A new book sucks the romance out of Old Man River.
Admit it: At some point in your life you got a little misty-eyed over the Mississippi River. Maybe it was your first trip to its shores, maybe it was a youthful infatuation with Mark Twain. Maybe you just really love floating, depressing casinos. But even today, when the river that symbolically divides America between East and West can be easily traversed by hundreds of bridges and whose whims are tamed by a series of locks and dams, people still get romantic about the mighty river.
Those people ought to read Lee Sandlin’s new book, Wicked River (Pantheon, $26.95), as an antidote. Told with the same verve and affinity for a good yarn that encomia to the river tend to inspire, Wicked River looks at life along the Mississippi in the 19th century, before Twain had us thinking it was all Americana adventures.
“If you grew up in the Midwest, you were always aware of it,” says Sandlin, a former Chicago Reader writer. “I started coming across accounts of the Mississippi before Mark Twain and realized it was a pretty strange little world that I don’t ever remember anyone teaching me about.”
Isolated ecosystems of river towns dotted the map, creating that strange little world. Until the 20th century, there weren’t many roads to the river, so towns survived via trade up and down the river (when weather allowed). Entire towns would come out to see off giant floating rafts full of goods to be sold and traded down river (Abraham Lincoln made one of his first business ventures as a salesman), and the river proved exceedingly difficult to navigate. There was something literally untameable about it. Kids would stow away on ships or take low-wage jobs, disappearing downstream, and families would chalk it up to being “gone on river,” never expecting to see them again.
“I kept on being surprised by how callous people were about death,” says Sandlin. “If you fell overboard, it was, ‘So long pal, you’re just dead.’ It was in everybody’s face all the time, so there was a hard-heartedness to it.”
Of course, some of the larger events in the river’s history make it into the book, including the advent of steamboats as a transportation and freight game-changer, and the Civil War battle of Vicksburg. What’s remarkable about the book is that for as much romance we’ve surrendered about the river—no one expects to go fur-trapping along its wilderness anymore—it’s clear that by the end of the century, the river had jumped the 19th-century shark.
“One of the things that struck me—and maybe this is true—is that almost from the beginning, people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s been ruined, you should have seen it 20 years ago,’” Sandlin laughs. “They were saying that in 1820. The modernization was a constant process, so the river was always, in a sense, being lost.”
Sandlin conducted a large portion of his research via a very 21st-century method. Most of the books from that era have run out of print, not even held in university collections. Sandlin turned to Google Books to dig up some firsthand accounts for free, though he clearly paid a price.
“American literature hadn’t come very far, and I read a lot of terrible books,” he says. “I didn’t make any literary discoveries. In fact, there was a lot of literary justice in the fact that they had gone out of print.”
Sandlin says he’s now at work on a new book about tornados in the Midwest. With that book, alongside Wicked River, Sandlin may singlehandedly destroy the view that the Midwest is a mellow place.
“A friend of mine read [Wicked River] and said she’d read one page and think ‘Oh my God, I wish I lived back then,’ and then turn the page and think ‘Thank God I didn’t live back then,’” he says. “That sort of tension ran through everything.”
Sandlin reads from Wicked River Thursday 18.