Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain chronicles his life on the Mississippi River. In this unique autobiography, Twain tells of his boyhood ambitions, his adventures learning to pilot steamboats as a cub pilot, and of his last voyage on the Mississippi, with many of his personal anecdotes that he collects. Changes in the use of the steamboat are often told through this novel.

This novel begins in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s hometown. A majority of this story, though, occurs on steamboats in the Mississippi. He writes in a time period from his childhood in the 1830s to his last voyage in 1876. Twain narrates the story with himself being the main character, but with most attention on the river and the steamboat.


Life on the Mississippi begins with Twain giving facts about the river, and then telling about his childhood ambitions to become a pilot. He tells of his cub piloting and his teachings from various pilots. He then gets his piloting license, but goes on to become a printer, a reporter, a half-hearted Confederate soldier, and many more things. After these adventures he decides to take one last trip on the Mississippi and charters a steamboat. On the river he finds the whereabouts of old friends, discovers that towns that had stood before were swallowed by the river, and hears many of the old stories of the Mississippi. He notes the change of towns, scenery, the steamboat, and the river itself.


The rise and decline of the steamboat are told of throughout the book. During Twain’s childhood, he remembers the prime of the steamboat and the excitement that a passing boat had on his small town. “Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those ‘remote points’; instantly, a negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, ‘S-t-e-a-m-b-o-a-t a-comin!’ and the scene changes! 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”(page 22). He tells of the rise in the need of pilots, and the forming of a pilot’s association was founded, later leading to a decline in the steamboat because of high wages. “As I have remarked, the pilot’s association was now the compactest monopoly in the world, perhaps, and seemed indestructible. But the end was sure to come.” (page 84). The peak of the steamboat comes at a time where the racing of steamboats, but falls at a point where railroads take over the freighting of goods and of people. “Until the unholy train comes along- which it presently does, ripping the sacred solitude to rags and tatters with its devil’s war-whoop and the roar and thunder of its rushing wheels” (page 274). The railroads then proceed to take over steamboating commerce. “These railroads have made havoc with the steamboat commerce. The clerk of our boat was a steamboat clerk before these roads were built. In that day the influx of population was so great, and the freight business so heavy, that the boats were not able to keep up with the demands made upon their carrying capacity” (page 274). After the building of these railroads, the steamboat has died. “Mississippi steamboating was born around 1812; at the end of thirty years it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty years more it was dead! A strangely short life for such a majestic creature” (page 115).


Life on the Mississippi tells of Mark Twain’s life adventures on the Mississippi. From his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to his last voyage on the river, he shows the majestic river and the steamboat through his eyes. He also mourns over the steamboat, a dynasty of the Mississippi River. Life on the Mississippi shows the vital river life and brilliant personal views of the river and the steamboat.