Mark Twain: “Life on the Mississippi” (1883): Capitalism and Craft

Ah, yet another autobiographical travelogue by Mark Twain. Over the past few weeks, I have read around 1,400 pages of his writing in this genre without losing interest. Life on the Mississippi is half coming of age story and half travel narrative. The first part concerns his youth working as a steamboat pilot and documents how he got into this profession and craft. The second half is about his later travel on the Mississippi in a steamboat during the professions decline due to the rise of railroads. As a history of the transportation revolution in the United States, Life on the Mississippi remains compelling, especially since it examines how the changing nature of transportation shaped one profession. This is something that still shapes our experience of global capitalism. The decline of longshoremen in the age of containerization is simply one example of this phenomenon in our time.


In the first half of the book, we are mostly interested in how becoming a steamboat pilot shaped Samuel Clemens’ experience and knowledge of the Mississippi River. As the book begins, the river is presented in mythical terms with a deep history and an organic life of its own. As a boy, young Clemens fantasized about the river and a future career on it. He idealized the heroes of the steamboat business “Boy after boy managed to get on the river. The minister’s son became an engineer. The doctor’s and the post-master’s sons became ‘mud clerks;’ the wholesale liquor dealer’s son became a bar-keeper on a boat. . . Pilot was the grandest position of all.” (256) This position had glory, but all boys dreams of careers on the river.


Becoming a pilot led to a change in how Clemens saw the river. It went from being mythical and beautiful and endless to something more mundane. Pilots had to know the river at the local, minute level. No longer able to look at it as a whole with beauty, Clemens began to see the river as a workplace. “No, the romance and the 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 rippled 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 does n’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And does n’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most of lost most by learning his trade?” (285) I think the same could be said of academia, which many of us got into under a delusion acquired from our deluded perception of the classroom from the student’s perspective. Once through it, it looks more and more disgusting.

Plate from the illustrated edition

Plate from the illustrated edition

That loss aside, is there not something more we can learn from the steamboat pilot. Most of the first half contains the details of the craft of being a pilot. I suppose every major economic or technological change allows the introduction of a new craft for some skilled workers. Many of them are likely as rich and interesting as piloting if looked at closely. There is something attractive in the idea of a craft to me, as an alternative to work. There is status and hierarchy in the profession, but it is at least earned (which is more than we can say for most hierarchies). Unlike the merchant ship, or the whaling ships of Melville, there is an absence of the brutal and arbitrary authority common in hierarchies. Twain writes of the steamboat crew as an egalitarian space.  “In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worried and frets in servitude; but in the day I wrote of, the Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six orders while the vessel backed into the steam, and then that skipper’s reign was over.” (313) Of course, this is because the pilot was a necessity due to his knowledge. The captains were dependent on the skills of the workers. Knowledge of a craft is empowering. He even included two chapters on this specific point (“Rank and Dignity of Piloting” and “The Pilot’s Monopoly”). That said, the path of history has been to eliminate each craft in turn, deskilling jobs. We do not have enough for a strict comparison with railroad work, but my guess it that it provided fewer opportunities for true autonomy at work than steamboat piloting. While providing autonomy and power, owning a craft also made Clemens’ job less like work. It as more of an intellectual activity, and if not quite play it was certainly not the brutal drudgery of most work in capitalist economies. He compares the knowledge of the local environment required of pilots with the knowledge of the Bible required by preachers. The profession also provided lots of time for converse, drink, smoke, flirting and watching the diverse crews. One large part of their play consisted of observing the time it took ships to reach New Orleans, developing this into competitions.


My preference is still to use technology to abolish as much work as possible, but reading Life on the Mississippi has reminded me that pleasure can be found through employment, even if framed through capitalist economies. That does seem to require a certain degree of autonomy and worker self-management. I think this book has a place in discussions about how we move to worker self-management and convince of a future without debilitating and odious work.

The second half of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is about his return to the Mississippi River for a trip to New Orleans and back north, sometime after the Civil War (I cannot locate the exact date of this trip). In the first part of the narrative, I was attracted to Mark Twain’s description of the craft of becoming a steamboat pilot and resurrection the idea that craft-based occupations may be part of the escape from the drudgery of work. The second part takes a different tone and approach, consisting mostly of assorted stories and observations of the areas. It goes from strictly autobiographical to the character of his other travel narratives, combining made up anecdotes, tales, serious observations, and philosophical musings. We are put in a world undergoing dramatic change with the defeat of the Cotton South and slavery in the Civil War and pulling of the West into the global capitalist economy of the Gilded Age. The future of the steamboat would be tourism. The railroads would take over the heavy lifting of integrating the region into the world. He describes growing cities, modern stock markets, electrified streets, and new colleges, newspapers and institutions.

Despite undergoing dramatic transformations, the signs of the heavy historical burden of slavery and cotton farming existed. At one point, Twain calls these the tell-tale signs of the “absolute South . . . no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” (468) The countryside, to Twain’s eyes did not change much from the time of his youth on the Mississippi. Change and continuity is the major theme of the book in a way, reflecting the natural history of the Mississippi, which also was known to change its course, despite seeming an enduring central artery of the continent.

“How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary–but always whiskey! Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with axe and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All of these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail,–and behold, civilization is established forever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the vanleader in this beneficent work. It always is. It was like a foreigner–and excusable in a foreigner–to be ignorant of this great truth, and wander off into astronomy to borrow a symbol. But if he has been conversant with the facts, he would have said, — Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.” (581)


Claude McKay, “Home to Harlem” (1928)

Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem gave me troubles about a month ago and put this blog on hiatus. This was surprising. Why would a book exploring working class life in Harlem, written by a Jamaican socialist give me such trouble, considering the themes of this blog? I am not entirely sure and I am certain I was as much bothered by my other obligations than the text itself. But, for whatever reason it slowed me down. (Maybe the tropical air is slowing my brain.) I am, thankfully, returning to the work of a few weeks ago on the Library of America’s volume of Harlem Renaissance novels from the 1920s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay began his writing career in Jamaica when he worked in the constabulary. He emigrated to the United States in 1912 for college work but did not complete his degree. He moved to Harlem at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and was immediately active in labor movements, writing for Communist and labor newspapers. He is most known for injecting a racial critique in the English-speaking left, criticizing those movements of ignoring race in general and specifically racial prejudice within the movement. He spent much of the 1920s abroad, including visiting revolutionary Russia. He did all of this in his late 20s and early 30s. He published Home to Harlem in 1928, but suffered bad reviews from some of the more puritanical participants of black American intellectual life.  As I showed earlier in this blog, one of the major debates in the Harlem Renaissance was on how to portray black life and if it should be politically distorted or describe real life. Home to Harlem clearly fits into the gritty, vulgar, and “real” depictions.

I want to stop, however, and suggest that Du Bois and other more moralistic writers are not entirely wrong. The middle class, professional, upwardly mobile, and educated people were no less a part of Harlem than the working class people scraping by on the borders of economic or moral legitimacy. Depicting real life does not necessarily take us to the gutters.




Home to Harlem follows the life of Jake, an African-American returning from fighting in France during the First World War. Like many others, he returned with a slightly more global perspective, a bit of cash, and an eagerness to find a place in America. Jake also returned to a Harlem governed by a new set of rules due to the imposition of Prohibition. While it did not stop anyone from drinking, it did make the police a greater threat to the places that Jake liked to frequent, such as the Congo Rose or the Baltimore.

One thing that the novel makes clear is that Harlem was extremely color-conscious and the legacy of interracial sex was a fully integrated part of everyday life. “Ancient black life rooted upon its base with all its fascination new layers of brown, low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost-white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood.” (166) In fact every character, especially the women, seem to be described with careful attention to their color and the metaphors for different shades are bountiful. Jake was not just color-conscious, he was also prejudice about other blacks from different regions of the Atlantic. “And as an American Negro he looked askew at foreign niggers. Africa was a jungle, and Africans bush niggers, cannibals. And West Indians were monkey-chasers.” (201)

Jake has a strong belief in working-class solidarity even if it does not quite reach the level of interracial cooperation. Like McKay, Jake understood that the unions themselves often discriminated against blacks, but that did not mean he would look kindly on scabbing. While working at the docks, he took a job but at the end of his first day he learned that he was scabbing during a wild-cat strike (unauthorized by the union). Jake states that he will look for new work but did not want to join what he assumed was a racist union. Other scabs were less conflicted, vowing to continue working.

Another theme is the strong current of gender politics. Harlem’s working class society is conflicted between sexual liberation and proprietary relationship. This is the fate of Jake’s buddy Zeddy who as, McKay explains, found himself trapped—unwillingly—into the prison on monogamy. And with real honesty, McKay seems to think that money and resources are the primary reasons people sustain these possessive bounds. “To be adored by a Negro lady of means, or of a pseudo grass-widow whose husband worked on the railroad, or of a hard-working laundress or cook. It was much more respectable and enviable to be sweet—to belong to the exotic aristocracy of sweetmen than to be just a common tout. But there were strings to Susy’s largesse. The enjoyment of Harlem’s low night life was prohibited to Zeddy. Susy was jealous of him in the proprietary sense. She believed in free love all right, but not for the man she possessed and supported. She warned him against the ornery  hussies of her race.” (177) It suggests the invasion of capitalism into our relationships. Not new, certainly, but perhaps a growing part of life in the vibrant and heavily commercialized and unequal 1920s.

The first half of the novel considers Jake’s life in Harlem after returning from the war.  In the second half, Jake takes a job on a diner car of a train, servicing the American northeast. This opens up Jakes world considerable and he learns about the African-American communities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.  This experience also changed his views of other blacks.  More so than the experience in the war, Jake’s experience working in the dining car gave him a global perspective and allowed him to place his own history and struggles in that Atlantic context. He learned of Liberia, of ancient African kingdoms, and the legacy of empires white and black. Much of this comes from his talks with the cook, Sam, who was born in Haiti. Jake learned that the U.S. used the war as a cover for expanding their empire in the Caribbean. This seems to me to be the ideological core of the novel. Jakes service to white empires in the war did little to expand his world. Indeed, he immediately returned to his old ways and old neighborhood. Working with Sam opened his eyes.

Harlem in the 1920s

Harlem in the 1920s

That said, the novel is not primarily about lessons. It is trying peel off aspects of life for working class blacks in the 1920s: politics, gender, sexuality, work, culture, identity. I found it consistently fascinating and rich in this regard.