Deep Water

A review of Deep Water: The Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain (LSU Press, 2019) by Thomas Ruys Smith

In Deep Water: the Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain prominent Mississippi River scholar Thomas Ruys Smith examines the literature surrounding the Mississippi River from the late 19th to the early 20th Century. Smith analyzes Mississippi River literature through the lens of the life and writings of Mark Twain. To readers with a casual knowledge of Twain and his writings, the great author and humorist is an American original who toiled “in a virgin field,” carving out a literary niche by writing about the Mississippi and the river culture that flourished along its banks. In fact, Twain himself promoted that notion when he wrote “ By a series of accidents—I was the only one who wrote about old times on the Mississippi. Wherever else I have been some better have been there before and will come after, but the Mississippi was a virgin field…”(2). However, in this volume, Smith argues and successfully makes the case that far from toiling “in a virgin field,” Twain entered into a subject area in which many had already made or were making their marks. Instead of standing alone astride the Mississippi, Twain joined other well-known figures in writing about the great river: such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great statesman John Hay, and many others who all opined on the meaning and importance of the Mississippi in American life. And like the various tributaries that make up the Mississippi, the other authors that have written about the great river all have added to the depth of its literature. As Smith points out, each voice adds to the rich tapestry that makes up our collective image of the Mississippi River. Twain’s voice was the loudest and most familiar, but it is not alone in shaping our collective image of what the Mississippi means. By successfully placing Twain’s writings in to the larger context of Mississippi River literature, Smith provides his readers with a fuller picture of the subject than previous scholars.

Each chapter of Deep Water centers on Twain’s major writings on the river. In chapter 1, Smith analyzes the meaning of the Mississippi River in the era of Reconstruction through the lens of Twain’s first great writings on the river, the novel The Gilded Age (1873) and Old Times on the Mississippi, (1875) (a series of seven articles on the river that originally appeared in the Atlantic). In doing so, Smith compares Twain’s writings to that of other authors of the era and draws out major themes on the subject. Some of those themes include: the river as a symbol of reunion after the Civil War, and feelings of nostalgia for antebellum river life that was destroyed in the cataclysm of the War Between the States. Central to the theme of nostalgia was Twain’s longing for his past life as a riverboat pilot. Twain left that occupation and struck out for the west at the outbreak of the Civil War. By the time he began writing about the river, railroads had superseded steamboats in commercial significance and heralded the end of the steamboat era.  In fleshing out this narrative, Smith draws on other works such as the writings of Twain’s friend and author William Dean Howells, the poetry of diplomat John Hay, and even the art of Currier and Ives.

Just as the river is always changing course, so was its meaning to Twain and the other writers who dipped their pens into its waters. Chapter 2 examines the meaning of the river through the perspective of one on Twain’s most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). In analyzing the importance of Tom Sawyer to river literature, Smith makes comparisons with contemporary adventure books for boys such as Harry Castlemon’s Frank on the Lower Mississippi, (1867) and Mayne Reid’s The Desert Home: The Adventures of a Lost Family in the Wilderness (1851). Like Twain’s Tom Sawyer, these works examined common themes of adventure, mischievous boyhood, masculinity, maturation, and seeing rivers as a connection to outside world. In analyzing Tom Sawyer, Smith points out that while Twain borrowed certain themes from earlier adventure books, he also put his own twist on the genre, often lampooning the moral lessons those earlier stories taught.

Chapter 3 of Deep Water focuses on one of Twain’s darker interpretation of the river through examining his hybrid history and travel account, Life on the Mississippi (1883). Twain wrote this work after a long anticipated return to the Mississippi River following a decades long absence. In analyzing Life on the Mississippi, Smith compares it to contemporary European travelogues such as Ernst Von Hesse-Wartegg’s Mississippi-Fahrten which describes the river as “the most sinister, the most perfidious river in the world” (131). Common themes that emerge from these writings are change, death, and the loss of childhood innocence. Twain’s return visit to the river had a powerful effect on him as he noted during his travels on the river that he “had a great deal of talk about the river and the steam boat men, most of whom are now dead.” He also commented that “ I found the river was as brand new to me as if it had been built yesterday and built while I was absent” (143). Another major theme included in the writings of the time was the inability of man to harness or control the river. Therefore, the picture that emerges is one of an eternally present river that is constantly changing, regardless of the whims of man.

The fourth chapter of the book views the river through the lens of what is perhaps Twain’s most famous work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In this chapter, Smith examines themes of race, and unresolved tension over the impacts of slavery and emancipation. Other major themes that emerge are the river symbolizing escape and adventure. In analyzing these themes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Smith makes comparisons to contemporary writings such as George Washington Cable’s “The Freedman’s Case in Equality,” and slave narratives by William Wells Brown and Josiah Henson. Smith argues that Twain was familiar with those sources and incorporated them into his image of Jim, the runaway slave that joins Huck Finn on his “adventures.” However, unlike Brown and Henson, Twain’s portrayal of a runaway slave stops short of giving full agency to Jim, but rather devolves into minstrelsy, undercutting “serious considerations of Jim’s humanity beyond qualities stereotypically attributed to the noble savage” (194).

The last chapter of the book examines the Mississippi River through Twain’s final major statement on the subject in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Major themes covered in this chapter are race, crime, corruption, and the lasting tensions of inequality. The chapter also focuses on the culture of roustabouts, unskilled black laborers who worked along the river and on steamboats. In examining these themes, Smith compares Pudd’nhead Wilson to roustabout songs from the era such as “Stagolee” and “The Bully,” which focus on gambling, violence, drunkenness, and murder along the Mississippi. Smith also makes thematic comparisons to dime store novels such as Colonel Prentiss Ingraham’s Darkie Dan, the Colored Detective and The Mississippi Mystery. Smith argues that in exploring these themes, Twain stripped the Mississippi River of nostalgia and focused on a darker image of “underworlds and undertows,” where Twain’s disillusionment with river life is evident.

On the whole, Thomas Ruys Smith’s Deep Water provides readers with a fuller picture of late 19th Century Mississippi River literature than that of authors who have only examined and analyzed Twain’s works. In examining the lesser known writings of the time and comparing them to Twain’s famous writings on the river, Smith includes great details about Twain’s life, so that the book becomes part Twain biography, part literary analysis, and part Mississippi River history. And in analyzing the themes of Twain’s contemporaries, Smith successfully shows that Twain often adopted themes from other writers, and in other cases he utterly rejected and skewered them. But these other writings always influenced Twain’s works, belying the claim that Twain was working in a “virgin field.” Thus by incorporating these other accounts of the Mississippi into the picture of Twain’s Mississippi, Smith presents Mississippi River as a rich multi-textured gumbo of thought whose denseness rivals that of the mud of the Mississippi. In doing so, Deep Water succeeds in its chief aims. However, at times, the literary analysis gets a bit dense and occasionally seems to wander off track. Due to that issue, this scholarly book is not recommended for the uninitiated. However, for those that are well-versed in Twain’s writings or other literature on the Mississippi, Deep Water is an enjoyable read.

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