Twain’s effective strategies
Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is a story that follows a chronological order from beginning to end. The first chapter of the book begins with the historical background of the Mississippi River, which is the main focus of the story. The reason for providing the background information of the river is to let the reader have a better understanding of Twain’s delight and awe that catches his imagination. Moreover, Twain uses effective strategies such as detailed description, verbal irony, and comparative devices to relate his own experience on the Mississippi River to the audience.
Throughout the story Twain grabs the reader’s attention through his detailed description of the different experiences that take place on the river. In chapter four, Twain describes a town before and after the steamboat arrives.
“The white towns 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 walls?.but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi?”(21).
Twain’s use of thorough description provides the reader with many details about the scene. The purpose of the details is to add the flow of the sentence, thus enabling the reader to resemble a concrete picture in their own minds. Later on in the paragraph the description drastically changes when the steamboat draws nearer to the dock.
“Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those remote ‘points’; instantly a negro drayman, famous for this quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, ‘Steamboat a coming’ 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” (22).
When the scene changes from a calm and relaxed morning to frantic excitement, not only does the description changes, but the sentence structure changes as well. The description of the steamboat arriving to the town contains more subjects and verbs; thus this makes the sentences more choppy and concise rather than long and flowing detailed descriptions. The shorter sentences have a different purpose than the longer sentences. The shorter sentences describe the action that is taking place and at the same time, it also brings out the atmosphere and the intensity the village people are going through. On the other hand, the longer sentences describe more in depth of the scenery and the people in the town. The different sentence structure devices transform the scene, and move it in a forward direction. This change allows the reader to mentally picture Twain’s experiences.
In the beginning of the story, Twain recounts the historical background of the Mississippi and the different explorers during the time period. In order to re-tell history, Twain uses verbal irony and humor in chapter four to amuse the reader.
“La Salle himself sued for certain high privileges, and they were graciously accorded him by Louis XIV of inflated memory. Chief among them was the privilege to explore, far and wide, and build forts, and stake out continents, and hand the same over to the king, and pay the expenses himself; receiving, in return, some little advantages of one sort or another; among them the monopoly of buffalo-hides” (6).
“In fact, all around, religion was in a peculiarly blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being called; the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burning, with a free hand; elsewhere on the Continent the nations were being persuaded to holy living by the sword and fire…”(4).
This passage is filled with Twain’s humorous descriptions of kings, religions, and explorers. In order to make the dull history more exciting, Twain uses his wit to lighten up the historical background of the text. His technique allows the reader to smile at his blunt and ironic humor. Twain’s humor is considered to be ironic because of the satire he uses to write the history. When the reader hears the historical facts of the Spanish Inquisition being described as roasting and racking and burning of free land, the reader begins to look at the history from a different perspective.
Twain also uses comparison and contrast to help the reader identify with his points. Generally, most people are not familiar with the operation of steamboats, and especially the skill required to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. Due to the lack of knowledge on the part of his readers, Twain compares the memorization required in order to operate a steamboat, to the time and effort it would take to learn all of the streets in New York.
“If you will take the longest street in New York, and travel up and down it, conning its features patiently until you know every house and window and lamppost and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at random?.and keep up with these repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what is required of a pilot’s peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi” (64).
The reader can understand the connection Twain is trying to make, without actually having any experience with steamboats.
In another passage, Twain compares the monotonous yelling of the leadsman, “Half twain! Half twain! Half twain! Half Twain!” (65) to a conversation with a friend.
“If you were walking and talking with a friend, and another friend at your side kept up a monotonous repetition of the vowel sound A, for a couple of blocks, and then in the midst interjected and R, thus, A, A, A, A, A, R, A, A, A, etc., and gave the R no emphasis, you would not be able to state, two or three weeks afterward, that the R had been put in, nor be able to tell what objects you were passing at the moment it was done. But you could if your memory had
been patiently and laboriously trained to do that sort of thing mechanically” (65).
Not only does Twain compare the knowledge and astute observance needed to be a steamboat pilot, but he also uses the word “you” in both comparisons. By using the word “you”, it personalizes the example given so that the reader can easily identify with Twain’s comparison. Moreover, the author’s purpose in using the word “you” is to directly address the reader in order to draw the reader’s attention.
Life on the Mississippi not only reminiscences about the industrial eras when steamboats where popular, but it also combines the humorous anecdotes of the adventures of Mark Twain on the Mississippi. In order to engage his readers, Twain uses detailed descriptions, verbal irony and comparison and contrast to re-tell history so his readers can relate to his own experiences.