Today, we visit the River in 1883. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Twain wrote his great epics about the
Mississippi between 1876 and 1884: Tom
Sawyer, much of Life on the Mississippi,
and finally Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain
wrote that river into our imaginations. That's why
I was so arrested by something I recently found in
a bookstore. It was an old travelogue, published
just before Huckleberry Finn, with the title
The article traces the Mississippi, not from its
official headwaters in Lake Itasca, but from a pool
further north which feeds Itasca. From there it
flows down to St. Anthony Falls just above St.
Paul. Riverboat traffic divided into two regions:
one above the falls, the other below that natural
Mark Twain's Mississippi lay below the waterfall.
The rich texture of his River forms itself around
Missouri. And here we find a time-warp. For Twain
mixes the River of the 1840s with that of the
1880s. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were children of
the 1840s, and their stories are filled with
anachronisms simply because the world was changing
By 1874 the great third-of-a-mile-long St. Louis Bridge had linked
Missouri to Illinois. Twain's bucolic world was
giving way to modern Midwestern America. In fact,
Mark Twain's flat-bottomed river boats weren't yet
fully evolved when Huck Finn travelled the River.
The Mississippi of the 1840s was more primitive
than he described it. Another great novelist,
Charles Dickens , visited
the River in 1842, and his account is shocking.
When Dickens saw the town of Cairo, where the Ohio
enters the Mississippi, he wrote:
We arrived at a spot more desolate than any we
had yet beheld ... On ground so flat and low ... it
is inundated to the house-tops ... a breeding place
of fever, ague, and death. A dismal swamp, on which
half-built houses rot away ... teeming with rank
unwholesome vegetation in whose baleful shade the
wretched wanderers ... tempted hither, droop, and
die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi
circling and eddying before it, and turning off
upon its southern course, a slimy monster hideous
My great-grandfather came to the River soon after
Huck Finn's time — in the 1840s — and he recorded
a similar world. Later he bought a house in
Illinois near the River. That same house became the
set for the movie version of Tom Sawyer. But
in the movie the house appeared as great-grandpa
had arranged it by the 1870s, while Mark Twain was
writing the book. The house in the movie matched
the house in the story.
My old travel book is richly illustrated with Mark
Twain's river boats — flame leaping from their
stacks against the night sky, their covered
side-wheels driving them upriver from New Orleans,
dodging snags and sandbars. But that was 1883.
The images are rich. Still, they leave me puzzled.
For Mark Twain's River was a time composite. It is
the River we all know, and yet it is the River that
never really was.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds