Two Ways of Seeing a River
■ Mark Twain
Samuel L. Clemens (1835–1910), who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri, and raised in Hannibal, Missouri. He wrote the novels Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), as well as many other works of fiction and nonfiction. One of America’s most popular writers, Twain is generally regarded as the most important practitioner of the realis- tic school of writing, a style that emphasizes observable details.
The following passage is taken from Life on the Mississippi (1883), Twain’s study of the great river and his account of his early experiences learning to be a river steamboat pilot. As you read the passage, notice how Twain makes use of figurative lan- guage in describing two very different ways of seeing the Mississippi River.
Reflecting on What You Know
As we age and gain experience, our interpretation of the same memory — or how we view the same scene — can change. For example, the way we view our own appearance changes all the time, and photos from our childhood or teenage years may sur- prise us in the decades that follow. Perhaps something we found amusing in our younger days may make us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed now, or perhaps the house we grew up in later seems smaller or less appealing than it used to. Write about a memory that has changed for you over the years. How does your interpre- tation of it now contrast with how you experienced it earlier?
Now 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. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which
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494 CHAPTER 19 – COMPARISON AND CONTRAST
could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! I still kept in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a soli- tary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings that were as many tinted as an opal;1 where the ruddy flush was faintest was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unob- structed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enrich- ing it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased alto- gether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture and should have com- mented upon it inwardly after this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and cir- cles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night with- out the friendly old landmark?”
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No, 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 safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
Thinking Critically about This Reading
In the opening paragraph, Twain exclaims, “All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!” What is “the poetry,” and why was it lost for him.
This reading comes from
Rosa, A. and Eschholz, P. (2015). Models for writers: Short essays for composition [12th edition] (pp. 493-495). Bedford/St. Martin's.
Twain / Two Ways of Seeing a River 495
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