”Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain is a memoir of his education as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Travel from St. Louis to New Orleans in this lesson of expanded horizons that helped to further define Mark Twain’s literary career.

Mark Twain Meets the Mighty Mississippi

Between the bindings of the book Life on the Mississippi, you will find a personal account of Mark Twain’s adventures on the Mississippi River, first as a novice steamboat pilot and then as a passenger chronicling his own observations of the happenings from St. Louis to New Orleans. Within more than 600 pages that are divided into sixty chapters, Mark Twain’s realistic, down-to-earth views of everything he sees transform a singular river into an entire world of its own.

Historical Notations

Mark Twain begins his tale of river adventures by touching on the history of the Mississippi River and its discovery in 1542. Of particular importance is the fact that he characterizes the river much as he would a person, with a definitive purpose and an animated role in life. Twain calls to the reader’s attention the fact that the Mississippi River, in the early years of its discovery, was not considered to be more than a naturally-formed body of water. Its significance as a major venue for both the travel and the trade industries was not utilized until the settlement of the American West began to expand.

Living the Dream

During his childhood in Missouri, Mark Twain dreamed of navigating a steamboat on his beloved river and, as an older boy, he is able to realize his wish by training with Bixby, who teaches him in spite of Twain’s difficulties in learning. After the many unsuccessful attempts at finding a captain willing to take him on as an apprentice, Twain agrees to give Bixby five hundred dollars upon completion of the training. By trial and error, Mark Twain learns enough to become a licensed pilot and, by training on various steamboats with many different pilots (all chosen by Bixby), he also receives a well-rounded education in everyday life on the Mississippi River.

Taking a Trip

Twenty-one years later, Mark Twain writes of his steamboat trip on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, revealing that he had held many jobs during that time frame before becoming a writer: mining silver and gold, reporting for a newspaper, working as a foreign correspondent, and teaching. Accompanied by both a poet and a stenographer, Twain records his daily observations, such as various tourist attractions, political views, and the manners in which people dress, speak, and behave. Rounding out his trip with a visit to his childhood home in Hannibal Missouri, Twain adds a few tall tales of his adventures with friends to his narrative before recording his journeys to both Chicago and New York, where his 5,000-mile trip ends.


Two themes that are present throughout the entire book are travel and progress. Most of Twain’s journeys occur on steamboats, so the bulk of his observations during the first half of the story come from everyday life aboard the ship. During the second half, he is a passenger as opposed to a trainee, so Mark Twain has more time to take in his surroundings as the ship sails and as stops are made in between the departure and arrival points. He writes about everything he sees, including people and lifestyles, which indicates a great deal of human interest on Twain’s part. Progress is evident from beginning to end, starting with the Mississippi River itself and ending with Mark Twain’s visit to his childhood home. His reminiscences provide insight into the boy that he once was and also into the man that he later became. As he realizes a childhood dream, travels extensively, and recalls his youth, we are given entrance to the inner Twain; he was a boy named Sam who used the vast reaches of his imagination, hard work, and love of learning to make his dreams come true.

Lesson Summary

Life on the Mississippi, a work of literature that is both historical and personal in context, immediately begins with Mark Twain’s love of and respect for the Mississippi River. By bestowing human characteristics upon this body of water, he reiterates its history reverently and proudly; he learns to pilot its waters with great care and specific detail. Travel, a theme that is also present in many of Twain’s other literary works, is abundant in this one as well. His attention to and inclusion of details chronicling his journeys demonstrates his enjoyment of and fondness for broadening his horizons through his apparent wanderlust. Another obvious theme in this book is that of progress, both personal and geographical. Closely observing his surroundings during his trip from St. Louis to New Orleans and during his visit to his childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain is able to note the changes that have come about since his last visit. Through his dreams, adventures, mistakes, and triumphs, we are permitted much the same view of Mark Twain’s personal growth as well.