Literary critics admittedly point out that there are many themes which run along Mark Twain’s work, Life on the Mississippi River. However, there is always schism as some critics point out that Twain’s works were rife with thematic undertones which were mainly bereft of human ideals such as justice, equality, suffering and tragedy. These critics maintain that given Twain’s leanings towards atheism, he possesses more compunction to delve on moralist ideals. On the other hand, there are critics who point out that Mark Twain’s themes straddle both moralist and non moralist matters, irrespective of his leanings on religious matters.
Nevertheless, it is lucid that humanitarian and moralist themes run along his work, Life on the Mississippi River. This paper therefore seeks to establish the veracity of this standpoint. Introduction The book entitled, Life on the Mississippi River is Mark Twain’s memoir that detailed the days he spent as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot in a period anteceding and succeeding the American Civil War. Mark Twain opens the book by giving a short description of the Mississippi River from its point of discovery by Hernando De Soto in 1542.
The book continues with Mark Twain’s anecdotes relatable to Twain’s training as a steamboat pilot, according to his own words, the “cub” of an expert pilot. This book that greatly describes his affections and the science behind navigating the dynamic Mississippi River was initially published in 1876 under the title, the Old Times on the Mississippi. The fact that there are sundry and ominous themes that run deep in this book is portrayed in the fact that the second part, does not constrain itself to describing Twain’s return to travel from St. Louis to New Orleans on a steamboat after many years; but on the contrary, thematic and emotive topics akin to greed, tragedy, gullibility and bad architecture run deep in this work piece. This paper therefore takes to dwell on the themes of tragedy and greed as they run along dominantly in this book, Life in the Mississippi. First off, the theme of tragedy appears in the book’s sample of the author’s missive to his sister- in- law, Orion.
The book, mentions that five days prior to the composition of this letter, an explosion occurred in a steamboat which had carried Mark Twain’s younger brother, Henry. This development that took place in Pennsylvania left Henry heavily injured. Mark Twain who would have been piloting with his brother, save for some circumstances, was in Memphis, reunited with his brother Henry two days after this explosion, and for six more days, nursed him when he succumbed, being one among the hundreds who perished in the exploitation.
According to Fishkin (1998, 121), the theme of tragedy plays strongly, being depicted by the author as that which is inevitable, and as such, no effort can be concocted to avoid it. The inevitable nature of tragedy is clearly brought out by the fact that Mark Twain had a month earlier, already foreseen his brother’s death in a well detailed dream. In almost the same wavelength, the book through the author advises the readers on the way tragedy should be met.
The above reality is clearly depicted by the fact that despite the pain of bereavement and guilt that bore heavily on Mark Twain’s mind, he put on a brave face, and continued to work in the river as the river pilot- a feat that was extirpated in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out. This is because the traffic within and along the Mississippi was severed. Similarly, the author depicts the normal nature by which the pain of tragedy is met. Herein, Mark Twain is left subject to intense feeling of guilt and pain, due to the feel that he did not do enough to nip his brother’s death in the bud.
It is while in the midst of this emotional turmoil that Mark Twain ventures into the field of parapsychology, deviating from his former involvement in the Society for Physical Research. Kruse (1991, 75) maintains that as the author, Mark Twain does not make a dereliction of the concept and practice slavery. This book presents Missouri as a historical slave state for the South, being represented by in the Federal and Confederate governments at the time of civil war.
In a sketchy depiction, Twain intimates of he and his comrades having been volunteers for the Confederacy up to closely two weeks. At the same time, it is this issue of slavery which acts as the hotbed from which the American Civil War springs. Likewise, relatable tragic concepts such as the suffering and the exploitation of the slaves who are mainly blacks comes to the attention of Union, though the South warms up to it as it remains very lucrative; as it is tantamount to free labor.
Tragic it is that scarcely did many farmers and small scale industrialists see the need to accord slaves, the African Americans whom they regarded as their mere chattels, with decent domicile, sufficient victuals and proper vestments, leaving alone a pay for any work done. It is by this depiction of the contradictive lifestyle between the slave owners in Missouri and their slaves that Twain presents the tragedy of human avarice that would have human beings exploit their fellows without any remorse.
In a cleverly calculated artifice to show his disdain for this exploitation through slavery and his depiction of it as a practice doomed for failure, Twain depicts this as the crux of the antithetical stance that the Unionists and Southerners had towards each other; with a war christened, The American Civil War being the culmination of this affair; the South greatly loosing and the door for the total proscription of slavery being opened (Twain, 2004, 99). Again, in a cleverly packaged stylistic approach, Twain revisits the theme of tragedy and suffering as being caused by war, even the American Civil War.
It is no secret that Twain speaks of himself generatively so that in his sufferings, he has the ability to represent the painful experiences of many others. A case in point is Mark Twain’s self depiction of a youthful individual who had grown up along the precincts of the Mississippi River where he also earned his livelihood. Nevertheless, Twain’s life and means of livelihood is interfered with by the war as he is one of the many who are forced to abandon the steamboat pilot career with the advent of the war.
It is only after two decades that Twain returns to the Mississippi River, only to be met with wide scale changes that have materialized in the area. At this juncture, apart from the socio- cultural changes that have taken place, the tributaries of the Mississippi River have undergone transformation too. Similarly, Mark Twain like many others returns to find remarkable persons who have all become an integral part of the nation’s forgotten history.
The above situation means that forever; lives along the Mississippi River had undergone an irrevocable transformation as families remained severed from their members; while others had their professions and means of earning a living extirpated as the tributaries of the Mississippi totally changed. All these occurrences are attempts by Mark Twain to depict the tragedies that the American Civil War bequeathed the Americans- tragedies which were so pervasive, cutting across all the spheres of life: social, economic and cultural spectra (Pettit 2004, 161).
In almost the same vein, the theme of avarice tampered with concepts of tragedy remains rampant in this piece of literature, with the former being seen to be the causative agent of the latter. Watkins (2004) maintains that in a picturesque manner, Twain mentions of the technological developments which were materializing in the US at the time, such as the development of the steamboat, which spurned the boat construction industry. Running concomitant with this development was the radical changes and efforts to ameliorate the railway system.
Although all these developments sparked off industrial developments, the unfortunate development that came alongside this was the dingy, shoddy and substandard constrictions which Mark Twain recounts as having caused massive numbers of deaths. Twain depicts the poor and pronto constructions which were hurried through with the need to rake in quick lucre as being the prime reason behind the sad situation. Again, tragedy plays along here, as these poor constructions which were greedily hurried through, collapsed, claiming the lives of many innocent. Conclusion
It is therefore clear that the theme of tragedy plays along in Twain’s book with matters akin to anthropocentricity taking the center stage. This is because, beyond the reporting of the practices which directly compromised human rights, the real need behind the writing of the novel was meant at mirroring the society so that ameliorative socio- cultural and economic practices could be welcome. At this juncture, it is therefore easy to see that core matters which are relatable to human ideals such as equality for all claim center stage in Twain’s writings.
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