Big muddy: the river before Mark Twain.

Author:Falconer, Bruce
Position:Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild - Book review

WICKED RIVER: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild

By Lee Sandlin, Pantheon, 270 pp., $26.95

In 1882, Mark Twain boarded a steamboat in St. Louis and set off down the Mississippi. The great chronicler of the river, who before achieving literary fame had worked its waters as a steamboat pilot, was returning to the Mississippi after an absence of more than 20 years to revisit the vibrant river towns he had known as a young man. As Twain later wrote in Life on the Mississippi, what he found instead were a string of dilapidated or abandoned settlements separated by lonely stretches of river 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." The Mississippi of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was gone. The weight of commerce had shifted to the railroads. And even the once-indomitable river appeared transformed, its waters cleared of snags by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and illuminated at night by a seemingly endless chain of oil lamps along its shores. In the decades to come, locks and dams and channels and levees would make river navigation more efficient than ever. But, for Twain, the taming of the mighty Mississippi brought sadness. "Piloting, at a good stage of water, is now nearly as safe and simple as driving stage," he wrote, "and is hardly more than three times as romantic."

In Wicked River, Lee Sandlin, a longtime writer and essayist for the Chicago Reader, sets out to restore the Mississippi to its natural, roiling state. Like the river itself, the book flows erratically from the Minnesota headwaters to the Louisiana Delta. Along the way, Sandlin picks through the flotsam and jetsam of time to assemble a folk history of life on the river from the early 19th century until the end of the Civil War--a period, he writes, during which the Mississippi last ran "wild as a river does in nature." The resulting portrait is unrelentingly grim, substituting filth, disease, and early death for the corncob pipes and paddle wheels of our childhood imagination.

The book's pages are populated by a dizzying (and, at times, overwhelming) number of characters-plantation owners, missionaries, soldiers, slaves, minstrels, circus freaks, war profiteers, witch doctors, riverboat gamblers, grifters, drunks, prostitutes, pirates, vigilantes, thieves, and killers. Sandlin delves deeply into his source material, stitching together...

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