AFTER twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there. I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down,' and started westward about the middle of April.
It is noted by Matt Seybold in Even If He Weren’t My Friend: Frederick Douglass & Mark Twain, that Twain's interest in revisiting the Mississippi river began "in earnest" one week after the Fredrick Douglass speech on August 3, 1880.
This trip led directly to the composition of "Life On The Mississippi "(1883) – the less idyllic sequel to "Old Times" – but is most often credited for renewing Twain’s interest in the manuscript of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885). The assumption (sometimes called the Holbrook Thesis because Hal Holbrook articulates it so convincingly in Ken Burns’s "Mark Twain") is that the continued degradation of formerly enslaved people which Twain witnessed during his first trip to the region since the outset of the Civil War (and which Douglass also describes in vivid detail) convinced him that a novel focused on the blinding hypocrisy, dehumanization, absurdity, and ritualized violence of the antebellum period was still relevant.
Isaac Gewirtz, in Mark Twain A Skeptic's Progress, writes of Mark Twain's comparisons the southern and northern Mississippi River:
But the glow of Twain’s optimism over the Northern Mississippi cast long shadows into his past—the recent past of his voyage north through the Southern Mississippi, and the more distant past of the antebellum South, in worship of which Southerners had submerged themselves. Twain was embarrassed by the backwardness of the towns and cities of the Southern Mississippi (excepting the plentiful lights and residential architecture of New Orleans). Whereas the northern cities are remarkable for their cleanliness, industry, concern for the public welfare, and respect for the law, those of the South are shabby, dirty, unpaved, and poorly administered. ...
When Twain revisits his home town of Hannibal, he finds that though it has grown into a city of fifteen thousand, it “is paved like the rest of the West & South—where a well paved street & a good sidewalk” remain rarities. ...
Though Twain does not criticize the South explicitly for its lack of industrial and manufacturing capacity, the comparison is implicit and would have been understood by any well-informed, contemporary reader. The subject had been addressed by progressive civic leaders in the South since the 1840s, and with increasing vigor after the Civil War. Their efforts had little effect, however, chiefly because the Southern elite was committed to preserving an economic system that promoted agricultural production, in order to maintain a social hierarchy that was based on a plantation-dominated economy.
We left per Pennsylvania Railroad, at 8 A.M. April 18.
19 April, 1882: New York to St. Louis
20 April - depart St. Louis, MO aboard Gold Dust
21 April - paused at Menard, IL (probably Chester, IL) St. Louis to Cairo.
21 April - stopped at Cairo, IL (From Cairo to Memphis: 1882)
23 April - toured Memphis, TN (See Postwar Memphis) (From Memphis to Napoleon)
24 April - passed Napoleon, AR (Napoleon to Vicksburg)
26 April - visited Vicksburg, MS and boarded Charles Morgan (Vicksburg, 1882) (Vicksburg to Baton Rouge)
27 April - stopped at Baton Rouge, LA (Baton Rouge to New Orleans)
28 April - arrived New Orleans, LA
6 May - departed New Orleans,LA aboard City of Baton Rouge
7 May - arrived Natchez, MS
8 May - arrived Vicksburg, MS
10 May - Memphis, TN
11 May - Cairo, IL
12 May - arrived St. Louis, MO
13 May - departed St. Louis, MO aboard Gem City
14 May - visited Hannibal, MO
17 May - departed Hannibal, MO aboard Minneapolis
17 May - stopped at Quincy, IL
17 May - saw Keokuk, IA
18 May - stopped at Muscatine, IA
19 May - Dubuque, IA
20 May - Lake Pepin, MN
21 May- Arrived St. Paul, MN
The Chicago Tribune ran an interview reprinted in the Washington Post on July 13, 1886, "A River Without Islands", that contain some interesting observations of Twain's.
We came from Buffalo to Duluth by a lake steamer and then from St. Paul down the river to Keokuk. Neither in this country nor in any other have I seen such interesting scenery as that along the Upper Mississippi. One finds all that the Hudson affords — bluffs and wooded highlands — and a great deal in addition. Between St. Paul and the mouth of the Illinois River there are over four hundred islands, strung out in every possible shape. A river without islands is like a woman without hair. She may be good and pure, but one doesn’t fall in love with her very often. Did you ever fall in love with a bald-headed woman?” The reporter admitted that he had drawn the line there.
“It is strange,” continued Mr. Clemens, in momentary forgetfulness of the children, “how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part. One can sit on the pilot-house for a few hours and watch the low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards, and then one might as well go to bed. One has seen everything there is to see. Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages — everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people every think of going there, however. Dickens, Corbett, Mother Trollope and the other discriminating English people who ‘wrote up’ the country before 1842 had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed. Their successors have followed in their footsteps, and as we form our opinions of our country from what other people say of us, of course we ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.”