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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 16 Mar 2015 08:14:46 -0500
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 The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by M. L.

_Mark Twain's Mississippi River: An Illustrated Chronicle of the Big River
in Samuel Clemens's Life and Works_. By Peter Schilling, Jr. Voyageur
Press, 2014. Pp. 176. Cloth. $30. ISBN 978-0-7603-4550-4.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
M. L. Christmas

Copyright (c) 2015 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

The cover artwork of _Mark Twain's Mississippi River_ immediately attracts
the eye: John Stobart's "Hannibal, A View from Mark Twain's Boyhood Home in
1841," a riverfront scene that inspired young Samuel Clemens and still
captures imaginations today. Just inside the book, on the copyright page,
what catches the attention of a Mark Twain Forum reader is the fact that R.
Kent Rasmussen is listed, in small typeface, as the Photo Editor. Also in
the fine print is the URL for Voyageur Press. A visit to the website
reveals it is a publisher focusing on works devoted to an "appreciation and
preservation of American heritage...[including] regional topics."
Schilling's book is an ideal fit.

The Contents section of this book lists an Introduction, followed by six
chapters, then a Bibliography and an Index, and concluding with the
customary "About the Author" blurb.

The book's first chapter, "The Early History of the River and the Dawn of
Steamboating," gives an overview of the explorations by de Soto, Marquette,
Joliet, La Salle, and possibly by an earlier Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. It
touches upon the fact that Henry Schoolcraft, "led by an Anishinabe guide
named Ozawindib," identified Lake Itasca as the Mississippi's headwaters,
that source later confirmed by Jacob V. Brower (p. 16). The book also notes
the common perception of "the river's human history almost solely in terms
of its relationship with European settlers" while enumerating the Native
American tribes the "white European settlers encountered and eventually
displaced--the Sioux and the Illini...the Chickasaw...the Quapaw, Natchez,
Choctaw, and Tunica--many of whom ran afoul of de Soto, who was credited
with the river's 'discovery'" (p. 21). The mind-bending Army Corps of
Engineers map, on p. 19, of "the twisting braid of channels [that]
perfectly illustrates Twain's description of the river's behavior," is not
to be missed. In addition to rare maps, also throughout the book are color
reproductions of lithographs by Henry Lewis and oil paintings by artists
such as George F. Fuller, William Henry Powell, and George Caleb Bingham.

Chapter 2 focuses on "Mark Twain's Early Life and Times" and features an
array of antique, colored postcards depicting Hannibal, from the collection
of R. Kent Rasmussen. The reviewer particularly appreciated the photographs
captured by the camera lens of Rasmussen himself. The images lend a
personal touch to the book and demonstrate to the reader that some aspects
of those old times on the Mississippi can still be encountered today. An
insider "bonus" from Rasmussen will be found on p. 45: two cave-tour images
taken during the 2011 "Mark Twain's Hannibal: The Clemens Conference."
Those in Twaindom will spot some familiar faces in that tour group.

Chapter 3, "Mark Twain's Steamboating Years," is illustrated with
reproductions of numerous color lithographs and paintings, including works
from Currier & Ives, illustrations from _Life on the Mississippi_, and more
postcards from the Rasmussen collection. Also featured is an 1859
lithograph by A. Janicke & Co. (p. 77), described as a "Bird's eye view of
Saint Louis, Missouri," depicting several steamboats, including the _Edward
J. Gay_, which Samuel Clemens piloted in 1859. One wishes the significance
of the _Edward J. Gay_ had been noted in the narrative. As it stands, it
appears to be the book's only visual representation of a steamer associated
with Clemens's piloting career.

Chapter 4 addresses Mark Twain's tour of the Mississippi in 1882 and his
writing of _Life on the Mississippi_. This section is illustrated with
reproductions of historical paintings, illustrations from _Life on the
Mississippi_, and even a sample of Rasmussen's artistic talent for color
tinting rare black-and-white photographs (p. 104).

Chapter 5 discusses the Mississippi as depicted in _Tom Sawyer_,
_Huckleberry Finn_ and _Pudd'nhead Wilson_. According to Schilling: "In
these three books, the Mississippi River is as essential as any character:
it serves as a playground for children, a highway to freedom for one man,
and the road to a living hell for others.... All three use the river to
drive their narrative, but the waterway in question is profoundly different
in the novels as compared to the (mostly) nonfiction narrative [of _Life on
the Mississippi_] (p. 127)." This chapter also features illustrations from
first editions, photographs of rare postcards, stamps, movie stills, and a
rare book-cover of an early edition of _Tom Sawyer_ from the Rasmussen

Chapter 6, "Twain's Legacy and the River Since His Time," brings back the
Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Mississippi River Commission, the
National Park Service, and photos of bridges, gates, levees, locks, dams.
The "Twain's Legacy" component of the chapter? Among other heartening
statements is this one, per the Mark Twain Project's Benjamin Griffin, that
"the _Autobiography of Mark Twain_ is [the] most popular book the
University of California Press, with a history of more than a hundred
years, has ever published" (p. 165).

Among the book's shortcomings is the evidence of inadequate copyediting
throughout and the resulting stylistic inconsistencies. Also, the lack of
footnotes or endnotes makes it often impossible for the reader to sort-out
where the author's own voice stops and where those of his paraphrased
sources start.

A more diligent proofreading effort would have caught a number of errors.
William Dean Howells is termed "the doyenne of East Coast literary
journals" (p. 11). The gender-bending error may have been Schilling's
attempt at paraphrasing the familiar appellation of Howells as the "Dean of
American Letters." Even when excerpts have presumably been pasted-in
directly from electronic versions of Mark Twain's writings, errors have
crept in. For instance, Mark Twain's "vague riband of trees," in _The
Gilded Age_, is quoted as "vague ribald of trees" (p. 37).

A significant factual error is that Schilling perpetuates a previous,
debatable scholarship claim that for a time in 1857, Clemens "had hopes of
opening up a cocaine trade," even though the adjoining direct-quotation
from Clemens plainly and correctly states he simply "had a longing to open
up a trade in coca with all the world" (p. 65). Schilling then describes
Mark Twain's entrepreneurial plans: "From [New Orleans], he would board a
ship that would take him to South America and become the king of the
cocaine trade in the United States."

Schilling's source is likely two works by Ron Powers that are listed in the
Bibliography. Powers wrote, "The idea of Samuel Clemens turning Keokuk,
Iowa, into the mid-19th-century cocaine capital of America has its
irresistible nutty appeal, but it was not to be" (Powers, _Mark Twain: A
Life_, p. 72). Powers also asserted, "The 'product' that had Sam so
intrigued, of course, was cocaine; once again he seemed astrally connected
to the predilections of the century to come" (Powers, _Dangerous Water_, p.

The editors of the Mark Twain Project, in _Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1_,
p. 68, n.7, provide the most thorough explanation, and they point to the
book _Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, Made under Direction of the
Navy Department_ (1853-54), in two volumes, by William Lewis Herndon and
Lardner Gibbon, as being Clemens's source of inspiration. In a 1910 essay,
"The Turning Point of My Life," Clemens recalled that the book "told an
astonishing tale about coca, a vegetable product of miraculous powers;
asserting that it was so nourishing and so strength-giving that the native
of the mountains of the Madeira region would tramp up-hill and down all day
on a pinch of powdered coca and require no other sustenance." As a result,
Clemens "was fired with a longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with a longing
to open up a trade in coca with all the world" (MTL-1, p. 68). Clemens's
early fascination with the possibilities of coca is not unlike his later
fascination with, and investment in, the food supplement Plasmon.

German chemist Albert Niemann did not isolate and purify coca's stimulating
ingredient, and dub it "cocaine," until 1860; and any derivative medicinal
products did not begin to reach the market until the early to mid-1860s.
Prior to that, a product termed "cocaine" during the decade of the 1850s
was one marketed by Joseph Burnett: a hair-growth product made from
cocoa-nut oil. To imply Mark Twain's 1850s coca fancy was related to a
refined drug trade is both incorrect and historically impossible.
Unfortunately, what began as a whimsical and entertaining description by
Ron Powers has continued to find its way into Mark Twain biography as
historical fact.

Relatively little is said about Peter Schilling, Jr., on the back
jacket-flap or in his biographical paragraph. This appears to be his first
venture into Mark Twain biography. With more diligent editorial oversight,
his book could have been much better. Overall, Schilling's text is aimed
toward the casual reader, and that individual will likely be fully
satisfied. Those readers with more extensive knowledge of Mark Twain
biography, however, will wish he had taken the opportunity to provide more
insights that could have easily been included. For example, John Marshall
Clemens's legal study, law practice, or service as a justice of the peace
of Hannibal is never mentioned. The general reader is thus left with the
impression that Mark Twain's father was simply a failed dry-goods merchant,
unless they should happen to pay close attention to Rasmussen's photo of
the Justice of the Peace office on p. 38.

_Mark Twain's Mississippi River_ is still effective as a portrait of the
river's history: It made this reviewer miss living near the Miss'. I lived
for about two years in Hannibal, near the Mark Twain Boyhood Home on Hill
Street, and several blocks farther up that hill. I used to love lying in
bed in the dark, with the windows open, on warm nights in late summer/early
fall, and hearing, over the sound of the crickets in the yard, the distant
thrum of the barges moving upriver.

Young Sam Clemens, lying in bed at night, with the windows open, in the
home depicted by artist Stobart on lower Hill Street, would have heard the
1840s equivalent, but from a much closer vantage point. The fact that
Schilling is a resident of Minneapolis may well signify that he, too, has
been drawn by the Mississippi's beguiling call. The river always works its


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S.M., is a freelance writer/editor.
This is her thirteenth book review for the Mark Twain Forum. Her very first
review for the Forum, of R. Kent Rasmussen's _Mark Twain's Book for Bad
Boys and Girls_, was posted 20 years ago this year.