The oil from the Gulf of Mexico rig disaster has reached the Louisiana bayou at the mouth of the Mississippi. This has long been a mysterious area for me, land, salt water, fresh water, marsh, mud, frog, snake and turtle. It reflects a love affair with a river I’ve only seen thrice from high in the air. Mississippi – what a lovely roll of sound. To stand along side it was one of my boyhood dreams.
I read Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huck Finn’ when I was a boy. I didn’t relate much to Tom. But Huck was a different kettle of fish. The account of his drifting down the mighty river on a raft with his friend the runaway slave Jim became entrenched in my mind. It was the American dream personified, freedom and escape. I didn’t realise that. The language, the situations, the comedy, the tension, intrigued this earthbound boy. Rivers represent release. Indeed, in my first reading I resented the sudden intrusion of Tom back into the story near the end. Huck had been having real adventures, not make-believe ones. What I took away was a sense of awe at the magnitude of the river.
Twain’s books are criticised now for the use of the word ‘nigger’. It was part of the vocabulary of the time. Even more so when he wrote the book. But it’s a rollicking tale, told with enthusiastic gusto. As Twain himself said: ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author.’ And so we leave Finn planning to head west to avoid being ‘sivilised’ again.
What I chiefly remember, however, is the river. This feeling was reinforced when I read Jonathan Raban’s 'Old Glory', his descent of it in a sixteen foot aluminium motorboat. It’s one of the best travel books I’ve read. The dangers and rewards of travel have rarely been better described. ‘Riding the river, I had seen myself as a sincere traveller, thinking of my voyage not as a holiday but as a scale model of a life. It was different from life in one essential: I would survive it to give an account at its end.’
Once the lifeblood of the nation in terms of commerce and travel the Mississippi flows on – the people on its banks have a nostalgia for a lost past. Raban’s account of the people he meets added to my understanding of the American heartland.
Reinforcement of this interest came in a geography lesson in school. How the levees were being raised higher and higher. Sooner or later they will breach with catastrophic effects. The effects of Cyclone Katrina were forecast in a Little River classroom sixty years ahead. We were shown photos of barges on the river higher than the houses on the surrounding ground. That image lingered.
Hollywood added its glamour to my imagination. ‘Showboat’. ‘Steamboat Bill’. Howard Keel and Paul Robeson singing ‘Old Man River’.
Mark Twain died a 100 years ago last April. To commemorate the occasion this week’s Economist has an article by Laura Barton who drove through ten states along the river. She begins in Hannibal where Twain grew up and the river is three miles wide. I find it hard to conceive so much fresh flowing water.
Barton reinforced Raban’s description. The vast manufacturing industries that lined the river are long gone. ‘Today many of these towns sit dark and deflated on the water’s edge. Some 600 miles from the headwaters, Muscatine, Iowa is still known as the Pearl of the Mississippi in honour of its once flourishing pearl button industry. (in 1905 its factories produced more than a third of the worlds buttons). Today, one factory still operates, the button-making is largely done abroad and there is a lost feeling to its streets.’
I’ll have to settle for the fact I sat on a hotel balcony overlooking the Nile. You can’t win them all. The Amazon. I never lusted for that one.
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