University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Writing the River

All of us who think about stories and the Mississippi River have to think about Mark Twain.  Often that means an almost ritual citation of one of a half dozen or so passages, or a reference to the river as “Mark Twain’s river” as if it didn’t exist before he wrote about it.  Of course it did, and it continues to exist, albeit with a host of meanings, only some of which are associated with his writing.

It’s that question of the river’s meaning that interests us in the “Making the Mississippi” seminar.  Last week we spent a good deal of time talking through a perspective that the literary scholar T. S. McMillin raises in his book The Meaning of Rivers.  McMillin concentrates on the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where young Sam Clemens begins his education as a pilot.  The boy realizes that his previous understanding of the river, which was all bound up in romantic notions of freedom and faraway places was an “overlooking” of the material facts of the water.  This idealized, abstract knowledge was worse than useless; it actively interfered with the knowledge that he had to develop to navigate a boat.

Unfortunately, on having learned his pilot’s trade, such that he could “read” the river going upstream or down, by day or by night, Clemens comes to realize that the romance of the river was lost.  He no longer cared what the river means, or if it’s a passage to mysterious places; he only knows what he has to in order to get his steamboat around the next bend safely.

McMillin suggests, and I concur, that true river literacy comes at a point in between the two ends of the spectrum that young Clemens experienced.  We have to know enough about how the river works to deal with it respectfully as a system in the “real world.”  But we should never lose our awe at its power, its mystery, indeed, its magic.

So what is river literacy?  Are there specific bits of knowledge, or perspectives, or points of view that are necessary for us to have a “literate citizenry” with regard to the Mississippi?  What do we have to know to interact with the river in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, resilient, and healthy?


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  1. John SullivanDecember 10, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    Here are some throughts on how one learns or understands the river:

    To watch the sun rise over the bluffs and cast the first morning light on the river’s floodplain forest, lake, marsh or slough.

    To drift along a meandering side channel under a tree-lined canopy containing the nests of eagles, herons or egrets.

    To paddle through the floodplain forests when the river enshrouds the trunks of ash, cottonwood, elm, maple and oak.

    To catch walleyes and sauger along the swift-flowing waters of the main channel or bass or bluegills in the calm, shallow vegetated backwaters.

    To watch the ruby throated humming bird collect nectar from a carpet of scarlet red cardinal flowers growing under a sparse canopy of silver maple and cottonwood in the waning days of summer.

    To watch the light of a campfire or moon reflect of the still waters of the river while camping on a sandbar still warm from the heat of mid-day sun.

    To walk barefooted along a cool sandy shoreline in the heat of the summer.

    To smell the intoxicating fragrance of a lotus flower on a calm, warm summer’s morning.

    To catch the seeds of wild rice while poling a canoe or skiff through the shallow marshes of the river’s floodplain.

    To listen to the non-stop raucous of geese, swans and ducks emanating from a floodplain lake while the cool autumn winds provide the first hint of winter’s approach.

    To ski or skate on the river’s frozen surface or snowshoe the snow-covered forested bottoms exploring areas not easily reached or seen by boat.

  2. Captain Bob DeckJanuary 9, 2015 at 7:38 am

    If you are interested in a first hand account of a working view of the Twin Cities part of the river check out my writing. I was a deckhand and pilot on the local Twin Cities towboats;

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