It winds its way, serpentine, through song and story, history and culture. 4,300 crooked and bent miles, a watery artery that cuts through the heart of a continent – directly into American life. “Too thick to drink, too thin to plow” is how Mark Twain describes the Mississipi River.
I’m not sure why the Mississippi seems to capture something in me. I’ve only seen it once, peering at it through an 12-year old’s eyes out the windows of our station wagon as we sped south to an orange-scented Florida. To a twelve-year old, it was just another river crossing, albeit a bit wider then most, notable only in that it set my father humming CCR tunes for the next hundred miles (that’s Creedance Clearwater Revival for the ignorant). Yet…it intrigues.
Mark Twain is possibly the most “American” of novelists, catching with his journalist’s eye, the culture and life along “The Big Muddy”, evoking in a way, the spirit of the place, better then any other writer. Though countless generations of students have waded through Huckleberry Finn, comparatively few crack open Life on the Mississipi, Twains’ non-fiction “history” of the Mississippi and his evocation of the lost era of the steamboat and the untamed river, with its ever changing banks and shoals.
Life on the Mississippi is an intensely personal account, as Twain was a steamboat pilot and knew the river, snags,sand-bars, channels and river life as only a steamboat pilot can – intimately and minutely.
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling features that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!….All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease?…doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Twain sketches the history of the river generally, but lightly, from LaSalle’s initial foreys, touching on the physical vageries of the river, to the steamboat pilot’s life and training, steamboat racing (S.S. Sultana, New Orleans to Natchez, 268 miles in 19 hours, 45 minutes in 1844), the impact of the Civil War, folktales, stories and legendary incidents,and the everyday life of the river community. Twain captures the cadance and rhythm of the river and the people and personalities who populated the Mississippi valley – those who worked it, cursed it, dreamed on it…
Now the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has lassoed the river, tamed it with dikes and dredges…but Twain will tell you that the river is patient and one day it will, despite all we do to contain it, loose its shackles. They don’t call it the Father of Waters for nothing.
There are any number of terrific sites on Twain, his legacy and his writings online. Check out this one for a good collection of background info and links, or this one for online versions of his works (I recommend his cuttingly sarcastic and funny assault on James Fenimore Cooper found here). PBS offers a great “interactive” scrapbook for Mark Twain here. Yes, Life on the Mississippi is also available online – you can find it here.
Check out the Father of Waters itself here, here and here. For some sense of the vital cultural impact that the river has, check out PBS’s River of Song site. or cruise the river yourself in an old-fashioned paddle-wheeler.
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