Robert McCrum at the British newspaper the Guardian offers his pick of Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi for number 56 in the 100 best nonfiction books.
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient.”
Here is the unmistakable voice of America’s greatest and most original, prose writer describing the childhood that would inspire his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mark Twain (for it is he) goes on:
“When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had the hope that, if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn, but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.”
Life on the Mississippi is not just the brilliant sketch that precedes the vaster and more colourful canvas of a celebrated novel, it expresses the heart and soul of Samuel Clemens, the alter ego of Mark Twain. Alongside The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872), this tour de force of unreliable reportage, spliced with travel, history and memoir, provides a deep insight into Huckleberry Finn as well as a key to its author and his outrageous originality. As his most recent biographer, Ron Powers, has put it: “Twain’s way of seeing and hearing things changed America’s way of seeing and hearing things. He was the Lincoln of American literature.”
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