River of Stories

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Readers gather in the President's Office to discuss Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
Readers gather in the President's Office to discuss Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

A book group co-sponsored by The Kansas City Public Library and the Kansas City Star brought eleven readers to the Central Library on Sunday, February 8 to discuss Mark Twain’s classic travelogue, Life on the Mississippi, and their comments and perceptions were as varied as their reading experiences.

Most of the participants had not read Twain’s memoir of his steamboat adventures. Scott Curtis, a librarian at Linda Hall Library said he “begged to read this book and join the discussion” as he hadn’t read the book since his teen years. Curtis wanted to see how the book stood up over time and memory.

This comment got the conversational ball rolling immediately. Stephanie Holthaus was impressed with Twain’s knowledge of history and “felt Twain was as much a historian as a novelist.” Jim Haggard, a retired rancher, said, “Twain was a social critic and not a moralist. He wrote for the common reader and “if Twain were a moralist, he’d have led a more moral life.” Others drew attention to Twain’s bitter sarcasm, cynicism, and “dark side.”

Haggard brought up a recent trend in publishing by asking the group if they felt they could believe everything Twain says about the river and his experiences since Twain had exaggerated everything else. Haggard pointed out a few geographical inconsistencies and the readers all agreed that Twain must have been tweaking certain details to make the stories better. This led to a short discussion of memoirs, perceptions, and readers, with Curtis noting that Twain was the “quintessential American author for not only creating a unique writing style that is so easily identifiable as ‘American,’ but also inventing himself. This is a memoir of invented stories and embellished memories told not by the person who experienced it, but the person who invented the person telling the story.”

Elizabeth Darr focused on the great storytelling tradition in Life on the Mississippi. “Every profession uses stories to train new people--doctors and medical students, river boat pilots and ‘cubs’.” The group then pondered the use of storytelling in families and communities to pass on values, education, and social history. They concluded that while people may not be engaging in reading as much as they had one hundred years ago, people were still engaging in storytelling as a viable way to interact with others. A reader took this opportunity to compare Life on the Mississippi to The Arabian Nights.

Conversation concluded with some comments on Twain’s adventurous and restless spirit and his experiences with bankruptcy, inventions, and the technology of the time.

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