Posts Tagged With: Mark Twain


Mississippi River

Lately I’ve been following Mark Twain down the river in the book Life on the Mississippi.  So far it’s not so much an adventure as a lesson in riverboat piloting, though Twain does introduce some great characters along the way.  I am struck by his comment that once a pilot learns every inch of the river – the placement of the bends, the height of the banks, the location of plantations – and how they will change as the course and flow of the river moves, he loses sight of the river’s glories: “All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” (95).  As a steamboat pilot in training, Twain’s place of dreams had become his office.  A note of sadness echoes through his words.

Even so, through his increased knowledge, Twain was able to relate his experience to his readers more fully and in a way that takes us with him on the journey, not merely paints a general image of the beauty he sees.  With this knowledge he tells of  “the alluvial banks [that] cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest” (97).    This path from pursuing a dream to learning the usefulness of the associated trade is a path many must take to grow.  Remaining at the awe-filled stage of wonder might provide an impetus to follow one’s dream. Who would ever become a doctor if the first thing they experienced was the grind of medical school?  However, some of that initial awe must be converted to actual work in the muck before any use can come of it.

Those initial images and passion may draw us to a new story, just as the river drew Twain.  And if we’re honest, the reality of what it takes to know that story more deeply does change our original understandings, often removing some of the sparkle as we see the under-workings.  But if we look well, we also see new riches.  I have often feared that if I know too much about a subject, it will lose its attraction.  This was the argument I had for not studying literature in college.  Professors would ruin the stories I loved and I wanted to hold onto the feelings of my first readings.  Yet, when I finally entered a literature class, theories of reading and interpretation did not destroy my interest, they provided a deeper understanding.  Furthermore, I gained a language to talk about what I was reading with others. Yes, some of the joy of just sitting down with a book without constantly thinking about it from a critical stance was gone.  But, I had gained a larger community.

So, in the spirit of Mark Twain, I would encourage you to go into piloting.  Learn the course of the river you are on and share it with others.

Twain, Mark.  Life on the Mississippi.  New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Categories: Journey Living, Readings | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Day in Hannibal

Mark Twain's Childhood Home

Last summer I was antsy to undertake another pilgrimage.  I wanted to fly over to England again and relish the passion of the moors or maybe follow the steps of Martin Luther in Germany.  But that wasn’t to be.  Lack of time caught up with me.  But I did manage a quick three-day get away to Missouri where I ventured to the homes of two iconic American authors – Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

For the past years, much of my focus had been on planting myself at home and learning this thing called campus ministry.  Unfortunately, this has led me to forgo one of the practices that has given renewed energy to my life – pilgrimage.  I’m not sure why I do this – bare knuckle my way through an activity because I think I should, while ignoring other parts of life.  Maybe I fear that if I allow any type of enjoyment into my schedule, I’ll give up practical work for foolish ventures.  However, often these foolish ventures provide the impetus, and even wisdom, for the practical.

So back to my latest pilgrimage.  I left on a Thursday afternoon to reach Hannibal, Missouri, on the shores of the Mississippi River.  I’ve enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s works, but have never really studied him.  One day in Hannibal wasn’t going to change that, but I thought it would help me to get back on track with my story.  The evening was wonderful as I walked through this small town, gorged on Italian food, hiked up to the lighthouse, gazed at the flooding river, and listened to an outdoor concert.  This was definitely a small town kind of evening and I allowed myself to just enjoy it as I was drawn into the interplay of people and place.

The next morning I made my way over to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.  When I stepped in, a rush of familiarity overcame me as I entered this literary site.  The museum was softly lit with well-produced displays covering the life of Mark Twain.  Immediately I started reading the words on the walls, looking at the copies of his books, and picturing the life that had made this writer.  I walked outside to the small Huckleberry Finn house and finally entered Mark Twain’s boyhood home.  The rooms had to be viewed from the distance of a plexi-glass divider, but I still got a sense of the life lived here.  Images of family life interspersed with lines from Twain’s works created a connection between the boy and the future writer.

Overlooking Hannibal

Of course the tour exited through the museum shop, and I loaded up on books to familiarize myself more with this writer – particularly his travel writings.  Striking out on adventures and telling childhood stories, even embellished ones, drove Twain’s life.  Did it make the stories he told a lie?  Not necessarily.  It helped direct and provide meaning to his life.  As a reader I was content to listen and be drawn into the adventures whether along the Mississippi (Huckleberry Finn) or in Egypt (The Innocents Abroad). These stories contain wonderful hijinx that show the characters relishing life.  I ended my time with lunch in a former bordello – still with a musty smell of a well-lived place – and a milkshake from Becky Thatcher’s Sweet Shoppe.

No literary breakthroughs here.  I can’t say I deeply connected with any of the stories.  Yet, I found myself moving toward pilgrimage again as I engaged with the stories of the place.  I even started to recall those my own from childhood.  Stories of enticing neighborhood kids to our porch with a set of building blocks, playing dolls with friends during summer breaks, and building forts with furniture and sheets on snow days.  It was a breath of fresh air that helped me break from the rut I had been creating.  Let’s play.

Categories: Literary Pilgrimages | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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