lincoln and Grant ninety years before; most of the stones were merely inscribed with numbers, and on higher ground I stood with my trumpet under my arm and read a plaque bearing the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent. …” The words leaped out at me like living things, and filled me with an excitement and a sorrow I could not fully comprehend. There, stretched out before me, as far as I could see, was the old river, twisting and curving on itself out to the very horizon, brown and lonesome and seeming to move hardly at all in the glorious morning sunlight. If Mark Twain had been with me that day, might he have asked, “What does Vicksburg have to do with Korea?”

When he got to St. Louis, Twain found the Mississippi’s water there “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

A FEW YEARS AGO I HAD OCCASION TO MAKE A MARK Twain pilgrimage of my own, my transportation being not a steamboat but an automobile, taking Old Highway 61 from Memphis to the Twin Cities, paralleling the river almost the entire journey, with a long stop along the way in Hannibal. Mark Twain would have loved Old Highway 61, which dates from the 1930s; it begins on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans, traverses the Louisiana plantation country, through Natchez, Vicksburg, and the Mississippi Delta, across the river at Memphis, into Arkansas, the Missouri boot, New Madrid, and St. Genevieve, St. Louis, Hannibal, Keokuk, Fort Madison, Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque, back across the river into a sliver of Wisconsin, across the river again at La Crosse, on into Minneapolis-St. Paul—all locales he deals with in Life on the Mississippi . Along this route the river is seldom out of sight, and always on your mind.

To Twain the river water around St. Louis was “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” North of St. Louis and Hannibal, I investigated on my desultory odyssey what the author called “the New Towns” of the river, prosperous and burgeoning in the 1880s—an “amazing region, bristling with great towns, projected day before yesterday, so to speak, and built the next morning.” It was Mark Twain’s first writing on the real Upper Mississippi; most river travelers, he complains, did not know there was anything north of St. Louis. The river grows narrower in Iowa and north, its waters sometimes appearing semitransparent, cleaner and clearer than its muddied course along the state of Mississippi. I admired here the sunsets, as he had: “And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equalled them. They used the broad smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it every imaginable dream of color, from the mottled daintiness and delicacies of the opal, all the way up, through cumulative intensities, to blinding purple and crimson conflagrations, which were enchanting to the eye, but sharply tried it at the same time. … It is the true Sunset Land: I am sure no other country can show so good a right to the name.”

This was unexpected country for me, as apparently it was for him more than a century ago. Dubuque to me was a grand surprise—a laeniappe, I am tempted to say. A New York cliché in my days there was: “Will it play in Dubuque?” This was unfair. It looked to me in 1990 much as it had to him in 1882, which suggests something about how good writing lingers: “The majestic bluffs that overlook the river, along through this region, charm one with the grace and variety of their forms, and the soft beauty of their adornment. The steep, verdant slope, whose base is at the water’s edge, is topped by a lofty rampart of broken, turreted rocks, which are exquisitely rich and mellow in color—mainly dark browns and dull greens, but splashed with other tints. And then you have the shining river, winding here and there and yonder, its sweep interrupted at intervals by clusters of wooded islands threaded by silver channels; and you have glimpses of distant villages, asleep upon capes; and of stealthy rafts slipping along in the shade of the forest walls; and of white steamers vanishing around remote points. And it is all as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland, and has nothing this-worldly about it—nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

The river in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I must however confess, was a disappointment to me. It was exceedingly pristine, and not half the width of the Yazoo. I am pleased to note that Mark Twain did not even write about it.

NOTHING IN THE NEWER SECTION OE LIFE ON THE Mississippi approaches in soul and universality the chapters on Hannibal, for it was home. Nowhere in his entire work is there a more direct expression of his tormented sense of the transience of time.

This is one of my favorite passages in American writing; I have personally felt this, and so too, I think, has every American writer from a small town who has come back to it after many years: “The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the memory of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years ago. That picture of it was still as clear and vivid to me as a photograph. I stepped ashore with the feeling of one who returns out of a dead-and-gone generation. I had a sort of realizing sense of what the Bastille prisoners must have felt when they used to come out and look upon Paris after years of captivity, and note how curiously the familiar and the strange were mixed together before them.”

He arrives on an early Sunday morning with no one about. He walks the deserted streets, still remembering the village as it once was, “metaphorically shaking hands with a hundred familiar objects which no longer exist.” He climbs alone to the top of Holiday’s Hill to look down on the town. He gazes at the older houses and remembers the people who once dwelled in them. “The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I could mark and fix every locality, every detail. … The things about me and below me made me feel like a boy again—… and that I had simply been dreaming an unusually long dream.” In his three days in town this labyrinthine, dreamlike ambience haunts him and frightens him. “I woke up every morning with the impression that I was a boy—for in my dreams the faces were all young again, and looked as they had looked in the old times; but I went to bed a hundred years old, every night- for meantime I had been seeing those faces as they are now.” During the day he has met old acquaintances he hardly recognizes—young ladies, for instance, who have scarcely changed at all, because they turn out to be the daughters or granddaughters of the young ladies he had in mind. “When you are told that a stranger of fifty is a grandmother, there is nothing surprising about it; but if, on the contrary, she is a person whom you knew as a little girl, it seems impossible. You say to yourself, ‘How can a little girl be a grandmother?’” Years later, as Justin Kaplan reminds us, “after he had tasted failure and loss, he would ask, Which was the dream—the hideous present or the remembered past?”


When he left Hannibal and returned north toward home, he had to have felt an immense weight, almost physical in its intensity, being lifted from him, the burden of time and remembrance. But this is not all, for in returning to his childhood after his six weeks along the river, he must have experienced some deep interior liberation from his own existence as a singularly rich and successful writer of enormous celebrity living now “as an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , which he had not been able to get right, was in the notdistant future.

TO THIS IT MUST BE APPENDED THAT IN MY OWN visit to Hannibal to pay my spiritual deference, I stayed in “the beautiful Holiday Inn Twainland.” The Mark Twain brand name greeted me on trucks, store windows, and marquees. There was a commercial “Haunted House,” a wax museum, a Huck Finn Shopping Center, a Mark Twain Outdoor Theater, a Tom ‘n Huck Motel, a Becky Thatcher Bookshop, and a Twainland Express departing at regular intervals from the Mark Twain Dinette, which offered various fried-chicken specials named after Huck, Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly, and Becky Thatcher, but none, if I ascertained correctly, after Jim. At the high school they were having the Becky Thatcher Relays. There was talk of a Mark Twain Heritage Theme Park. Beyond its tourism glitter the town was a worn sort of place. But I think he would be pleased by the encounter I had with two little boys, ages about ten or eleven, in the park overlooking the river north of town with the statue of him and its inscription: “His religion was humanity and the whole world mourned for him when he died.” They had just gotten off their bicycles and were looking down at the river below us. “Which of you is Tom and which is Huck?” I asked. They both wanted to be Huck.

Not long ago a college student of highly serious aspect asked me if I had ever met Mark Twain. I was momentarily taken aback but after an interval responded with considerable veracity that, yes, I indeed had known him —“met him on the river.”

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