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de Vos: Life on the Mississippi

Jon DeVos

Jon DeVos

My wife and I went to Hannibal Missouri last week, solely to see how we felt about steamboat travel. We’d become intrigued by life cruising up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers since visiting the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. On the other hand, we’re pretty cautious due to a gruesome experience on a so-called Carnival cruise in the Caribbean where we realized shipboard entertainment boiled down to three choices: boredom, drunken boredom and drunken gluttonous boredom.

Neither the wife nor I have any business on a boat. Both of us were born pretty far inland with no nautical ties beyond a front-row screening of “Jaws”. We’re quite compatible inasmuch as we both get uncomfortable in any body of water without a stopper in the bottom.

If you take a leisurely drive from Kansas City to Hannibal you can pass through the tiny Missouri towns of Mexico, Florida, Cuba, Ottawa, Paris, Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, New London and New Boston, apparently all named by homesick immigrants. Town signs bragged of their respective populations, several of them well into three digits. A casual amateur survey says it takes a population of about 3,500 to fertilize a McDonald’s franchise and hardly any of these towns had one.

The old part of Hannibal looks exactly like someplace somebody named Huckleberry Finn would grow up in. But for some sprightly Chamber-of-Commerce coats of paint, not much has changed since 1850 when Mark Twain lived there.

But, of course his name wasn’t really Mark Twain. Mark Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, American author and adventurer with a wide-ranging career from steamboat pilot to judge with a lot of stops along the way. He adopted Mark Twain from riverboat slang meaning a river depth of 12 feet and safe passage for steamboat travel.

Missouri was a slave state when the Civil War began and Clemens sided with the Confederacy, serving in the army only a few weeks before his unit disbanded.

He’s remembered today for his writings. His fame grew from travelogues like Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, while his novels have garnered considerable controversy. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the 14th most-banned book in the nation and at the same time required reading in many American high schools.

Slavery, a fact of frontier life and society, is offensive in social life today. But the language Clemens uses to describe it provides a vivid basis for historical realities we really shouldn’t forget. I wonder if censors are so focused on the individual words that they overlook how together, the words paint great portraits of irony and satire.

Another thing not to forget is that Clemens is among America’s greatest humorists, whose piercing quotes will endure for a long time. He provided us with these timely pearls from two centuries ago:

“Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”

“When you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail.”

“Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”

“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

Mark Twain