Writer’s Note: Recently I came across copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Although I love Twain’s writings and have read much of his work, this one had escaped me. I had read excerpts, but never the entire book.
Now seemed the perfect time for me to correct that oversight in my reading. You see, I grew up in Tensas Parish, a Delta parish that has the Mississippi River for its eastern boundary. I spent many hours watching that river while I was growing up, and learned at an early age both to admire its beauty as well as to respect its size and power. No wonder that a book – and one by Twain, no less – about the “my” river would interest me.
It has been many years since I’ve spent time with that river. Even so, like Twain, I have never forgotten her charms — GP
The Mighty Mississippi
Much has been written about the Mississippi River. More than 1000 songs have been inspired by her since 1900 – “Proud Mary” and “Old Man River” are my personal favorites. In addition to inspiring lyricists, the river has provided numerous writers with settings for novels, short stories, essays, poems, and – as in the case with Twain – memoirs.
This river is both beautiful and overwhelming. No wonder so many have wanted to include it some way in their works. Some – including Twain -- have even made the river a character. Many readers will notice that the Mississippi River serves both as setting and character in several of Twain’s works including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, as I have recently discovered, Life on the Mississippi.
“Father of Waters”
The earliest people to experience the Mississippi River incorporated references to the river into their tribal culture. The Ojibwe were the first credited with giving the river its name. Some scholars contend that the name is a derivative of a word from their language (Meaot Massipi) that translated as “great waters” or “father of waters”. Others cite the Ojibwe word Misi-ziibi (translated as “long river”) as the actual source. Either way, the Ojibwe get the honor.
Most European explorers who came much later formed a limited impression of the river based on that infinitesimal portion that they could see. They didn’t have the “big picture” and thus couldn’t comprehend its size or imagine its economic potential.
Hernando de Soto was the first European to discover the Mississippi River, seeing it first at a location scholars identify as south of modern-day Memphis. A Spaniard, de Soto dubbed the river “Rio Grande” (“big river”). A year later, de Soto died (possibly near what is now Ferriday, Louisiana, according to biography.com). He was buried in the Mississippi River. He failed in his mission to find gold, but de Soto – as well as his men and financiers -- also failed to see the potential of the incredible river they had discovered.
The River as Destroyer
I grew up hearing stories about the Flood of 1927. My mother was one of many who were evacuated to the levees near Vicksburg. Mother and her siblings stepped onto a boat directly off the front gallery of Kenilworth Plantation, their home. My mother never forgot that trip, and described it – even as an older woman – still though through the eyes of a little girl eager for adventure.
That isn’t the only flood in the Mississippi River’s history, but it is probably the one most readily remembered. “Epic” seems too small a word to describe its destruction just two years before another “epic” experience – the Wall Street crash of 1929. These were not easy times as everyone began figuratively digging out from the flood and then from the Depression. Both would require significant efforts to address – the levee system would have to be extended and reinforced, and the economy would have to be revived.
Twain summed up the power of the Mississippi River versus man’s attempts to control her this way: “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” (Mark Twain in Eruption edited by Bernard DeVoto). Engineers continue working today, hoping to prove Twain wrong.
Just the Facts
It is difficult not to think of size when seeing the Mississippi River in person. Photographs can’t capture the enormity of her. According to britannica.com, the Mississippi has the third largest river basin in the world, and encompasses over 1.2 million square miles. Only the Amazon River and Congo River basins are larger.
Students easily locate the Mississippi River on maps. After all, it appears to divide the United States in half from north to south. As they trace the river’s course – and that of its tributaries -- they quickly discover just how vast the river is. Combined with its tributaries, this river takes water from 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces.
Scientists have estimated that it takes about three months for water to flow from the Mississippi River’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence River, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine River, and 338 times as much as the River Thames.
Besides being both a mover of water and also breathtakingly scenic in places, the river provides a practical means of transportation. Native American canoes plus flatboats and keelboats were probably the earliest vehicles used on the river. In 1811 the first steamboat appeared on the Mississippi. Interestingly, the New Orleans’ maiden voyage occurred at the same time as the New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri – along the route of the New Orleans. Fortunately, this proved to be merely coincidence and not an omen as some feared.
The New Orleans ushered in the “steamboat era” -- an era that lasted through the Civil War until after 1920. Competition from railroads spelled the end of steamboats as major transportation. Railroad tracks did not change course nor did they rise and fall as the river did.
Twists and Turns
One of the most interesting things about the Mississippi is its habit of constantly seeking a straighter and shorter route to the Gulf. Evidence of this includes a number of lakes --- called “oxbow lakes”. These are remnants of the river’s meandering and are actually a cutoff former portion of the river channel that has been bypassed.
Scholars trace the name “oxbow” to the U-shaped collar that was placed around an ox’s neck. The lakes’ shape is reminiscent of that collar. I prefer Twain’s description: “If you will throw a long, pliant apple-paring over your shoulder, it will pretty fairly shape itself into an average section of the Mississippi River . . .” (Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 17).
The river’s movements as it seeks a better route to the Gulf sometimes mean that property lines change. Particularly troublesome in the upper river before the levees brought some order to things, these changing boundaries occasionally meant that some land on one bank in one state would find itself on the opposite bank in another. Imagine the confusion!
The River Sings For Those Who Love Her
When I think about “my” river, I don’t focus on the floods or anything negative. Instead, my thoughts focus on happy times, good friends, and lazy moments listening for that beloved river’s songs. Apparently, I’m not the only one.
American musician John Fogerty was a member of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Among that group’s many hits, “Proud Mary” (written by Fogerty) was among the most popular. Later recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, it quickly became an R&B classic.
Fogerty wrote “Proud Mary” before he had ever seen the Mississippi River. In an interview in 2013, Fogerty revealed that when the song came out, he went to Memphis so that he could see the river for himself. There, too, he saw his first riverboat.
When asked about his lyrics’ connection to the river, Fogerty said, “All the really great records or people who made them somehow came from Memphis or Louisiana or somewhere along the Mississippi River . . .and singers like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters gave me the feeling that they were right there, standing by the river.”
I know just exactly what Fogerty means. So do the rest of us who were fortunate enough to grow up with that majestic river nearby. We are all standing by that river, too, whether in our memories or in our dreams.