Selected Sentences from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi


On Books


A few words about an underappreciated piece of reading technology. Talking about underlining in books.

Nobody shows you how to do this, and it’s a pity. You find out quick that if you do it wrong, you ruin the book. If you do it right, though, you create a precious heirloom.

How do you do it right? Use a ruler, for starters. They make little stubby ones for this purpose. Then there’s the question of where exactly the line should go. Should it touch the bottom of the letters on the line, or should you give it a little space there? Depends.

And then there’s the ink. When I was first underlining, I didn’t understand. You can’t use inks that are gonna show through. Also, you probably don’t want the ink’s color to dominate the page. Bloodred ballpoints are usually too much. The effect can be as bad as that of a highlighter. And you can’t use pens with runny noses that are gonna form solid droplets at their tips. You can’t, unless you like big ol’ gobs and smears of ink at the end of each stroke.

Heaven knows not every book asks to be underlined. But heaven is founded on the idea that some books really do demand it. Reading any of these nineteenth-century supremo-supremo novelists without marking the best bits is insanity. You’re going to need those sentences later.

I’m not the first person to point out that the onionskin paper used in the Library of America hardcover series is a bummer. You dare not write anything on those pages. Maybe somebody’s figured out a way to do it without making a mess, but I’ve never been able to. I thought I had found a suitable ink, because the show-through seemed minimal at first, but then later I checked back and was not satisfied. It’s how I wrecked my copy of Mark Twain’s Mississippi Writings.

For years, I longed to replace that copy, but I couldn’t bear to part with the only record I had of my selection of choice sentences, which record I really did consult, from time to time. The problem was compounded when I was driven, much against my will, to the conclusion that the right way to read most if not all of Twain’s writings is by studying the volumes in the Oxford Mark Twain series. And why? Because the Oxfords have all the original illustrations, which, in case after case, are A#1 and not to be missed. The LOA has none of these.

So. When we moved down here to Texas, my library was in crisis. Even after the mother of all purges, we had around two hundred 16 x 16 x 16 boxes of books—i.e., a solid cube the size of a prison cell. One of the items that was purged was my LOA Mississippi Writings, but not before I opened my laptop and transcribed everything I had underlined. It wasn’t that much stuff after all.

In a moment, I’m handing those cherry-picked selections off to you. The page numbers below refer to the vanished LOA edition, so I have no way of checking to see if they’re accurate. Someone in Chicago, I suppose, now owns the very copy I’m talking about, with the original underlinings. To that person I say, Hello and I’m sorry for messing up your copy. I didn’t know what I was doing.

As for the context for the following sentences, you probably don’t need any. Mark Twain was a riverboat pilot? For like a minute? When he was young? Anyway, that’s what he’s talking about. For the reader who examines this selection and finds it as droll and enjoyable as I do, and is consequently wondering if the book is like this, floor to ceiling, I had better say: it isn’t. There are slow parts. There are even parts where you’re like, Enough already. But on the whole, it’s up there with Connecticut Yankee and Innocents Abroad and that kind of thing.


p. 255

My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men and could hang anybody that offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing; but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.

p. 263

About this time Mr. Bixby appeared on the scene. Something like a minute later I was climbing the pilot-house steps with some of my clothes on and the rest in my arms. Mr. Bixby was close behind, commenting. Here was something fresh—this thing of getting up in the middle of the night to go to work.

p. 290

Whar ’n the ——— you goin’ to! Cain’t you see nothin’, you dash-dashed aig-suckin’, sheep-stealin’, one-eyed son of a stuffed monkey!

p. 293

Behind other islands we found wretched little farms, and wretcheder little log-cabins; there were crazy rail fences sticking a foot or two above the water, with one or two jeans-clad, chills-racked, yellow-faced male miserables roosting on the top-rail, elbows on knees, jaws in hands, grinding tobacco and discharging the result at floating chips through crevices left by lost teeth.

p. 331

One more moment later a long array of stage-planks was being hauled in, each with its customary latest passenger clinging to the end of it with teeth, nails, and everything else, and the customary latest procrastinator making a wild spring shoreward over his head.

p. 339

Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.

p. 351

But I was not afraid of him now; so, instead of going, I tarried, and criticized his grammar; I reformed his ferocious speeches for him, and put them into good English, calling his attention to the advantage of pure English over the bastard dialect of Pennsylvanian collieries whence he was extracted.

p. 361

After twenty-one years’ absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there. I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to “take him down,” and started westward about the middle of April.

p. 364

Here was a thing that had not changed; a score of years had not affected this water’s mulatto complexion in the least; a score of centuries would succeed no better, perhaps. It comes out of the turbulent, bank-caving Missouri, and every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution. I got this fact from the bishop of the diocese. If you will let your glass stand half an hour, you can separate the land from the water as easy as Genesis; and then you will find them both good: the one good to eat, the other good to drink.

p. 441

These mosquitoes had been persistently represented as being formidable and lawless; whereas “the truth is, they are feeble, insignificant in size, diffident to a fault, sensitive”—and so on, and so on; you would have supposed he was talking about his family. But if he was soft on the Arkansas mosquitoes, he was hard enough on the mosquitoes of Lake Providence to make up for it …

p. 460

Bracketed over what-not—place of special sacredness—an outrage in water-color, done by the young niece that came on a visit long ago, and died. Pity, too; for she might have repented of this in time.

p. 479

The adoption of cremation would relieve us of a muck of threadbare burial-witticisms; but, on the other hand, it would resurrect a lot of mildewed old cremation-jokes that have had a rest for two thousand years.

p. 481

But you used to look sad and oldish; you don’t now. Where did you get all this youth and bubbling cheerfulness? Give me the address.

p. 481

Go-way! How you talk!

p. 493

I was not sorry, for war talk by men who have been in a war is always interesting; whereas moon talk by a poet who has not been in the moon is likely to be dull.

p. 497–98

Two red-hot steamboats raging along, neck-and-neck, straining every nerve—that is to say, every rivet in the boilers—quaking and shaking and groaning from stem to stern, spouting white steam from the pipes, pouring black smoke from the chimneys, raining down sparks, parting the river into long breaks of hissing foam—this is sport that makes a body’s very liver curl in enjoyment.

p. 507

The sail up the breezy and sparkling river was a charming experience, and would have been satisfyingly sentimental and romantic but for the interruptions of the tug’s pet parrot, whose tireless comments upon the scenery and the guests were always this-worldly, and often profane. He had also a superabundance of the discordant, ear-splitting, metallic laugh common to his breed,—a machine-made laugh, a Frankenstein laugh, with the soul left out of it. He applied it to every sentimental remark, and to every pathetic song.

p. 514

The off-watch turned out with alacrity, and left the bear in sole possession. He presently grew lonesome, and started out for recreation. He ranged the whole boat—visited every part of it, with an advance guard of fleeing people in front of him and a voiceless vacancy behind him; and when his owner captured him at last, those two were the only visible beings anywhere; everybody else was in hiding, and the boat was a solitude.

p. 549

If the Model Boy was in either of these Sunday-schools, I did not see him. The Model Boy of my time—we never had but the one—was perfect: perfect in manners, perfect in dress, perfect in conduct, perfect in filial piety, perfect in exterior godliness; but at bottom he was a prig; and as for the contents of his skull, they could have changed place with the contents of a pie and nobody would have been the worse off for it but the pie.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.