Questions and Discussion

Steamboat Days on the Mississippi, 1937 | Justin Gruelle, 1889-1978 | Mural, oil on canvas, 12’7″ x 3’6″ | Norwalk Historical Society Museum
Gruelle depicts a scene from Mark Twain’s memoir of his time as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883.

What Do You See? How Do You Feel?

  • What do you see in this illustration of one of Mark Twain’s books, Life on the Mississippi?
  • What is the setting? How are people depicted?
  • How is the scene organized? What draws your attention?
  • Describe your reaction to this work of art.
  • Why might this painting be offensive to some members of our community?

The Story Behind the Painting

Steamboat Landing, Vicksburg, MS 1906 | Library of Congress

Justin Gruelle’s painting illustrates a scene from the book Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) Chapter 16 – Racing Days. Published in 1883, the book was based on a series of articles Twain wrote for a magazine, the Atlantic, between January and July 1875. These stories described his experiences as an apprentice steamboat pilot on “the Southern trade” in the late 1850’s, before the Civil War. According to Professor Stephen Railton, “Rooted in nostalgia for the riverboats’ ‘days of glory’, Mark Twain’s narrative almost completely ignores the role slavery played in steamboating – that the boats’ crews were mainly slaves, and that slaves as well as cotton were their staple cargoes.” Railton comments, “Mark Twain’s books were made of pictures as well as words, and for many of those readers the pictures would have spoken at least as loudly as the words.”

In a more recent book, Black Life on the Mississippi (2004, University of North Carolina Press), Professor Thomas Buchanan tells a different Mississippi River story based on his research about William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave. “The river was the focus of his dreams, too. The steamboats that moved up and down the Mississippi River carried the tentacles of slavery and racism, but they also carried liberating ideas and pathways to freedom. African American river workers were heroic figures in the slave community. Slaves gazed with wonder and envy at the cosmopolitan lives of men like William Wells Brown. They admired the way river hands could seemingly come and go from river landings and levees as they pleased.”

Imaging Slavery in Mark Twain’s Books with permission from University of Virginia Professor Stephen Railton
Black Life on the Mississippi by Thomas C. Buchanan (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)


1  Why would WPA artist, Justin Gruelle, revisit a scene like this from American history, especially during the Great Depression?

2  What do we know about America before the Civil War when Twain worked on a steamboat and after the Civil War when his stories were first published?

3  How would the life of a wealthy white slave owner differ from that of the servant depicted in the painting?

4  How does Gruelle’s painting compare with the original illustrations? What are the similarities or differences between pictures and words? Why does Professor Railton suggest, “the pictures would have spoken at least as loudly as the words” for many of the readers?

5  Why did it take more than 100 years after Mark Twain’s book was published for someone to tell the story of a fugitive slave’s experiences on the Mississippi during the same time period?

Chapter 16

Racing Days
“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain (Excerpt)

It was always the custom for the boats to leave New Orleans between four and five o’clock in the afternoon. From three o’clock onward they would be burning rosin and pitch pine (the sign of preparation), and so one had the picturesque spectacle of a rank, some two or three miles long, of tall, ascending columns of coal­-black smoke; a colonnade which supported a sable roof of the same smoke blended together and spreading abroad over the city. Every outward-bound boat had its flag flying at the jack­-staff, and sometimes a duplicate on the verge staff astern. Two or three miles of mates were commanding and swearing with more than usual emphasis; countless processions of freight barrels and boxes were spinning athwart the levee and flying aboard the stage­-planks, belated passengers were dodging and skipping among these frantic things, hoping to reach the forecastle companion way alive, but having their doubts about it; women with reticules and bandboxes were trying to keep up with husbands “freighted with carpet­-sacks and crying babies, and making a failure of it by losing their heads in the whirl and roar and general distraction; drays and baggage-vans were clattering hither and thither in a wild hurry, every now and then getting blocked and jammed together, and then during ten seconds one could not see them for the profanity, except vaguely and dimly; every windlass connected with every forehatch, from one end of that long array of steamboats to the other, was keeping up a deafening whiz and whir, lowering freight into the hold, and the half­-naked crews of perspiring negroes that worked them were roaring such songs as ‘De Las’ Sack! De Las’ Sack!’—inspired to unimaginable exaltation by the chaos of turmoil and racket that was driving everybody else mad.”

Steamer after steamer straightens herself up, gathers all her strength, and presently comes swinging by, under a tremendous head of steam, with flag flying, black smoke rolling, and her entire crew of firemen and deck­-hands (usually swarthy negroes) massed together on the forecastle, the best ‘voice’ in the lot towering from the midst (being mounted on the capstan), waving his hat or a flag, and all roaring a mighty chorus, while the parting cannons boom and the multitudinous spectators swing their hats and huzza! Steamer after steamer falls into line, and the stately procession goes winging its flight up the river.

Note: These John Harley illustrations appeared in the book published in 1883.