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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2201238-Mark-Twain-and-The-Aged-Pilot-Man
Rated: E · Essay · Biographical · #2201238
A study on one of Mark Twain's poems featured in {I}Roughing It{/I}
This is an entry for the Fall Rising Stars Festival

As a big fan of Mark Twain, I find it an incredible privilege to once again visit a true master of American Literature. A general assumption is that most people associate Mark Twain with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Often referenced in American Lit composition courses and even lampooned in pop culture (Huck Finn is retold through the eyes of Family Guy in an episode entitled "High School English"), these two characters stand the test of time. However, Twain is responsible for writing more than 20 novels and despite the memorable characters of Tom and Huck, he is truly less responsible for creating memorable characters so much as painting the tapestry of American life in the 1800s.

With such tales as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” (where I live near Sacramento, CA, this is actually a source of great local pride and fame) we see snapshots of life in a simpler time. Just as a traveling photographer might capture photos of day to day life, Twain’s snapshots are captured in words. From the folk life of America to the seemingly mundane details of the simplest people, Twain's works are a time capsule of the American Experience. Considering that he also traveled the world at the height of his fame, lecturing in foreign countries (case in point his trip to Australia was part of his lecturing tour during which he also documented his travels and experience in the book "The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain's Adventures in Australia"), one can imagine that he was something of a cultural diplomat, whose writings spread knowledge of American life to places around the world.

As a case study of Twain's works and his snapshot of American culture we can observe "The Aged Pilot Man." Multiple sources state that it is widely believed that Twain's "The Aged Pilot Man" was a parody of the "Eerie Canal Song" (for lyrics to this song see the second reference below). The Eerie Canal at the time was famously dangerous to travel upon by boat and only the most skilled captains would dare traverse it. The original Eerie Canal Song tells a tale of bravery and courage on the river. Twain's Ironically tells a similar story of courage until an ironic twist ending where in fact, the ship is wrecked and the captain is forced to walk off of his ship in shame rather than be the hero the reader expects him to be. What does this say about Twain's views on the original song? Perhaps that Americans themselves portray their best self in the tales and songs they recite, when in reality there are just as many failures as there are triumphs? The noble pilot, who assured his crews and passengers while referencing himself by name cries "Fear not, but lean on Dollinger," shows a certain blind bravado (and exaggeration considering this probably isn't actually that dangerous of a trip, lest the reader forget a canal can hardly have the types of storms associated with lakes or seas). One might even go so far as to stretch and say Twain was pointing out the blind and stubborn nature of the older generations that believed the political climate might remain unchanged and move forward without wrecking itself. Keep in mind the mid-1800s were a tumultuous time politically. One of the signatures of Twain's honesty is its satire and biting wit that often pokes fun at the lack of humility of Americans as well as the hypocrisy of society in general.

Ultimately Twain's legacy remains strong. He recorded the American Experience while oftentimes poking fun directly at it. Through humor, he shows us the reality of a somewhat absurd and often difficult life, and further shows us that sometimes you have to laugh at your own life to cope with the utter lack of humor you might find yourself in.

(Note: If you would love to read a particular fascinating book, consider Dear Mark Twain: Letters from his Readers. I have owned it for years and find it to be a fascinating read as it contains a collection of fan mail as well as some of Twain's witty responses and comments on the letters.)




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