The book begins with a brief history of the river from its discovery by Hernando de Soto in 1542. It continues with anecdotes of Twain's training as a steamboat pilot, as the 'cub' of an experienced pilot. He describes, with great affection, the science of navigating the ever-changing Mississippi River in a section that was first published in 1876, entitled "Old Times on the Mississippi".
In the second half, Twain narrates his trip many years later on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans. He describes the competition from railroads, and the new, large cities, and adds his observations on greed, gullibility, tragedy, and bad architecture. He also tells some stories that are most likely tall tales.
Simultaneously published in 1883 in the United States and Great Britain, it is said to be the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript.
The book was made into a TV movie for American public television in 1980, with David Knell as Sam Clemens (Mark Twain's real name). The movie used many tall tales from the book, woven into a fictional narrative.
The book includes original illustrations by John Harley, Edmund Henry Garrett, and A. B. Shute, active/navigable table of contents, and a free audiobook link for download (which can be downloaded and listened to using a PC/Mac) at the end of the book.