Chicago In Novels: Life on the Mississippi

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Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s two-part memoir of his adventures as a steamboat pilot along the Mississippi River as a young man, published simultaneously in the US and UK in 1883 (James R. Osgood & Co, Boston and Chatto & Windus, London, respectively). Though Twain wrote often of his many experiences on and along the Mississippi, it is this work widely regarded as the most detailed description of the river and the day to day tasks in a life spent upon a steamboat. It also holds a lovely little paragraph about Chicago, which, really, still read so hopeful and accurate in the present:

“We struck the home train now, and in a few hours were in that
astonishing Chicago– a city where they are always rubbing the lamp,
fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new
impossibilities. It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to
keep up with Chicago– she outgrown his prophecies faster than he can
make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you
saw when you passed through last time.”

Life on the Mississippi opens with a brief historical backstory of Hernando de Soto’s discovery of the river in the 1540s and continues along, describing Twain’s experiences aboard the steamboat and of negotiating the unpredictable river itself. Later, the book chronicles Twain’s revisiting travel along the Mississippi, as he goes, again by steamboat, from St. Louis to New Orleans, and it is in this section Twain describes the imploding steamboat industry as a result of strife between steamboat pilot unions and the boat owners, and from increasing competition from the railroad industry.

Also interestingly, Life on the Mississippi is said to be the first book written on a typewriter.

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