Where I grew up, the Mississippi River divides Minneapolis from St. Paul; lower down in Lake City, where my great-grandfather is buried, the river separates Minnesota from Wisconsin; but on a map, it cuts the whole country in two. The Mississippi takes its rise from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, an unpromising beginning, and then broadens and winds its way to New Orleans. In imagination and memory, it just keeps rolling along.
During World War II, my father built tankers in Chaska with Cargill Corporation and once traveled on a completed vessel to New Orleans. When I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1946, it was a toss-up whether one was sent to San Diego or Parris Island for boot camp. My brother had been sent to Carolina. I was sent to San Diego. Wherever I have gone, wherever I have lived, the Mississippi has dominated the country of my mind.
I reread Huckleberry Finn every year, and it is like going home, although Huck’s is the only raft I’ve ever been on. The evocation of the antebellum river is only part of the attraction. Life on the Mississippi is far more evocative of that. Mark Twain lived most of his life away from his town of origin, and when he did return to Hannibal, Missouri, he seemed ill at ease in a present that obscured the past. Maybe it was more than merely the passage of time, but the river inhabits the innocence of childhood and can seem to mock tragic old age. Twain had lost his wife and daughter and seemed unable to stave off the despair that even suits of ice-cream white could not diminish.
No novel is more American than Huckleberry Finn, but it is a cracker-barrel world where education was minimal and culture a kind of country wisdom. That T.S. Eliot grew up along the river seems scarcely credible given his subsequent career and Anglophilia. Like Henry James before him, he would become a British subject. Not even a Harvard education had sufficed to bring him into the mainstream of Western culture. Eliot was one of the first to praise F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the elegiac ending of that novel evokes against the disillusions of the east the great promise of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul upbringing. It is as if the bastion of morality was inland “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Those words are engraved on the great slab under which Fitzgerald lies, but his grave is in Maryland among his ancestors. After Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby may be the most American of novels.
William Dean Howells, like Twain, was without much schooling, also a printer’s devil as a boy. Yet he went on to Boston and the editorship of The Atlantic Monthly, where he championed such writers as Twain. Howells served as American consul in Florence and wrote of Italy and of heroines of literature and is author of at least three good novels. Like Twain, he was an autodidact, though Twain had none of the accomplishments or bookish pretensions of Howells. A sub-theme of Twain’s one great novel is that a little learning is a dangerous thing. And more can be more dangerous. In moments of crisis, sophistication falls away and one longs for the warm breast of the new world and that great cleansing river that divides east from west and joins north and south.
When I was a boy, the Mississippi seemed a tributary of Minnehaha Creek, which starts in Lake Minnetonka and runs through Minneapolis to the Falls and on to the river. Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis, and Lake Hiawatha are joined by the creek, making a vast park of half of Minneapolis. My grandfather had been alderman when the great system of parks was formed and the creek conceded eminent domain. Just below our street, the creek flowed through what seemed a vast meadow. There were tennis courts, and in the evening my father practiced iron shots along the creek. One of my brothers once fell off the bridge and floated hundreds of yards, as blissful as Ophelia, before he was fished out. “There is a willow grows aslant a brook….” I had a ready image for those words when I first read them. In winter we skated on the creek. A replica of Longfellow’s house, a branch of the public library, overlooked the rink.
It has been said that you cannot step twice into the same river, and that goes for creeks as well. But that is only literally true. Like the snows of yesteryear, such waterways are gone forever yet ever present. “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”