After a childhood of river dreams inspired by readings of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Raban set out to travel the length of the Mississippi River from north to south in a 16-foot open aluminum boat.
His journey took place in 1979. The waters he drifted down were much more dangerous than the river of his childhood imagination, but Huck’s urge to escape, to light out for the Territory before someone — some woman — civilizes him was very much the same.
Raban’s Mississippi is a turbulent world of fast eddies, mysterious boils, and tow boats with acres-long fleets of barges that looked like floating apartment blocks, and that pushed up massive wakes which sucked water from the shoreline and sent back towering waves that could capsize unwary boats.
Life beyond the muddy shoreline was another world entirely, with coon hunts, Baptist churches, pig roasts, failing towns, racial segregation, and disenfranchised people who felt left behind by their leaders and their nation. These are the characters he meets along the way as he observes the journey’s single rule: to follow the current of things.
Raban’s meandering narrative is perfectly in synch with the life of the river, and with the sun-drunk lethargy of its slumbering riverside towns.
Reading Old Glory brought back so many memories of my own St. Lawrence River childhood. Mine was a very different river, running as it does from the Great Lakes east to the yawning Atlantic gulf, and I grew up in a very small town on the Canadian side of those swift waters. We didn’t have a port, either. Only a small Coast Guard base. But I knew the heavy thrum of passing ocean ships and lakers, heard from miles away when swimming underwater at the town beach. I knew the clanging sound of channel buoys, the bite of winter winds across the ice, and the freshwater smell of the river in summer that forms the background of all my early memories. I also know what it feels like to be caught by sudden storms on open water in a small boat.
But Raban’s river passed through a very different history. The Mississippi witnessed the rise and fall of slavery in the south, the cotton boom, and river towns whose geographical position generated economic prosperity before the river wiped them away in a flood, or changed its course to leave them inland and dry. As he explored these towns and spoke to their residents, I had the feeling that history had left them behind, too.
The general reader will find wonderful bits of prose in Old Glory, and the sort of observations I’ve come to regard as trademark Raban. Here he is writing about racoons and their inability to cross nighttime roads: “Bright lights mesmerized them, and they died careless hobo’s deaths on the wooded edges of tiny unincorporated towns.”
Besieged by mosquitos and stinging things on the muddy riverbank at dusk, he writes, “When I slapped at the air, it was crunchy with bugs.” And in New Orleans, “I slept alone in a four poster bed meant for honeymooning in, and woke up feeling widowed.”
My favourite passage deals with fishing: “I spent a happy half hour buying fishing tackle; flexing rods and sorting through boxes of painted plugs which were supposed to look like fish to fish. Their artists, who had decorated them in Day-glo stripes and flashes, were deeply under the influence of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. I bought a blinding handful of the things, hoping that Mississippi bass and walleyes understood the conventions of the modern movement.”
I could hear my father chuckling behind him as I read this, flipping open his zippo to light another pipe or cigar.
This isn’t a new book. After 37 years, it has become a travel classic. But it remains vital reading.
As the publisher, Barnaby Rogerson, told me one sunny London morning, “Anyone who has read Old Glory would not be surprised by the election of Donald Trump.”
Order your copy today from Eland Books.