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Thursday, November 4, 2010 / 1:21 PM

Take Me to the River

Take Me to the River

Lee Sandlin’s new history of the Mississippi in the 19th century, Wicked River, is great high- and low-minded fun. Sandlin is the perfect Virgil on this journey downstream past gamblers, thieves, fires, and sexual revels.

The world Sandlin evokes is one piece of what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” an often brutal, thoughtless place where, as Sandlin writes, people “routinely did and said extraordinarily foolish things for no reason other than joie de vivre.” And it’s an intoxicated place: “There was one simple explanation for the wildness of the river culture; everybody was drunk.”

Fittingly, the book is subtitled “The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild,” and it’s lovely right down to its cells, as when Sandlin remarks in passing on the “pens of lamenting livestock” on a boat’s deck. He musters the perfect tone, twinkling and bemused.

Sandlin spoke to us by phone from Chicago.

Your book is about the Mississippi in the age before there were many roads by the river, and before the telegraph was there. So once someone went past, traveling downstream, there was no way for someone on land to catch him. And this seemed to lead to… a lot of larceny?

People took everything they could get a hold of! They would just load it onto their boats and take it down to the market as extra cargo, and there was nothing you could do; once it was gone, it was gone. That’s one of the reasons why the cities developed around the levee towns. If you were a farmer and you saw a boat coming ashore, you most likely just opened fire. Cheating and stealing was pretty much universal; they just took it for granted. Travelers, especially European travelers, were astonished at how completely lawless life was. And the thing that astonished me is that people still contrived to live—and in a lot of cases to carry on normal, boring lives—in the midst of this wild thievery.

There’s a strong sense in Wicked River of a division between “the river people” and the ostensibly more respectable townspeople; you mention at one point that at St. Louis “there was a night watch with fifty armed men assigned to the dock district, just to make sure that the river people didn’t stray too far from the levee.” To have to muster fifty armed men in St. Louis before the Civil War seems like a lot. What does that tell us?

I think it tells us about the magnitude of the theft and also about the volume of river traffic. You wouldn’t think the river could be that crowded, but certainly in the spring and the fall there could be hundreds of boats stopping off by the levee every night.

You describe these riotous camp meetings along the river in the early 19th century—religious, crude, and erotic. Reading about the multiple stages, the people out of their senses, the aid stations, the orgies in the woods, I thought, “Woodstock!” And I also thought of the Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos; 10,000 people went to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois for it this summer.

The revival meetings weren’t the first time that’s happened in human history. It’s something that people like doing.


Author Lee Sandlin, Photograph by Frank Blau Photography

But when we think of “camp meetings” now, if we do at all…

Yes, people think of revival meetings as a lot of singing and chanting. I don’t think they necessarily think of orgies. It may be a consequence of how we think of history, that we sort of suppress the energy that it had. We suppress the sheer chaos of the past and lay over this veneer of respectability, so we assume that anything that happened in the past had to be boring. People do have this tendency to look at the past only as a way of interpreting the present. The past had its own logic and it can be sometimes extremely strange. There’s that novel that says, “the past is a foreign country” [L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between]. I think you could really make the case that the past is an alien planet.

You say on your website that one of your inspirations is William Hazlitt, the great English essayist of the early 19th century. In your 1993 piece from the Chicago Reader, “Just a Weekend in the Big City”, I noticed that you referred to your friend Stan at home “with the rock music blasting.” A lot of writers would have said what band that was; they might even have made a fairly big deal out of it. But I get the feeling that if it’s late 20th-century music, it’s sort of all the same to you. So do you miss the 19th century?

There’s a lot about it that I find pretty horrifying and that part of it I don’t think I would miss at all. People were remarkably callous about things like death and disease in those days. I was constantly coming up against this indifference to suffering… The sheer energy of the life there would have been wonderful to experience.

The best reaction I’ve had to this book so far is a friend of mine who would open a page and say “Oh, God, I wish I lived back there,” and then she would open another page and say “Thank God I don’t live back there.” That’s really how I was reacting to it.

How did you research Wicked River?

I read a lot of books that haven’t been reprinted in 150 years—and I didn’t find any that I thought should have been reprinted. I was using Google Books, and I was using the Newberry Library in Chicago. Google Books has been scanning books in wholesale, and that was great because I came across books that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

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

Did you think of Wicked River as a corrective to another account—say, to Mark Twain’s nostalgia for the Mississippi?

When I started I thought, “Well, Twain was sentimentalizing the river.” But then, as I worked on it, I started thinking that ultimately his river is as real as anybody else’s. It’s nostalgic, but it’s an extraordinary beautiful invention.

I guess we know what becomes of the Mississippi townspeople, since they stay in one place—they become the city people and the city’s founding fathers. What becomes of the river people, do you think?

I’m not sure. Except for the hardcore gamblers, I don’t know that many of them thought of themselves as living on the river. One of the things that struck me as I was researching this was how little affection any of them had for the river. They hated it. They were only doing it because they needed the money. You really don’t find people up until Twain talking about their time on the river with any nostalgia.

And then there are the hydrological changes, and the commercial and industrial changes. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was so little commercial traffic on the river that it wasn’t even recorded. That was when the Army Corps of Engineers’ changes really began to take effect. They dredged the channels and fixed the course, and the traffic really began coming up again. So now there’s about 100 million tons of cargo moved a year—but the culture is completely gone.

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