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Monday, Dec. 13, 2010

Lee Sandlin Captures the ‘Wicked River’

Entertaining history about the Mississippi running wild

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“It was as though they were all walking around in a perpetual state of rage.” No, we are not talking about 21st-century Tea Party activists here, but everyday society in the lower Mississippi River Valley in the early 19th century, as marvelously captured by Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild (Pantheon).

With Wicked River, the Chicago journalist has made a superb book debut. In the above quotation he refers specifically to Natchez, Miss., but it could apply to almost anywhere along the river at that time, when life tended toward the Hobbesian. If not exactly solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, life was certainly filthy, chaotic and dangerous, and plagued by—well—plagues, as well as corruption and floods and other natural disasters. It’s enough to put anyone in a perpetual snit, if not a rage.

It may not be the picture of the place and time we have in our heads, familiar from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi. Twain wrote about that period in the 1870s and ’80s, but was looking back in a nostalgic daydream on a boy’s and young man’s American Eden and saw the Mississippi in its mythic grandeur, its magnificence and majesty. Twain of course was not of a generally sunny outlook, and so was also able to perceive that his home grounds enclosed, as he once wrote, “a semi-barbarism which set itself up for a lofty civilization.”

That is more in line with the picture drawn by Sandlin using largely books and other material published during the period under study.

The river dominated life in the muddy, primitive towns where white settlers lived. Until the arrival of steamboats, most traffic was downriver in all sorts of craft: scows, skiffs, pirogues, barges, canoes, schooners and, primarily, rafts, flatboats and keelboats. It took dozens of men to maneuver some of the rafts, which could be up to 90 feet long and accompanied by huge steering oars.

Their varied cargo was just about anything that could be grown, raised, mined or made. Also, each year thousands of slaves were brought down the river. Those who transported them were called “soul drivers” and, even though slavery was ubiquitous in the lower valley, were shunned by other river people, exhibiting thereby a silent shame of the dirty business they themselves nevertheless approved of and lived on.

It was not an easy, languorous float, but exceedingly dangerous navigation, hence the appellations “wicked river” or “Old Devil River.” The river continually shifted, rose, fell, expanded and contracted. Vessels were met, and too often upset, by sandbars, snags, floating trees—or great clots of interlocked floating trees known as wooden islands—and whirlpools and deceptive currents.

There were instances of the idyllic, free, Tom Sawyer-like boy’s life, such as that described in Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, an account that George Byron Merrick wrote in 1909 of his 1840s boyhood in Prescott, Wis., where the St. Croix River joins the Mississippi. But they have to be weighed against the perils and ugliness that abounded on and off the water: fierce thunderstorms, murderous pirates, nonhuman predators, frequent fires, slave auctions, squalid and unsanitary conditions that abetted epidemics of yellow fever and cholera.

A grim scene, to be sure; no wonder Sandlin writes of a recurring sense of looming catastrophe that gripped many residents. But that is not all of it. Just as there were Tom Sawyer moments, there were also fascinating characters, such as Timothy Flint, a stiff-necked, querulous and perpetually aggrieved missionary turned best-selling author; and William Johnson, a successful free black barber and businessman of Natchez. There were mammoth wilderness revival meetings, where spirituality vied with eroticism. There were more “loose women” and a looser attitude toward sexual morality than you would think. There were con men, crazy preachers and riverboat gamblers.

Most of it comes to an end with the rise of the railroads and the approach of the Civil War, to which Sandlin devotes the final section of this thoroughly engaging, entertaining and seductively educational history.
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