Christened as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835 in the small river town of Florida, Missouri, just 200 miles from Indian Territory. The sixth child of John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton, Twain lived in Florida, Missouri until the age of four, at which time his family relocated to Hannibal in hopes of improving their living situation.
Like the steamboat on which Mark Twain adopted his pen name, the industrial growth that swept America in the latter half of the nineteenth century prompted Americans to react variously with delight, awe, fear, excitement for the future, and nostalgia for a simpler time. The author states “In many ways Twain was a full and eager participant in the dynamic age into which he had matured, an age of machinery and cities, of steam and electricity, of big business, big money, and big schemes.” (Page 7) The author suggests that Twain’s life symbolizes our nation’s dual identity as a nation of frontiers and adventures, and we as a nation of inventors and capitalists. These ideas are perfectly illustrated in the book in two ways.
First, nowhere in the book do we find a more telling example of Twain’s identity as a frontiersman and adventurer than in the story of his trips up and down the Mississippi River as a steamboat captain. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain summarizes what it meant to him to learn the river’s ins and outs, but also what it cost him. As a young boy Mark and his boyhood friends had always dreamed and fantasized of becoming steamboat pilots on the great Mississippi. As a man, Twain was living that dream. In a passage from Life on the Mississippi Twain states,
“When I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a
valuable acquisition.” (Page 36) Twain also shares with the reader the exquisite beauty of the river that was forever engraved on his mind when he states “I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture.” (Page 36) It’s true that Twain saw the beauty in the untouched landscape of America as he travelled the waterway known as the great Mississippi River, but his time as a steamboat captain also had a negative effect on him. Where he once looked at the river through child-like eyes full of innocence and wonder, the steamboat captain now lamented “the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the sage piloting of a steamboat.” (Page 37)
The late 19th century was a time of great expansion for America both in new technologies, inventions and in the business ventures that made a lot of people very wealthy. For all of his love of the river and the frontier, Twain was also a man who enjoyed utilizing these new technologies and inventions of the day. He was well known for being a gambler, a risk taker, and sinking large sums of money from his book royalties into the latest get rich quick scheme. The author shows us this side of Twain, the “industrialized” Mark Twain when we read about Twain’s involvement with James Paige, an inventor, who was convinced he could produce a machine that would automatically set type. Twain was obviously interested in this new invention since he had once worked as a typesetter as young boy, and now since he was a wellestablished writer. Twain was certain this machine would revolutionize the publication industry.
For over fourteen years, he poured money into the project waiting for it to be completed. In all, we learn that Twain invested almost $200,000 in the project before the project failed and Twain was left in financial ruin. The author tells us that Twain “always had faith in the wonders of modern mechanical invention and a boyish eagerness to try out the latest gadget” but in regard to
Paige “the episode accentuated the doubts about…