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  • Competence, Power, and the Nostalgic Romance of Piloting in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi
  • Brian McCammack

Mark Twain's fascination with competence and power is evident in many of his characters, particularly in his largely autobiographical works that explore his formative experiences in the western frontier—Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi. While Twain admires aspects of both powerful characters and competent characters, in the final analysis competence commands more of his respect than does sheer power. He often expresses ambivalence toward powerful characters in his texts, while competent characters are almost always revered. Embedded in discussions of power and competence are conflicting romantic visions of a radically individualistic western American character. One vision derives from the myth of a Wild West violent individuality, the other from a more scientific and professional rugged individualism. Yet the relation cannot be so easily reduced to a sort of binary; there are many complexities and ambivalences prevalent in Twain's writing on this subject. Several critics have explored aspects of these issues as they appear in Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi, but the interrelations between Twain's attitude toward issues of competence and power and his romantic nostalgia for piloting the Mississippi have not been adequately explored. This essay will first explore the issues of competence and power as they apply to Roughing It and more extensively to Life on the Mississippi. It [End Page 1] will then connect the issues of power and competence to Twain's romantic nostalgia depicted in Life on the Mississippi.

Before the reasons for Twain's differing attitudes toward competence and power can be examined, however, a working definition of what it means to be a competent character or powerful character must be offered. One way to articulate respective definitions and differentiate between competence and power is to examine characters that transparently exemplify each quality. Both types of characters appear in Twain's Roughing It. The quintessential powerful character of Roughing It is the outlaw Slade, who "was supreme judge in his district, and he was jury and executioner likewise" (Roughing It 63). Enlisted to clean up the desperadoes and outlaws along a portion of the overland stage route, Slade, ironically, becomes perhaps the most storied and feared outlaw of the West. All of Slade's power is derived from pure force. He rules with his gun, and morals or reason usually do not enter into the equation. This is essentially what a powerful character is for Twain: someone autonomous and violent in the solving of problems and construction of right and wrong. Although not every powerful character in Twain's fiction meets all of these criteria, a man like Slade represents an unquestionably powerful man. The powerful man takes complete control of his environment, shaping it to his needs or desires by any means necessary.

In stark contrast to the outlaw Slade, the exemplary competent character of Roughing It is Captain John Nye, who accompanies Twain and his fellow travelers on a portion of their western travels.1 Twain writes that upon entering an inn where "there was no welcome for us on any face," Nye's memory of past acquaintances, along with his helpful competence in instances diverse in nature as stopping a runaway horse and mending a child's toy, so ingratiates Twain's group to the people at the inn that when they leave, they are "lamented by all" (Roughing It 228–229). Twain implies that a competent character does not necessarily try to overcome or control his environment like the powerful character. Instead, he negotiates it by working with what he is given. Nye does not attempt to use force to control the situations and people he encounters. Rather, he adjusts to them with good judgment and precision to meet his needs. Knowing that it would win him good favor at the inn, Nye produces "a later paper than anybody had seen for a week and sat himself down to read the news to a deeply interested audience" (Roughing It 229). It is this judgment, knowing exactly what he needs to do and when he needs to do it, that makes Nye a competent character. So Slade...


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