Mark Twain's Mississippi

Mark Twain's Life and Works

by Gregg Camfield, University of California, Merced

The Mississippi River Valley is not identical with Mark Twain's Mississippi Valley. From a strictly physical point of view, the River has a number of headwaters ranging from the Continental Divide in the West to the Crest of the Appalachians in the East, all of which tend toward the great central channel, which bisects a lowland that ranges from Minnesota in the North to the Gulf of Mexico.

The basin encompasses prairies, deserts, rain forests, coniferous forests, deciduous forests, swamps, mountains, glacial moraines, and climates ranging from the deep winters of Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, to the nearly tropical climate of Southern Louisiana. There is natural diversity enough to capture the interest of science, and any number of geographical resources can describe the physical reality of the Mississippi Basin.

But Mark Twain's Mississippi is a human place, where the physical environment symbolized both a personal and a national history, where nature appeared alternately as a nurturing parent or as indifferent testing ground, where the river manifested either the flow of virtue or repository of vice, where human ingenuity found a fitting adversary and collaborator, where the water carried a commerce that promised wealth and threatened poverty, where one's ability to read signs meant all the difference between success and failure–which all too often meant annihilation. And while Mark Twain may be our best known artist of the river's human meaning, his was but one voice in a chorus that, to this day, sees a symbolic quality in “America's Heartland.” When Twain came to our world in it, it was still America's frontier, an equally evocative, though quite different symbolic place.