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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 13. Life on the Mississippi

For Life on the Mississippi (1883) Mark Twain drew again from the treasure of Western material which he had amassed before he became a professional humorist; and that distinguished connoisseur, the ex-Emperor William II of Germany, therein agreeing with the portier of the author’s lodging in Berlin, informed the author that it was his favourite American book. More strictly speaking, it is the first twenty of the fifty-five chapters that do for the Mississippi Valley what Roughing It does for the Far West, namely, invest it with the charm of recollected experience and imaginative apprehension. The latter part of the book, which might have been called “The Mississippi Revisited,” is the journalistic record of an excursion made with a stenographer in 1882; it contains interesting autobiographical notes, admirable descriptive passages, a remarkable diatribe on Sir Walter Scott for perpetuating outworn chivalry in the South, an account of a meeting with G. W. Cable and Joel Chandler Harris in New Orleans, and miscellaneous yarns and information; but it is of distinctly secondary value. Steadily throughout the first twenty chapters the writer is elate with his youthful memories of the drowsy towns by the river, the old barbaric raftsmen, the pride and power of the ancient race of pilots, and the high art and mystery of piloting those infinitely various waters in the days before the war. The moonlight, one of his characters fancies, was brighter before the war; and he himself, travelled now and acquainted with glory, has experienced, he believes, nothing so satisfying to his inmost sense as his life in that epical calling with its manly rigours, its robust hilarity, its deep, wholesome, unreflective happiness. The spirit that, years before, inspired Emerson’s blandly expressed desire to make Concord and Boston Bay as memorable as the storied places of Europe becomes in these pages clear, strong, resounding: it is the new national pride declaring the spiritual independence of America. Not in peevish envy, with no anxiety about the ultimate answer, out of his knowledge and the depths of his conviction Mark Twain cries: “What are all the rivers of Damascus to the Father of Waters?”