Coming to Terms with Mark Twain
For a long time now I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the work of Mark Twain. Sure, the books are great, and for many people they form an introduction to the stories and history of the Mississippi River. For too many people and organizations, though, their knowledge starts and stops with Twain. Images of steamboats and freckled barefoot boys convey some important elements of the Mississippi, and appear all over in marketing and promotional literature, but have severe limitations as well. Still, it has always seemed churlish to push “beyond Mark Twain” always, or to find ways to minimize his impact so people can go on to broader, richer, more inclusive stories.
I’ve been reading work recently that in many respects redeems Twain in two important ways. T.S. McMillin’s The Meaning of Rivers points out very clearly that Sam Clemens could not have become Mark Twain without the detailed and immersive education he got as a cub pilot. Only after Clemens really learned to see the river, to look closely and understand its every mood rather than ride skimming along over it, did he have the knowledge he needed to make the Mississippi River central to his work.
The music historian Dennis McNally picks up one of the vital and easily-overlooked threads of Twain’s work when he reminds us of the importance of the river to our understanding of race and music in American history and culture. There’s a lot to quarrel with in McNally’s On Highway 61, and Richard Mizelle’s Backwater Blues is a necessary complement to McNally’s version of events. Taken together, though, we are reminded that we can’t really understand the importance of the Mississippi River without understanding its importance to black life in America.
Even though the Twin Cities is far upstream of the river as depicted in Twain, Mizelle and McNally, the essential truth remains: until we go beyond the easy anecdotes and images, and really learn to see the river and the myriad people for whom it is and has been central to their stories, we won’t really know the Mississippi.