The Meaning of Rivers: Flow and Reflection in American Literature [NOOK Book]


In the continental United States, rivers serve to connect state to state, interior with exterior, the past to the present, but they also divide places and peoples from one another. These connections and divisions have given rise to a diverse body of literature that explores American nature, ranging from travel accounts of seventeenth-century Puritan colonists to magazine articles by twenty-first-century enthusiasts of extreme sports. Using pivotal American writings to determine both what literature can tell us ...
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The Meaning of Rivers: Flow and Reflection in American Literature

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In the continental United States, rivers serve to connect state to state, interior with exterior, the past to the present, but they also divide places and peoples from one another. These connections and divisions have given rise to a diverse body of literature that explores American nature, ranging from travel accounts of seventeenth-century Puritan colonists to magazine articles by twenty-first-century enthusiasts of extreme sports. Using pivotal American writings to determine both what literature can tell us about rivers and, conversely, how rivers help us think about the nature of literature, The Meaning of Rivers introduces readers to the rich world of flowing water and some of the different ways in which American writers have used rivers to understand the world through which these waters flow.       Embracing a hybrid, essayistic form—part literary theory, part cultural history, and part fieldwork—The Meaning of Rivers connects the humanities to other disciplines and scholarly work to the land. Whether developing a theory of palindromes or reading works of American literature as varied as Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and James Dickey’s Deliverance, McMillin urges readers toward a transcendental retracing of their own interpretive encounters.       The nature of texts and the nature of “nature” require diverse and versatile interpretation; interpretation requires not only depth and concentration but also imaginative thinking, broad-mindedness, and engaged connection-making. By taking us upstream as well as down, McMillin draws attention to the potential of rivers for improving our sense of place and time.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
 “Water floats memories. Think of any phase in your experience and soon you will find some stream twisting through your thoughts. . . . Scott McMillin revives them for me in The Meaning of Rivers. His effort is both ambitious and disarmingly simple. He wants, as his title suggests, to set us thinking not about the surface of rivers, whether smooth and shiny or turbid and rough, but rather about their philosophical significance. ‘What do rivers mean?’ he insists on asking us at the outset, and he will not let us off easy. We cannot reply that rivers are about the endless flow of experience, or that they mirror the fluid uncertainty of our souls—such clichés will not do. For one thing, he conceives of rivers in their intransigent thereness, their actuality. If rivers are to mean something, it will not be because we can forget actual flows of water, with the debris they carry and the work they do. It is because we remember their material reality that we will earn the right to ask the deeper questions he wants us to consider.”—Wayne Franklin, from the foreword

 “Rivers not only wind their way across the American continent, but course through American literature and art. T. S. McMillin offers a learned and lively primer for our reading of river literature and of rivers themselves—and in the process a primer for understanding how the human mind derives meaning from all of nature.”—Scott Slovic, author, Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587299780
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Series: American Land & Life
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 220
  • File size: 438 KB

Meet the Author

 T. S. McMillin is a professor in the Department of English at Oberlin. He is the author of Our Preposterous Uses of Literature: Emerson and the Nature of Reading.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Wayne Franklin....................vii
Introduction: What Do Rivers Mean?....................xi
1 Overlooking the River....................1
2 By the River....................27
3 Up the River....................61
4 Down the River....................87
5 Crossing the River....................127
6 Up and Down the River....................153
Works Cited....................203
Index of Rivers, Writers, and Artists....................217
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First Chapter

The Meaning of Rivers

Flow and Reflection in American Literature

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-977-3

Chapter One

Overlooking the River

Our local newspaper ran a syndicated strip on the funny pages that provides a tragicomic introduction to rivers and meaning in the twenty-first-century United States. In the strip a father and his teenage son stand on a bluff looking down upon a stream as it flows through a valley, sun setting in the background, the tranquil atmosphere nearly cloudless except for a wisp of a cirrus, a flock of birds in the distance hovering above the water. The father, with his walking stick in one hand, gestures toward the river with the other and speaks to his son, who stands with hands in pockets and follows the direction of the gesture, looking out on the prospect. We cannot tell what the father is saying, for the speech-bubble of the panel is blank, just another white cloud in the sky. In the next four panels, the father becomes increasingly animated, his gestures suggesting the profound importance of the particular place in his life, but the speech-bubbles remain empty. The sequence winds up with the father's energetic embrace of his son and then (sniff) the wiping away of a tear. In the fifth and final frame the son removes an earpiece, obviously connected to an iPod or the like, and says, "I'm sorry. Were you saying something?" The father looks at his son silently, deflated and dismayed.

Perhaps because my wife and I have two sons whom we have dragged to many a fine prominence, the parental dismay strikes a chord. But the strip also interests me on an intellectual level, for in more ways than one it involves "overlooking rivers." First, the father looks out over the river and its valley, valuing the vista and wanting deeply to share the significance of the scene. He overlooks the river in the sense of enjoying an overview of it, a prospect of the grandeur of nature and its seemingly inherent meaning. In the son's response to the scene and in the consequent breakdown in the communication of the perceived meaning, another kind of overlooking comes to the surface, overlooking as a kind of neglect. Plugged into his personal music collection, the son misses the purport of his father's river-related effusions. Both of these types of overlooking happen frequently in North American culture, often simultaneously, and both are thus part of the meaning of rivers in this land, throughout its history at least since the presence of European immigrants. American literature is littered with examples of river-related overlook. For example, in the journals kept by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers' seminal account of the May 1804 to September 1806 expedition into the newly acquired territory west of the Mississippi River, we often find one or both of the captains standing above a waterway, overlooking rivers for a variety of reasons: to determine where they are or the best way to proceed, as at the confluence of the Marias River and the Missouri River ( June 5, 1805) or at the rapids of the Columbia River (October 24, 1805); to survey the land, its flora and fauna, and to compile an inventory (as directed by President Jefferson); but also for aesthetic pleasure, a recurrence that leads to a remarkable profusion of ways in which to spell "beautiful."

The other kind of overlooking—neglecting, ignoring, not seeing, or not recognizing the importance of a river—has an even longer history in this country. Take, for example, the Delaware River, a wide and slow-moving stream for much of its four hundred miles, stretching from the Catskills to the Delaware Bay and meeting tidewater around Trenton, New Jersey.

Overlooking the Delaware is nothing new. In his account of his 1524 voyage up the coast of North America, Giovanni da Verrazano, probably the first European to see the river, dismissed the significance of the Delaware on his way to what would become New York, as if he were late for an appointment in Manhattan. Less than a century later, Henry Hudson, in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, sailed into what became Delaware Bay and a little way up the river, but, feeling the purse strings tug all the way from Holland and finding the river a challenge to navigate, he too left the river unexplored.

Not long after Hudson poked his prow up the river in August 1609, the lives of a thousand or so Lenni Lenape were disrupted by Dutch, Swedish, and English colonizers, and the overwhelmingly "pleasant tasting water" of the river began to change. In a 1972 study engineer Robert V. Thomann observed that "from its earliest beginnings the quality of the waters of the Delaware has largely been taken for granted." Noting that all sorts of waste were discharged into the stream and its tributaries, forcing Philadelphians to seek elsewhere for unpolluted drinking water, Thomann concluded that "the country was just too busy with many more important matters than the quality of its rivers and streams."

This has changed—somewhat. In the last half of the twentieth century efforts were begun to clean up the Delaware, and some have succeeded. The Delaware, however, is not the only neglected river in the United States, and pollution is only one way (albeit the most obvious and most immediately destructive way) in which we have forgotten, disregarded, or ignored the nature of flowing water and the meaning of rivers. In the nineteenth century Henry David Thoreau quipped that his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, was "but little conscious how much interest it has" in the Concord River and "might vote it away any day thoughtlessly." In the twentieth century, discussing the neglect exhibited by "the preeminent city on the longest river in America," William Least Heat-Moon wrote that "Kansas City, born of the Missouri, has turned away from its great genetrix." Philip Fradkin suggests that, due to the lack of care for the Colorado River, it is "a river no more." Americans, it would seem, have overlooked rivers east and west, south and north, as if overlooking were a by-product of American business, whether we take that to mean our nation's commercial and industrial activity or a general tendency to keep busy that decreases time for reflection.

The rivers of North America have not always been overlooked. In the case of the Delaware, beginning with the Transitional or Terminal Archaic peoples who lived in the region between 1800 and 800 BCE, the river's floodplains were the primary place of residence. The Lenape were drawn to the Delaware, especially near the confluence with the Schuylkill River, by the abundance of fish and game, and they called the latter river "Manayunk," Place Where We Go to Drink. Early European transplants crowded onto the banks of the river: around 1701 "practically all two thousand of [Philadelphia's] inhabitants insisted on living as close to the Delaware as they could get." Even today much of our business and some of our pleasure, for good and ill, are directly with or on rivers. But except when major floods occur, little formal attention is paid to the nature and significance of streams.

Yet another problem arises when we do pay attention due to the manner in which attention is paid. In some cases, by looking at rivers in a certain way, we miss their larger meanings. If you were to climb one of the bluffs overlooking the upper Mississippi River (say, Brady's Bluff in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin), you would obtain an outstanding view of the nation's central waterway as well as the prairie below to the north and east and the bluffs across the river on the Minnesota side, with an occasional farm silo glimmering in the distance. If you are schooled in geology, you might be able to discern an ancient history, consisting of long-ago seas covering the land and then subsiding, epochs of erosion and drainage, and side-winding river-channel migration. The scope and power of that history can overwhelm other elements of the river's meaning, including tales of human history: traces of the earliest Native American peoples found in burial and ceremonial mounds, demographic shifts due to European colonization and changing economic tides, old-time water-ski recreation and lock-and-dam construction, loved ones lost to drowning. For a family of campers at the state park or a casual hiker, thoughts might revolve around the scene's effect on the senses, a feeling of being in the presence of timeless splendor and extended horizons. Depending on the measure of interest allotted to each of us in physical sciences, social history, and scenery aesthetics, the Mississippi we see can differ mightily from another's Mississippi, and the river we see might cause us to miss another river. Even when we do look at rivers, knowledgeably and lovingly, we very well might overlook important aspects of their meaning.

Lay Low and Hold Your Breath, for I'm 'Bout to Turn Myself Loose: Craft on the Mississippi

I am not the first to observe this phenomenon of overlooking. If you had stood on Brady's Bluff in the late spring of 1882, you might have espied Mark Twain leaning out over the rail of a steamboat. Twain devoted an ample portion of Life on the Mississippi (1883) to a discussion of overlooking the river in the sense of missing its meaning, from historical episodes up through the contemporary period, whether due to systems of value, inexperience, poor reading skills, or incomplete thinking. Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri; he and his family moved east to Hannibal, a town on the Mississippi River, in 1839. He began training as a steamboat pilot in 1857, and his account of that momentous apprenticeship appeared in a seven-part series of articles ("Old Times on the Mississippi") in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875, to be reprised in Life on the Mississippi. That was a dozen years after Clemens had become "Mark Twain," a pen name he crafted from materials supplied by the riverboat trade, the term referring to water that was two fathoms (twelve feet) deep, just enough for navigation of larger vessels. The name, the river-related derivation of which he explained in "Old Times" and Life, developed into more than a pseudonym: in the transformation from Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain became a real character, that fictional self taking on its own reality. As a literary icon and one of the nation's best-known celebrity writers, Twain literally (and doubly) became a man of letters: a craftsman of literature and a man made up of letters crafted within the realm of literature.

One could argue that the difference between the man and the author, Sam Clemens and Mark Twain, is academic, of interest only to those scholars and critical theorists who have disputed such matters for thirty or forty years. Life on the Mississippi, however, makes evident that the issue has importance for those who delve into the meaning of rivers. Just as the invention and promotion of "Mark Twain" imply a shift in attention from a real fellow (Clemens) to a made-up figure (Twain), so too does Life shift readers' attention from the actual, material river to a literary, conceptual river. These shifts, in turn, suggest that meaning emerges from the intersection of the material and the conceptual; such a move does not make the river less real, but it does make literature "realer" than we usually consider it to be. And it gives authors themselves a greater material worth in two senses of the phrase: what authors do (craft things out of letters) becomes a substantial activity, something that matters; and thus their craft might be valued more highly. Clemens, shrewd man that he was, reinvented himself as Mark Twain in order to better earn a living; for similar reasons, he reinvented the Mississippi. Both of these inventions accumulated new meanings.

By looking into the river Twain crafts, we can learn something about the relations between rivers and their meaning. Although many of Twain's most famous works made use of the Mississippi (including Tom Sawyer [1876], which recounted Clemens's boyhood days by the river; the down-the-river escapades of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [1884]; and Pudd'nhead Wilson [1894], a novel examining race, social conventions, and identity in a small Missouri town on the river), Life on the Mississippi presented his most focused and sustained treatment of the river. To write the book Twain drew on his prior experiences in the steamboat trade but also revisited the river (accompanied by his publisher and his stenographer) long after he last stood behind the wheel. The literary-motivated return provided Twain with the opportunity to physically overlook the Mississippi again in such places as Brady's Bluff above Trempealeau and Cardiff Hill above his old hometown. It also provided the needed conceptual overlook, the chance to reconsider the river, its history, its present, and his own history with the river for the sake of crafting it all into a book. The Clemens party headed down to New Orleans from St. Louis, stopping in Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, and Baton Rouge, spending a week in New Orleans, and then headed upriver, visiting St. Louis and Hannibal before continuing on up to the northern reaches of the river in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and finally Minnesota. The boats he traveled in, those on which he learned piloting and those on which he voyaged years later as a passenger, serve as vessels for his authorial perspective and thus offer readers a closer view of the river from a moving standpoint as well as a firsthand lesson on overlooking rivers.

From the very first chapter of the book ("The River and Its History"), the author divulges his interest in a textual river, a river of letters. He promises that "the Mississippi is well worth reading about" and that in order to get to know the Mississippi, you must familiarize yourself with some of the various texts (historical, mythological, sociological, geographical, political, literary) surrounding the river. (Twain calls this the "historical history" of the river as opposed to its "physical history.") Crafting the Mississippi entails weaving together a multitude of facts, figures, images, and mysteries and then shaping these pieces and threads into a meaningful story. Any individual image or fact on its own does not carry much of the river's meaning; each bit must be related to the other, and the diversity of available materials requires that the resulting picture will be complex. Take, for instance, the "fact" that in 1542 Hernando de Soto became "the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River." (Most reference sources these days make it 1541.) Twain muses that facts alone do not suffice. They must be "grouped" with others, put into relation with other potentially significant items along with an author's informed and reasonable glossing of things, and thereby formed into a text: "The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color." Twain uses Soto to illustrate an important point regarding rivers and their meaning: one needs to "interpret" facts rather than merely "state" them, and meaning emerges from interpretation and the writer's ability to "paint a picture."

Twain, of course, is not saying that facts are insignificant or that the river itself is meaningless. In the same chapter he points out that the river can even change the very meanings that we give it, highlighting the Mississippi's shifting nature, its ability to restructure political boundaries and "alter its locality." The big river moves from one place to another, "always changing its habitat bodily," that is, changing its channel by "always moving bodily sidewise." This fluctuating nature can alter the relation of one town to another and even possibly affect the status of human beings. The writer relishes the river's proclivity to form "cut-offs," its "disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself." Discussing the nature of cutoffs, Twain connects these physical changes in the river with their geopolitical effects, delighted that the river can destabilize the world by wreaking havoc with town lines and state jurisdictions. He speculates that "such a thing, happening in the upper river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from Missouri to Illinois and made a free man of him." For Twain, the interplay between the natural history of the river (physical facts) and its social history (facts from "historical history") requires the kind of perspective that comes from conceptual overlook. This overlook enables an author to craft a text from the grouping of sundry facts into carefully designed categories, which results in a meaningful picture.

But how shall facts be grouped? According to what perspective? With the addition of which colors? Once we have accepted that the Mississippi is a river full of meaning and that facts alone do not suffice but have to be selected, combined, and ordered according to the author's judgment and preferences, we might then begin to wonder about the context in which the Mississippi's meaning is being crafted. Life on the Mississippi encourages such wonder by reconsidering some of the previous meanings accorded the river. There appears to be some doubt as to whether the river has any inherent "value," since the river went unwanted and unnoticed for a number of years after Soto's "discovery." Twain remarks, "Apparently nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and a half the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it." Twain here suggests a connection between economics and meaning, as if the Mississippi lacked meaning because it lacked economic uses, as if overlooking (neglecting) the river were a function of the market.

Twain at once fosters and questions that connection in his account. He concludes the discussion of Soto by observing that overlooking the Mississippi's value was not remedied until "La Salle the Frenchman" came to the belief that the river would tender "a short cut from Canada to China" and facilitate trade with the East. "Why did these people want the river now when nobody had wanted it in the five preceding generations? Apparently it was because at this late day they thought they had discovered a way to make it useful." The brief chapter on La Salle and other explorers of the Mississippi concludes with France "stealing" the country from Native peoples in the name of "Louis the Putrid." The next chapter, which begins, "Apparently the river was ready for business, now," turns to a study of commercial traffic on the river. The heavy emphasis on the steady growth of both the "white population" and "commerce" serves to reduce the Mississippi's meaning to its "value" or "usefulness," though Twain's thrice-repeated "apparently" slyly (and wryly) undercuts the accuracy of these apparent facts. Readers are subtly led to wonder if each particular observation is true or if it just seems so.


Excerpted from The Meaning of Rivers by T.S. MCMILLIN Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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