Mark Twain is a mythic figure in American history, but in his time, much of his reputation sprang from the authenticity of his tales of the Mississippi River, the then-mysterious western landmark of this still-young nation. Twain had grown up in a river town and worked in his twenties as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi; his best works reflect a knowing communion with those waters.
Like so many of us, Chicago writer Lee Sandlin’s strongest literary memories as a child grew out of Twain’s world, and he uses this to frame his riveting new book, “Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild.” What Sandlin quickly realized was that Twain was not a chronicler of his contemporary Mississippi, but rather the river of his youth; Sandlin calls the Mississippi books “works of memory, even of archeology.”
When Sandlin set out to explore, through the vast paper trail of writings about the Mississippi River in those formative years for Twain—the early nineteenth century up to the Civil War—he discovered anything but the bucolic, romantic vista of hazy memory. Instead, it was a raucous, rapacious anything-goes frontier, full of gamblers, whores and all manner of hustlers. Sandlin’s book is a feast of color, a revisionist history (or perhaps revivalist?) in the spirit of other recent histories of our not-so-gentle Midwestern past, like “Devil in the White City” and “Sin in the Second City.” Sandlin recounts the story of the voyageurs, who risked, and often lost, their lives in the downriver pursuit of a quick buck in commerce. He tells of the collective insanity (with unstated contemporary resonance) of the witch hunt for the Mystic Clan, a purported vast conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion for the purpose of systematic looting. And many other long-forgotten stories that unfold with cinematic vividness. Like the author from Hannibal whose shadow looms large over any work contemplating the mighty Mississippi, Sandlin deploys a gift for rollicking narrative and crafty prose that makes this one of the best nonfiction books of the year.
We corresponded with the author via email about his work and the spectre of Twain.
You frame your book with Mark Twain, and blame him for your personal fascination with the Mississippi River. But you seem to discover in your research a river much more exciting than that of Twain. How did your perception of Twain change in the course of writing “Wicked River”?
Actually my feelings about Twain kept changing over the course of writing the book. I began with the discovery that Twain’s version of the river was a nostalgic daydream, and I started writing with the idea that I was going to offer a corrective to his sentimentalized and sugarcoated image of what life on the Mississippi had been like. But I came around to him again by the end. Partly it was the result of the research I did—I had to read a lot of books on the Mississippi, and there wasn’t a single one that could compare with Twain as literature. (Well, one exception: Francis Parkman’s “LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West,” which Twain himself highly praised.) And then in the end Twain’s Mississippi is such a beautiful literary creation that it seemed churlish for me to pick at it. I don’t think my book refutes him; maybe offers a more complicated and shadowy backdrop for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
You’re from Chicago, and connect the city to the Mississippi. Do Chicago and its residents have a special connection to the river that runs deeper (sorry) than, say the East Coast? Was this true more or less in the nineteenth century?
In the nineteenth century, people on the East Coast had little or no interest in what was happening on the Mississippi. The Sultana disaster (which ends my book) was barely even mentioned in New York newspapers. Twain’s writings were taken by the New York literary establishment as a kind of revelation: it was as though it had never occurred to them that people from the American interior could have anything of interest to say. I find that this attitude actually hasn’t changed that much. I worked in a bookstore in downtown Chicago a couple of decades ago, and sometimes writers from the New York literary establishment would come in for signings—some of them could barely conceal their contempt at being stuck out here among the hayseeds. (I won’t mention names… other than Susan Sontag.)
What tipped you off that there was a much richer story of the river in the time period you chose to cover? Your book is an economical 247 pages but the sources imply you read tens of thousands of pages. Can you talk very briefly about your research and editing process? Were there some great stories left “on the cutting-room floor”?
The book would have been impossible to do ten or fifteen years ago, because I would have had to have spent years travelling around to provincial libraries looking up forgotten books about the Mississippi. The essential thing for me was that Google Books has been archiving public domain books from the nineteenth century. They’re being completely undiscriminating about it, which means that I was able to turn up a couple of hundred books about the Mississippi that haven’t been reprinted since the Civil War—and, I’m pretty sure, haven’t even been read since the Civil War. I found all this material pretty amazing—in fact my criterion for including any given story was simply that it surprised me, because I figured that whatever surprised me might also surprise my readers. I did leave out stories, but only because I decided to end the book with the Civil War—but I’m going to try to make room for the leftovers in my next book, which is about the Midwest in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Your tale ends in Twain’s lifetime, basically, and you suggest that the river’s story ended then. If Twain were to take a boat ride down the river today, what would he see and what might he say?
My guess is that he wouldn’t be particularly surprised at what had happened to the river over the last century—just depressed by it. The essential change to the river had happened by his return to it in the early 1880s: by then the Army Corps of Engineers was already remaking it, and the wild river he remembered from his childhood had been destroyed. The extent of the industrialization of the lower river would probably amaze him, but then I think it would amaze people now, because it’s happened almost completely out of sight. I don’t think most people are aware of how heavily the riverbanks have been developed in the last several decades; the lower river is one of the busiest industrial corridors in the world.