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Mark Twain vs. an Amateur

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Many Rock Islanders must have opened Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi back in 1883, and turned the pages to see what the master writer of the Mississippi had to say about Davenport, Dubuque, or Muscatine, only to discover that, for Mark Twain, all we were was filler.

If you've ever written a school composition, you know filler. Filler is what you add to the phrase "Football builds good sportsmanship" in order to meet the required 500-word limit, until it reads "In my opinion, many people in the world today believe that the game of football has the capacity of encouraging good sportsmanship."

In order to fill out his manuscript and make it book length, Mark Twain took a tour of the Mississippi he was unfamiliar with—the river from Keokuk north. But his heart was not in it. Davenport "crowned a hill," as did every other river town. Rock Island was "flourishing and pleasant to the eye." Island after island was “charming.” There were “vistas” everywhere. Just filler, Twain's river, and his heart, were further south.

Fortunately, at La Crosse, Wisconsin, Twain's steamboat took on an elderly gentleman who had spent his entire life along the river, and loved every part of it, and could not stop pointing out those parts to Mark Twain. It never occurred to him to be intimidated by the fact that Twain was a professional and he was an amateur.

For Mark Twain, the bluffs were merely "impressive." For the old amateur, they were “dark complected, lifting their awful fronts, Jove-like, to the heavens, with tops that have known no other contact save angels' wings." The amateur pointed out one bluff to Twain: “she’s holding Wabasha City in her lap,” he said.

And so on. Just above Winona, the steamboat passed an area called the Thousand Islands, which Twain found "beautiful." "They're almost too beautiful for anything so green," responded the amateur. “In early morning when the water's still, they look like a thousand green pincushions afloat a looking glass."

Now that’s not filler. That’s what happens when you speak from your experience and your heart, and don’t have to fill up 500 words for an English class—or a book.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.