In recent years a number of books have taken seemingly small objects — Cod, say, or Salt — and presented them as micro-universes, pillars of culture, faceted elements worthy of book-length inquiry. In such works the object in question is shown to be vast, extraordinary, and to spread tendrils everywhere. In the case of Old Man River, Paul Schneider’s exploration of America’s great waterway, the subject under consideration — the Mississippi River — truly is enormous. It does have tendrils (or tributaries) everywhere. It is a pillar of culture, or rather cultures. And Schneider’s challenge is to take something so large that it’s perhaps overlooked and to help us comprehend it at the scale it deserves.
It’s a mammoth project, and most of the time this ambitious book succeeds, even as Schneider reminds us that our nation’s greatest river is bigger than even we may have considered. “Just as a tree without branches is merely lumber, it is pointless to separate the Mississippi from its tributaries,” he writes. He then reminds us that “any moving water between the Great Lakes and the Appalachians” as well as all the way east into the Arkansas River and the Missouri River and north up to Lake Itasca at the Canadian border is truly Mississippi. The size of the river is the size of the American continental plate. Its geography is our destiny: The river’s paths both form and drain the lands of the eastern U.S. Its flow shaped the way we arrived in what we now call the west. The river is our oldest passage from North to South. The river reaches into western deserts and northern boundary waters and sails out miles and miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
These are a lot of tendrils, surely, and Schneider’s inquiry is no less vast. He wants to trace the geology, anthropology, prehistory, Civil War history, tribal history, and cultural and literary histories of the riverine region. He looks at mastodon bones and names the paths of nearly forgotten conquistadores. He meditates on the forming of jazz and blues. In between he narrates the experience of floating down pieces of the river on a variety of boats, including on a summer kayak trip with his son. It’s an enormous lot to cover — in fact, far too much. To his credit, Schneider hints at the vastness in broad strokes, stopping in on few key islands.
Some of these are quite memorable, especially in the beginning, when Schneider narrates the prehistory of the river. In fabulous yarn-spinning sentences, he whirs through the geologic eras in which the river was formed. “The Mississippi River was old long before the first giant sloth faced down a dire wolf or the last short-faced bear stood up to her full thirteen feet and bared her teeth to an eight-foot long beaver. It was old before the first woman to see it got her feet muddy,” he writes. He sets the stage for a fabulous romp.
At other times, Schneider lingers a long time in one tributary at the expense of another, and sometimes swirls a bit in eddies of detail. He floats lazily alongside the French explorer La Salle, who tried to start a riverine empire at a northern portage spot then known as “Checagou.” La Salle’s life is full of misfortunes, as owning the river or even making real headway in empire building prove impossible, but this section often loses the thread, the moral, the narrative flow.
Schneider also spends great deal of time on a blow-by-blow of Civil War battles that themselves represent negotiations of river landscapes. Again, it’s clear that the Mississippi is once again an instrument of politics and empire building, this time a point of negotiation in the expansion of slavery, and a critical border in American westward expansion. Yet this mini-Civil War history is thick as mud. It often loses track of why, exactly, the river itself is a new ingredient in our understanding of American history. The stream gets lost in the skirmishes.
At his best, Schneider is a marvelously personable tour guide, and he seems happiest when floating, philosophizing and arranging campouts with his son. Since this is the case, he might do well with a tad more literature, jazz, zydeco, Mark Twain. And he could be an even greater companion to ecologies — historic, present, destroyed and yet to come. Schneider has a real knack for capturing life on the river now, and his chapter about finding himself at the mouth of the river just as the gulf was filling from oil from the catastrophic BP “Deepwater” spill of 2010 was remarkable. He reminds us that the river now is also like the continent itself. It is ancient, and will outlive us, but its present condition depends on our care. Schneider forces us to ask what the future of the Mississippi — powerful, and also unexpectedly fragile — will be.