Wicked River
The Mississippi When
It Last Ran Wild

Lee Sandlin
We used to spell out the word in Mrs. Booker's third grade class, sing it out loud, enchanted by the very music of the word, sonorous ... sinuous, filled with s's and p's, just like the river itself. The name, they say (according to those who pretend to know), comes from the Objibwe gichi-ziibi, "Big River."

It may be big, but it's not the most powerful river in the world (nine others beat it) ... and it isn't even the longest (the Nile, the Amazon and the Yangtze are longer), but the Mississippi certainly takes the cake as far as fables, cant, distortions and outright lies go.

One lie is that of Mark Twain, a notorious fibber. He wrote a remarkable history of its steamboat days. But as Sandlin reveals, Life on the Mississippi was a tale that appeared when the glory days of the river were gone, was perhaps a reflection of a world that never existed. Twain himself made one last visit in 1882, complained that before, "we would have passed acres of lumber rafts, and dozens of big coal barges, the occasional little trading scows, peddling along from farm and farm, with the pedlar's family on board, possibly a random scow, bearing a humble Hamlet and Co. on an itinerant dramatic trip. But these were all absent."

The reason: the Eads Bridge in St. Louis. It put an end to the traffic of barges, scows and paddle-wheelers, those that once took goods down river, past New Orleans, and thence up the east coast to Philadelphia, Boston, New York.

Wicked River traces the history of the river from the early days of the United States through the Civil War. Sandlin includes descriptions of the routine violence and chicanery of the river people, the mysterious Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley, the terrible pain of going upriver (mostly poling the heavy barges in times before the coming of the steam engine), rumors of slave revolts pouring through the southern states before the Civil War, and the plagues that swept up and down the river. This on Yellow Fever, the annual visitor to all the river towns during the 19th Century: the dead with their "sad, sullen, perturbed" faces, the skin "dark, mottled, livid, swollen and stained with blood and black vomit," and, after death,

    the veins of the face and whole body become distended, and look as if they were going to burst.

For a victim, the first sign of impending doom was "yellow skin and eyes," and --- poetically --- "a drop of red brimming from an eyelid."

Sandlin can be a careful and pleasant writer. This on the early days of the river, where the river "served as its own map."

    The great dragon tail of the riverun coiling through the forested valleys and across the tallgrass prairies and into the vast shrouded swamps, glittering with ten thousand sunflects.

"As far as the eye could see, the river was the only road."

The lively stories of the month-long crazy Mardi Gras celebrations in 19th century New Orleans, the forty-day siege of Vicksburg (the Confederate army surrendered, it was said, not to the Yankees, but "to famine"), and the burning of the paddle-wheeler Sultana --- loaded with Yankee soldiers just released from Cahabe and Andersonville prisons --- all owe much to his vivid style.

With all this, he comes up with some surprising facts: the burial of the poor in New Orleans had to be hurried because no sooner had a grave been dug than it filled with river water (the rich were buried aboveground in expensive mausoleums); the death toll in the wreck of the Sultana exceeded even that of the Titanic; that there were, in the pre-Emancipation south, black slave-owners. He quotes from the journal of one ex-slave William Johnson, who "dispassionately writes up the times when he had to flog one of his slaves for disobedience or drunkenness or theft."

At times, Sandlin does amble about in loops or "ox-bows" just like the river he is telling us about. A chapter on Virgil A. Stewart, a notorious pamphleteer from the 1830s --- predicting a slave-revolt that never occurred --- wanders all about the countryside, through valleys and over farms, drowning the land (and the reader) in a flood of obscure details that are neither enlightening nor fun.

But for most of its course, Wicked River is an engaging journey, leaving the reader to mourn, along with Twain, this vigorous channel pouring "its chocolate tide along, between its solid forest walls, its almost un-tenanted shores, with seldom a sail or a moving object of any kind to disturb the surface and break the monotony of the black, watery solitude," and

    the majestic, unchanging sameness of serenity, repose, tranquillity, lethargy, vacancy...

--- Richard Saturday
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