'Old Man River' by Paul Schneider finds continuity in the fast-changing Mississippi River

CorrespondentSeptember 21, 2013 

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    Nonfiction Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History Paul Schneider

    Henry Holt, 394 pages

In his “The Adirondacks” (1997), Paul Schneider wrote, “If there’s one thing that the history of the Adirondacks teaches, it’s that the meaning of wilderness, like love, changes as soon as it’s defined.”

Change also provides the leitmotif in Schneider’s new “Old Man River,” his fast-paced and affectionate tale of the Mississippi River’s long and meandering path and its historical meaning. “It’s impossible to imagine America,” Schneider writes, “without the Mississippi. The river’s history is our history.”

Schneider combines travel narrative, historical research and autobiography – as well as archaeology, cultural and physical geography, ethnography and folklore – in telling the Mississippi’s story. He pays ample attention to canoes, flatboats, kayaks, keel boats and steamships. Also present are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans Jazz and the BP oil spill.

Pirates, gamblers, slaves, loggers, catfishers, hustlers and landscape painters populate Schneider’s book. So, too, do Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain and Paul Robeson.

The interaction of water, land and “all manner of riverine creatures, native and volunteer alike,” consumes Schneider. He confesses to having succumbed to “river madness,” one symptom of which includes his alleged ability to hear Old Man River speak.

Schneider traces the Father of Waters’ history back to the ice age when continents collided, glaciers receded, mastodons bellowed, and humans arrived.

The Mississippi began life as a trickle emanating from Lake Itasca near present-day Canada. By the time it flows to the Gulf of Mexico, the river has merged the waters of almost 40 percent of the continental United States. Eleven states lie entirely within the Mississippi’s basin, and more than 50,000 dams alter its watershed. The Mississippi constitutes the third largest drainage basin in the world, following those of the Amazon and the Congo.

“Wade into the Mississippi,” Schneider insists, “and as long as your soles are on the ground you remain what you were, a part of the rest of the continent – the Rockies and the Appalachians, the prairies and the woodlands. You remain ... the object upon which the strong brown god is applying its relentless and patient will.”

The strength of “Old Man River” is Schneider’s detailed narrative of the peopling of North America along the Mississippi’s vast tributary network. Native peoples and their cultures rose and fell in the Mississippi’s watershed. For example, Schneider examines the massive ancient effigy mounds – earth art modeled after serpents, birds and bears. He also charts the history of Cahokia, North America’s greatest pre-Columbian city prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.

Spanish explorers came north on horses while the French came south in native canoes. Hernando de Soto, Jacques Marquette, Louis Joliet, Robert de La Salle – each sought to conquer and then to master the Mississippi watershed. In doing so they etched their names in Mississippi’s rich colonial history.

The Mississippi and its tributaries also played a major role in shaping the young United States. Maj. George Washington first tasted battle in the watershed over whether Britain or France would control the Mississippi. The Civil War resulted in part over the question of slavery’s extension into territories west of the river. Their early victories in the Mississippi Valley brought Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln’s attention. And the Union’s July 1863 capture of Vicksburg divided the Confederacy, giving Lincoln’s Navy control of the river, hastening the war’s end.

“The longer you spend on the river, the more likely it is that the stream will draw out of you what needs to be drawn out,” Schneider concludes. “The flow itself is the thing that will catch your conscience like a fallen leaf.”

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His latest book is “Race and Recruitment: Civil War History Readers, Volume 2.”

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