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Notes for
From Life on the Mississippi (1883)
by Mark Twain
Champions of the Mississippi
 by Currier & Ives.
Exercise AK G9 L5.8 N Abs

Floating Down the Mississippi on Twain’s Parallel Noun Absolutes,
or A Study in Absolute Style

      I was sitting at the back of the room at a presentation at a local VATE conference. I had been introduced to the speaker, and had decided her session might be interesting. She was discussing style in Twain, and was using two passages to explain the effectiveness of his use of parallel clauses and noun absolutes. Suddenly, she stopped, looked at me, and said, "I just realized that I'm teaching grammar!" She was, but unfortunately, the students would not have been learning it. She assumed that they understood what clauses and absolutes are. They don't, at least they don't understand what they are well enough to make her presentation fruitful. Her presentation helped me very much, however. Among other things, she used this passage, and she also started me looking for more literary examples.
     Complex constructions can suggest clutter, but they can also imply a calm simplicity. In this passage, Mark Twain uses a string of noun absolutes to imply the rhythm of the gently flowing Mississippi River. A 211-word main clause with eleven "primary" adverbial noun absolutes suggests the continuous, calm, and wavy flowing of the Mississippi. He then shifts to a series of very short, rapid main clauses to suggest the hustle at the arrival of the boat.
      Perhaps the best way to use this selection is to have the students start by doing the sentence-combining exercise. Since this selection is relatively long, you might want to have them do this as homework. That would give you more class time for discussing the style of the passage. I would not grade the students' homework, but I would probably collect it. For one, I would want to see that they actually did it, and second, I would scan it to see what interesting combinations they used. But the primary purpose of having them do the combining exercise is to have them grapple -- and become familiar with -- the text. As a result of doing so, they will probably appreciate the style of Twain's version much more. 
     Because this passage is so long, I would not have the students do the analysis exercise. If they have been working within the KISS program, they can already easily explain the simple clauses at the beginning and end of the selection, and, if they have already done some work with noun absolutes, they will be able to understand and participate in the discussion of style. Thus I would simply put up overheads of the unanalyzed passage and use a washable ink pen to mark the various constructions that we had time to discuss in terms of style.
     If your students have studied verb tenses, you may want to have them discuss them here also. Gerundives, and thus noun absolutes, have only two tenses -- present and past, in relation to the action of whatever they modify. That makes the noun absolutes seem somewhat timeless. For example, in the sentence combining exercise, I used the present progressive finite verbs -- "The town is drowsing ...." as opposed to the past -- The town was drowsing." Verbals lack this specificity of time, and thus Twain's absolutes reinforce the "now" / "then" identity that he states at the beginning of the sentence -- "I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then:..." Had he used finite verbs, he would have had to choose between the present and past tenses. Later in the selection, of course, he makes this choice, opting for the simple present -- "a film of dark smoke appears ...." But the long string of absolutes itself presents an essentially timeless picture. (I could have used the simple present in revising the absolutes to finite verbs, but students will have more problems transforming the simple present into absolutes.)
     In addition to the noun absolutes and parallel constructions, students should probably also discuss the use of semicolons in this selection. Most of the noun absolutes are separated from each other  by semicolons, by Twain also used semicolons twice to separate main clauses. In the first case, the separation clearly involves a contrast -- "Before these events ....; after them ...." In the second, the contrast, if it exists, is not as clear -- "Presently ....; instantly ...." Then too, look at all the very effectively used comma-splices in the last part of the selection!