The path of the Mississippi River, from its source at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico

Introduction

THERE IS A TRIBUTARY of the Mississippi River running through my neighborhood in Chicago. It’s not easy to spot; you have to know just where to look. It’s by the bus stop on a cluttered commercial block. Right at the curb is a manhole. The manhole cover is embossed with a decorative pattern of fish, and it carries the message DUMP NO WASTE! DRAINS TO WATERWAYS! Down below is water bound for the Mississippi.

Sometimes when I’m waiting for the bus, I pass the time by imagining the course the water is running. It’s invisible at street level, but there is a maze of piping underneath Chicago: water mains and sewer mains and gas mains, electrical conduit and fiber-optic cabling. The water is gurgling through this spaghetti tangle for mile after mile, below the ranges of highrises and the decaying industrial districts and the limitless veldts of bungalows. It doesn’t surface until it reaches a pumping station past the southern city limits. There it empties into the Illinois River. The Illinois runs in a meandering course roughly southwest, past the suburban counties around Chicago, out through the exurban fringe, then south through the farm country in the middle of the state, and then west again, until at last, just north of St. Louis, it drains into the Mississippi.

This is a serpentine route, but it’s not an unusual one. There are countless streams just like it. In the nineteenth century, it was estimated that the Mississippi had roughly one hundred thousand natural tributaries—that is, there were a hundred thousand distinct, individually named brooks, creeks, rivulets, and rivers emptying their waters into its gargantuan current. Today there are far more than a hundred thousand, and the majority of them are artificial. They’re like the manhole by the bus stop: they’re conduits and cisterns and sewage pipes, obscure canals and neglected culverts and out-of-the-way storm drains. The Mississippi is surrounded by a vast network of concealed plumbing that underlies the whole of the American Midwest.

As for the great river at the heart of this maze, it is now for all intents and purposes a man-made artifact. Every inch of its course from its headwaters to its delta is regulated by synthetic means—by locks and dams and artificial lakes, revetments and spillways and control structures, chevrons and wing dams and bendway weirs. The resulting edifice can barely be called a river at all, in any traditional sense. The Mississippi has been dredged, and walled in, and reshaped, and fixed; it has been turned into a gigantic navigation canal, or the world’s largest industrial sewer. It hasn’t run wild as a river does in nature for more than a hundred years.

Its waters are notoriously foul. In the nineteenth century, the Mississippi was well known for its murkiness and filth, but today it swirls with all the effluvia of the modern age. There’s the storm runoff, thick with the glistening sheen of automotive waste. The drainage from the enormous mechanized farms of the heartland, and from millions of suburban lawns, is rich with pesticides and fertilizers like atrazine, alachlor, cyanazine, and metolachlor. A ceaseless drizzle comes from the chemical plants along the riverbanks that manufacture neoprene, polychloroprene, and an assortment of other refrigerants and performance elastomers. And then there are the waste products of steel mills, of sulfuric acid regeneration facilities, and of the refineries that produce gasoline, fuel oil, asphalt, propane, propylene, isobutane, kerosene, and coke. The Mississippi is one of the busiest industrial corridors in the world.

I get a little reminder of the health of this system every time I pass by that bus stop. There’s a reason why the one particular manhole stands out among all the clutter of ancient grilles and grates along the block. It reeks. Winter and summer, it emits a peculiar odor, a compound of sewer gas, stale grease, and some kind of pungent chemical reminiscent of sour mint. I can tell how bad it is on any given day by the behavior of the people waiting at the curb. Sometimes they have to hang so far back that the bus blows past the corner without a pause.

Of course it seems all wrong to think of the Mississippi River this way, as an industrial drainage system the length of a continent. It’s not how we want to picture Old Man River—the river of the paddle-wheel steamboats, the river that Huck and Jim escaped down when they rode their raft to freedom. That river, we like to imagine, is still running wild the way it always was. The wistful old song “Moon River,” popular back in the sixties, caught the feeling perfectly:

Moon River, wider than a mile,

I’m crossing you in style some day.

When Andy Williams crooned this, he was obviously not thinking about something as prosaic as driving across the Eads Bridge at St. Louis. He was singing about the mythical river of Mark Twain (“my huckleberry friend,” the song calls it, just so we don’t miss the point): he was crossing a river bound for the rainbow’s end, not one to be found on the interstate map.

This is the image of the river that I grew up with. I knew all about Twain’s river long before I ever saw the actual Mississippi. In fact, I knew about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn before I learned how to read. My mother had an old illustrated edition of Twain, and sometimes when I was a little kid, she would take it down from its high shelf to show me the pictures. The book was filled with glossy plates, each protected by a thin sheet of brittle tissue, which she would delicately peel back to reveal the gorgeously colored image underneath. It never failed to astonish me. I was used to modern picture books, where pop art squiggles were at play in a featureless smear of watercolors, like a cartoon guide to subatomic physics. But here with dream-vivid clarity was Tom Sawyer in church, squirming through the sermon between two pillowy matrons in spectacular floral dresses; there was Huckleberry Finn in overalls, sitting on a barrel on the levee, smoking his corncob pipe, posed against the steepled skyline of Hannibal, Missouri, with a sun-rayed billow of cumulus behind.

My mother didn’t try to connect up the images into a story, and I never did get a handle on the story, even when I was old enough to read Twain for myself. To this day, the plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a bit of a blur. I remember the scene where Tom crashes his own funeral, but I couldn’t tell you how everybody got the idea he was dead; I know that Tom and Huck find buried treasure at the end, but I had to reread it to figure out where all that gold came from. Much of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnwas even sketchier—the truth is, I never could get all the way through it when I was a kid. I had to keep skipping over scenes because they were too frightening. The chapter where Huck was kidnapped by his monstrous father was so upsetting to me that I couldn’t bear to keep the book by my bed; I had to sneak it back onto its shelf in the living room before I could sleep at night.

But none of that mattered: the books still burned themselves into my brain. All the other books I read were ghosts compared with them. Tom tricking the neighbor boys into painting the fence remains as vivid to me as anything from my own childhood. The scene where the steamboat fires its cannon across the water to raise Tom’s drowned body from the river is still weirder to me than any fantasy novel. And running deeper even than these was the image of the river itself: the great prairie of water, white veined, impossibly blue, swirling underneath the majestic steamboats like a kind of art deco dance floor. I found it both alluring and unimaginable. There was nothing remotely like it in the Illinois suburb where I grew up. The one river I knew was a dinky, puttering brook that meandered through a nearby forest preserve. It was opaque, it smelled putrid, and its surface was fluorescent green. We were told to stay out of it, because if its water even touched our skin, we’d have to go to the hospital.

Twain’s Mississippi was obviously something different, something wholly other. I was haunted by the thought that it was close by, running deep within the landscape, past the last franchise strip and the last strand of freeway. Sometimes I imagined it as a kind of secret subterranean presence flowing around the walls of basement rec rooms. On the maps in my schoolbooks it seemed to cut through the whole of the Midwest like the dark central vein in a leaf: I thought that if I ever managed to reach it, I would be swallowed up in a kind of hidden inland sea, endlessly unfolding from within, dotted everywhere by the glorious islands of the steamboats, edged by the silhouettes of forests against a sunset sky.

That image was so alive to me that it easily survived my real-world encounters with the river. My parents would sometimes take me on trips to visit my great-aunts and great-uncles, who lived on the Illinois side of the Mississippi near St. Louis. The drive led us from the Chicago suburbs down the new interstate—a summer morning’s glide through the furrowed green oceans of the farm country, our car and the cars all around us swooping effortlessly along the arrow of highway like an invading army of flying saucers. My gaze was invariably fixed on the horizon, where the grain silos and water towers were creeping past each other like pieces in a titanic board game. I remember a thunderstorm rising up above the horizon line, one of those towering prairie storm fronts that to this day make me think of God long before I think of rain. We were heading straight into it. The highway stretched before us in a brilliant swath of humid yellow sunlight, while ahead was a wall of blackness. We swept into the storm in a furious rush; the car didn’t slow at all, even though the windshield wipers were frantically shoving the surging sheaths of rainwater aside as though they were combing the sea. On the far side of the storm front, the world was a sulking monochrome. Off the interstate we headed down a main highway hemmed in by franchise strips, discount furniture stores, and new-car lots; the rain was descending in thin curtains over sodden hills of subdivisions. The road took a bend, and there was the Mississippi.

It was gray. It was hurrying. It was huge. Its surface was mottled and stippled with countless flickering motes of black, like the seethe of snow on a TV screen. It had nothing to do with the river I had imagined. It didn’t even seem to be a natural phenomenon. It was an interruption in the landscape, a flood, a mob trampling through a barricade, an endless, purposeless stampede of water. A half a mile off in the deep channel was a gigantic industrial barge shrouded by rain. On the remoteness of the far bank, more than a mile away, was a line of gaunt dead trees.

There is a pretty much universal idea that Twain has a proprietary relationship to the Mississippi. It belongs to him, the way Victorian London belongs to Dickens or Dublin belongs to Joyce. This is not a new idea—in fact, it dates back to Twain’s own time. Some of his original reviewers wrote as though he’d discovered the Mississippi personally and was sending back the first dispatches from an unknown continent. An anonymous critic for The Hartford Courant was typical: “With a primeval and Robin-Hood freshness,” he wrote after Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, “he has given us a portrait of a people, of a geographical region, of a life that is new in the world.”

But this was getting Twain fundamentally backward. The last thing he was trying to do was describe the life of the Mississippi River valley as something “new in the world.” His fascination—obsession, really—was with the Mississippi as it had been in the past. He wasn’t interested in the contemporary Mississippi and didn’t even know that much about it. When he sat down to write Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he hadn’t been on the river in decades.

His Mississippi books are works of memory, even of archaeology. They’re about the world of the river valley as it had been a generation earlier, before the Civil War. That was the Mississippi he knew firsthand from his childhood: the great age of the Mississippi River culture. It had been a strange and fascinating time. From somewhere in the 1810s until the Civil War, a new society had rapidly sprouted and come to a fantastic height in the river valley: a world of its own, growing on and around the sprawling length of the Mississippi, with its own culture and its own language and its own unspoken rules. Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and Huckleberry Finn are lovingly detailed reconstructions of that age. Into them Twain poured all the half-forgotten trivia and pop ephemera he could dredge up from his childhood: the bad pious poetry and the worse folk songs, the primness of river town society matrons and the crazy banter of the river men, the omen reading of the conjurers and the tirades of the drunks on the riverfront levees, the childhood games, the rumors, the ghost stories, the superstitions … it was as though the murkiness of the Mississippi had cleared to reveal a drowned town miraculously preserved on the river bottom.

But in taking up this era as his subject, Twain hadn’t thought of himself as any kind of intrepid literary pioneer. There had been a long tradition of books about the Mississippi valley already; whole libraries had been devoted to the river long before he started writing about it. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the foremost authority on the Mississippi had been a journalist and historian named Timothy Flint, whose immense A History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley had been regarded as the standard reference work on the river—cited in countless other books and copied uncredited in countless more. But Flint had noted in his memoirs that he’d hesitated even writing about the Mississippi because it had already been done to death:

There are such showers of journals, and travels, and residences, and geographies, and gazetteers; and every person, who can in any way fasten the members of a sentence together, after having travelled through a country, is so sure to begin to scribble about it, that I have felt a kind of awkward consciousness at the thought of starting in the same beaten track.

This was in 1826—fifty years before Twain published Tom Sawyer.

What has happened to all these books? Long gone: banished to the unvisited stacks of university libraries and the unsold inventories of antiquarian book dealers; submerged now somewhere in the bottomless depths of Google Books. In fact, they had already fallen into oblivion by Twain’s time. Of the innumerable travelers and essayists and historians of the river who flourished before the Civil War, Twain noted in 1883 that “their books cannot be purchased now.”

From a strictly literary point of view, this isn’t much of a crime. American literature in those days was in dismal shape, and most of the early books about the river are unreadable today. But if their literary style can somehow be ignored, these books taken together do add up to a vivid collective portrait of the mysterious world of the river culture as it was at its height—and one that makes for a surprising, maybe even alarming, contrast when set next to Twain’s.

It must be understood that Twain never pretended to be writing documentary realism. His Mississippi, for all its historical specificity, was still at bottom a nostalgic daydream. The more Twain wrote about the river, in fact, the more it took on a kind of mythic grandeur: it became “the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun”—a world where every problem fell away down the next turning of the river bend, the perfectly serene, sun-flecked image of the American Eden.

Twain’s predecessors hadn’t seen it that way. To them the Mississippi had been crowded, filthy, chaotic, and dangerous. Where Twain saw eccentricity and charm, they had seen corruption and unchecked evil. Where he saw freedom, they had seen a jerry-rigged culture swept by strange manias and mysterious plagues, perpetually teetering on the edge of collapse. Their river valley wasn’t Eden; it was, as Twain himself observed in an unguarded moment, nothing more than “a semi-barbarism which set itself up for a lofty civilization.”

How could these versions have been so far apart? Simple: the earlier writers were describing the world in front of them; Twain, the world after it had collapsed. Everything we think of as characteristic of Twain’s Mississippi—the picturesque river towns, the paddle-wheel steamboats, the whole riotous culture of the river valley—had disappeared by the time he started writing. Even the river itself had fundamentally changed. During the years that Twain published Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been at work, dredging the channels and building dams and piling up levees—irrevocably destroying the wild Mississippi and putting in its place the artificial substitute we have today. This is why, if we want to explore the old world of the river, we have to begin with those drowned libraries of Mississippi writing and only gradually make our way back to Twain. After all, he wasn’t the first laureate of the wild river, the way his original reviewers had supposed; he turned out to be the last.

Prologue

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR art forms in nineteenth-century America was the panorama. A panorama was an oil painting done on a gigantic scale—so gigantic that the first sight of it would make spectators gasp. Today, a painting that fills up an art gallery wall (say, ten feet by thirty feet) would strike people as unusually large; back then, it would have counted as a panoramic miniature. Some panoramas were so big that special halls had to be built to display them.

The subject of the typical panorama ran to the spectacular and violent. One famous panorama (or, to give it its grander name, “cosmoramic view”) showed the burning of Moscow in 1812: in the foreground were Napoleon’s armies retreating through the snow, and in the background was the skyline of the city in flames. Another panorama showed the cannonades blasting the ships in the harbor of Tripoli during the Barbary Wars. There was a popular panorama of the “magnificent and imposing sight” of Vesuvius in eruption. Another very elaborate panorama displayed a series of biblical scenes, culminating, according to the advertisement, with “the awful destruction of the world.”

But the most popular—and by far the largest—panoramas were of the Mississippi River.

The choice of subject was a natural one. The Mississippi was famous. It was known everywhere as the wonder of the New World, the American Nile; it had been the subject of worldwide fascination and romance ever since the first European explorers had sent back descriptions of it in the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century, it had become a major tourist attraction: a steamboat voyage between St. Louis and New Orleans was considered an essential part of an American grand tour.

In those days it was called the Father of Waters. This was said to be the meaning of the original Indian word Mississippi. Actually, it was nonsense—a gauzy poeticism born out of white sentimentality about the noble savage. Mizu-ziipi was an Ojibwe phrase that meant “very big river.” (If any speakers of Ojibwe had felt moved to be poetical about the Mississippi, they would have more likely called it michu-ziipi, “endless river.”) But even if the phrase was bogus, it did convey something essential about the river—its immensity, the sense that it was a sprawling, dominating presence in the American landscape.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had taken on another aspect. The eastern half of the continent was largely colonized by then; the western half was still mostly unexplored. (The prairie and the plains were known as the Great American Desert—a desert more in the sense of deserted than of arid land.) The Mississippi had come to be the natural boundary line between the two. There were no bridges anywhere along its length; a crossing to the far side had something epic about it, a venture from civilization into the unknown. A trip up or down the river, even in imagination, was as exhilarating as a voyage along the edge of the world.

In the early 1850s, when the enthusiasm for panoramas was at its height, there were five different Mississippi panoramas on tour through America and Europe. Each was advertised as the biggest painting on earth. The most famous of them, John Banvard’s Grand Panorama of the Mississippi River, was known as the “Three-Mile Painting.” The ads said it was the “Largest Picture Ever Executed By Man.” Banvard’s chief competitor, John Rowson Smith’s Leviathan Panorama of the Mississippi River, was advertised as “extending over Four Miles of Canvas.” It was “One-Third Longer than any other Pictorial Work in Existence.” Another, Sam Stockwell’s Mammoth Mississippi Panorama, was announced as “Three Times the Extent of Any Painting in the World”—which, if that claim had been true (and if the other claims for the panoramas had also been true), would have made it twelve miles long.

Were the claims true? No. The Mississippi panoramas were most likely around twenty feet tall and a couple of hundred yards long, nowhere near miles. But they were still prodigious pieces of work. They were much too large ever to be displayed all at once. Instead they were shown in theaters, by gaslight, like primordial movies. Two cylinders were set on opposite sides of the stage; the panorama was gradually unrolled from one and wound up on the other. There’d be a narrator standing at the side of the stage, keeping things lively by telling stories and cracking jokes and scoring off the hecklers in the audience. There’d also be music—usually a piano or an organ, though at the classier theaters there might be a small orchestra. (The piano score for one of the panoramas survives: “The Mississippi Waltzes, to Accompany Banvard’s Three-Mile Painting”; it was on sale in the lobby after each show.) A complete viewing generally took around two hours.

What the audience saw differed from one panorama to the next, but it took the same general form: a succession of scenes as might be witnessed from a steamboat, on a voyage from one of the upper branches of the river down to New Orleans. (Actually the voyage went downriver at one showing and upriver at the next, to save the trouble of rerolling the canvas.) The panoramas rendered the river in the boldest and most gorgeous colors. Vista after vista, spectacle after spectacle, the Father of Waters unfurled itself in serene majesty. One newspaper reviewer described seeing “bluffs, bars, islands, rocks and mounds, points and cliffs without number, and of fantastic varieties of form.” The panorama artists crowded the view with eye-catching scenes of natural drama: thunderstorms towering over bluffs, blizzards burying forests, prairie fires stretching from horizon to horizon. There were also scenes of the great calamities and disasters of the day: the desertion of the Mormon city of Nauvoo in central Illinois, for instance (this was a night scene, with the dark rooftops and steeples of the empty city silhouetted eerily in the moonlight). Another favorite was the fire that destroyed the waterfront district of St. Louis in 1849. This was a spectacular scene showing fleeing crowds, desperate companies of firemen, the night sky over the city billowing with black smoke and showering down lurid red sparks; then there followed a scene of the morning after, revealing the charred wrecks of steamboats on the levee and the gutted stumps of buildings behind, with groups of survivors posed here and there in the rubble. This image was always greeted with a shocked hush from the spectators, before the grand flow of the river resumed.

Each vista came with some story attached. A tiny silhouetted figure on a distant bluff, for instance, would prompt the narrator to tell the legend of Winona’s Cliff, where an Indian maiden jumped to her death rather than marry a man she didn’t love. A view of the skyline of Dubuque, Iowa, would lead to a story about the town’s founder, who tricked the local Indian tribes into revealing the location of their secret lead mines. The panoramas also naturally touched on the hot-button political issues of the day. The most heated of these questions was the forcible exile of the Native American populations from the eastern half of the continent into the Great Plains. The panoramas seem to have reflected the divided feelings about these expulsions in the country as a whole. Smith’s panorama, going by the descriptive pamphlet that was sold at its showings, was robustly scornful of the Native Americans and pictured them as useless primitives who were getting no better than they deserved. The world-famous Indian wigwam, the pamphlet says at one point, was in reality “scarce built with the skill displayed by the beaver in the formation of its home.” But Banvard’s “Three-Mile Painting” was more elegiac. It showed the Native Americans as proud and statuesque figures of myth; it even took a detour away from the river to survey a new Sioux settlement in the prairie, with scenes of a war dance and children at play and a view of the Sioux’s mysterious “village of the dead.”

Against these dark images were set upbeat scenes of new growth. The river valley was being colonized at a furious clip, and the panoramas recorded the signs of occupation everywhere: settlements hacked out of the wilderness, vistas of deforested and freshly planted farmland, the plantations occupying the swamps, the new steeple-spiked towns rising on the highest bluffs. The enormous levees being built in the lower valley were favorite topics; one panorama included a dramatic image of a levee breach, with hundreds of slaves running with buckets of sand to fill the widening crevasse.

And above all, there were the world-famous steamboats. They were shown bustling everywhere, from the great harbors of St. Louis and New Orleans to the lonely reaches of the upper river: pausing at levees and docks to unload cargo, stopping off at remote lumberyards to refuel (this was known as wooding), puffing out proud billows of smoke as they pressed on down bend after bend of the great river—grandly florid emblems of civilization lording it over the wilderness.

The panoramas were like recruitment posters for the new society rising at the edge of the world. Such images seemed to catch up audiences all over America in a tremendous surge of excitement, one they were barely able to explain or describe. Even a famous skeptic of American triumphalism like Henry David Thoreau could feel it. In his essay “Walking,” from the early 1850s, he described his fascination with the Mississippi panoramas. He had seen a panorama of the Rhine River in Germany and had been delighted by its scenes of ancient and medieval legend—the Roman bridges, the ruined castles, the walled cities that recalled the setting forth of the Crusaders. He wrote:

I floated along under the spell of enchantment, as if I had been transported to an heroic age, and breathed an atmosphere of chivalry.

Soon after, I went to see a panorama of the Mississippi, and as I worked my way up the river in the light of to-day and saw the steamboats wooding up, counted the rising cities, gazed on the fresh ruins of Nauvoo, beheld the Indians moving west across the stream, and, as before I had looked up the Moselle, now looked up the Ohio and the Missouri and heard the legends of Dubuque and of Wenona’s Cliff,—still thinking more of the future than of the past or present,—I saw that this was a Rhine stream of a different kind; that the foundations of castles were yet to be laid, and the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the river; and I felt that this was the heroic age itself, though we know it not.

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