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In this essay, I will analyze an excerpt from Mark Twain’s classic memoir, Life on the Mississippi in which he describes his experience as a steamboat pilot on the 2000-mile stretch of the Mississippi river. In this particular excerpt, Two Views of the Mississippi, Twain expresses the complex phenomenon of losing appreciation of a subject after gaining some knowledge and experience on it. As a result of working continuously in the steamboat on someone’s payroll, the author is astonished at his failure to appreciate the marvelous qualities of the great river since he was being desensitized to its charms.
Thesis Statement: Cause-effect analysis
In order to argue the predicament faced by Twain, I shall argue using the following cause-effect analysis structure which will constitute the thesis statement of this essay. No matter how much excitement a subject holds, a person can easily become desensitized to its magical charms once he’s over-familiar with various nuances and details.
The Mississippi river, is allegorical to the human tendency of getting bored with something which used to seem worthwhile in the beginning. In the opening passage, Twain expresses this quandary through a simple message,
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and has 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 could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! (Twain, 2004, 28).
Twain tries to suggest that the human tendency to be concerned with the technical aspects of a phenomenon is the most Neanderthal aspect of our personalities, and it’s important that we do not give up on that initial romance which brings our close attention to a particular subject.
As a result, Twain comments on the subtle beauties held by nature which he saw in his nostalgic encounters with the Mississippi river. In the past, as a mere traveler on the steamboat, he saw interesting phenomena such as “dissolving lights in the sunset”, “graceful curves”, “reflected images”, “woody heights”, “soft distances” and “marvels of coloring” in the river (Twain, 2006, 29). Indeed, the author used to stand by the river and withhold its subtle charms in “a speechless rapture” (Twain, 2006, 29). Those were the nostalgic days!
Now, in his present avatar, the author is much more concerned about the safe piloting of the steamboat rather than the bewitching beauty which he felt used to personify the river. He’s disappointed with himself for losing appreciation of one of the few images from life which would qualify as “pristine”, “pure” and “wholesome” (Twain, 2006, 30). In place of all the exquisiteness and gorgeousness, he now sees an ugly river which could damage his boat and drown all passengers. Twain expresses his new observations on the river in the following words:
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 think with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface, but to the pilot that was an italicized passage. (Twain, 2006, 30).
Finally, Twain summarizes his contempt for this change of outlook on something which he had great appreciation for in the past as:
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? (Twain, 2006, 30).
Indeed, if the river can be assumed as the personification of all the good and noble things in life, by Twain’s reckoning, it would seem plausible that we lose appreciation of these good things by resorting to our savage-like tendencies to restrict ourselves to observing technical details, while losing stock of the poetry in nature.
This wasn’t the first time Twain used the river as an allegorical metaphor to describe the human tendency to overlook the beauties of nature. In his best-selling classic novel, Huckleberry Finn, where the protagonist Huck is drawn to the embraces of the great Mississippi river, the character is shown to be more concerned with his own escape plans rather than notice the beauties surrounding the river. In both readings, Twain has tried to suggest in an allegorical way that most of us move so fast in our lives, concerned with our daily occupations that we fail to notice the subtle charms of life, just as he did with the magnificent Mississippi river.
In conclusion, Twain believes human beings deprive themselves of ever-lasting memories and brilliant recollections by concentrating on the transient nature of other things. It is very important that we do not become desensitized to wonderful things that we see in life’s journey.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. New York, NY: Bantam Classics, 2004.