Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History
  • Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History
  • Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History
  • Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History
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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History

4.5 7
by Paul Schneider

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Old Man River, Paul Schneider's exploration of America's great waterway—taking the reader from the Mississippi River's origins to its polluted present and tracing its prehistory, geology, and cultural and literary histories—is as vast as its subject.

The fascinating cast of characters includes the French and Spanish explorers de Soto, Marquette

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Old Man River, Paul Schneider's exploration of America's great waterway—taking the reader from the Mississippi River's origins to its polluted present and tracing its prehistory, geology, and cultural and literary histories—is as vast as its subject.

The fascinating cast of characters includes the French and Spanish explorers de Soto, Marquette and Joliet, and the incomparable La Salle; George Washington fighting his first battle in an effort to secure the watershed; the birth of jazz and blues; and literary greats like Melville, Dickens, Trollope, and, of course, Mark Twain.

Pirates and riverbats, gamblers and slaves, hustlers and landscape painters, loggers and catfishers, tourists and missionaries: The Mississippi is a river of stories and myth. It's Paul Robeson sitting on a cotton bale, Daniel Boone floating on a flatboat, and Paul Bunyan cutting trees in the neighborhood of Little House in the Big Woods.

Half-devastated product of American ingenuity, half-magnificent natural wonder, it is impossible to imagine America without the Mississippi.

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Editorial Reviews

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.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

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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. The river is older than the entire fabulous menagerie of strange and outsized mammals that roamed the watershed during the two-and-a-half-million-year Pleistocene epoch, which ended about twelve thousand years ago with the most recent retreat of the glaciers. It was that most recent ice, however, that sculpted the northern features of the Mississippi River watershed into their current forms.

All across the top of the continent, the ice dammed up the northward progress of prehistoric rivers and sent them south, into the Mississippi watershed. The melting ice sheets didn’t drain into the Gulf of Mexico in any kind of measured or consistent pattern but rather in fits and starts, and floods of diluvian scope. For several thousand years, when the ice had retreated into Canada, but not far enough to allow the northern rivers to flow into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, a gigantic lake covered northern Minnesota, western South Dakota, and most of central Canada. This prehistoric Lake Agassiz, named for the nineteenth-century Swiss-born geographer who pioneered the radical idea of prehistoric ice ages, was larger than all of the Great Lakes combined, larger than the Caspian Sea. When at last it broke through the moraine of glacial rubble that was its southern boundary and drained for a time through Minnesota and Wisconsin, it carved the outsized gorge between those states through which the upper Mississippi River now flows. The Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin Rivers all flow through valleys that are far broader than the present water levels could have carved.

None of this is to say that the last ice age created either the Mississippi River or the land across which it meanders. The northern boundary of the watershed was shaped by glacial ice, which measures its workday in tens of thousands of years. The eastern and western walls, however, were caused by the drift of continents, which operates over hundreds of millions of years. Beneath all the lists of clay, most of the basin rests on top of some of the oldest rocks on earth. This shield of granite and gneiss known as the North American Craton, or Laurentia, has been drifting around smashing into, and breaking away from, other ancient pieces of the earth’s crust for more than two billion years. During that span Laurentia has been a component of more than a half-dozen supercontinents, including the all encompassing Pangea, which formed out of a series of titanic collisions that began five hundred million years ago.

When continents collide, oceans slowly disappear and mountains creep upward; the formation of Pangea eventually threw up a mountain range along one side of Laurentia that was higher than the Himalayas are today. Remnants of that Central Pangean Range still exist, in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Scottish Highlands. Much of what is left of the old Pangean Range, however, is now the Appalachian Mountains of North America—in other words, the eastern boundary of the Mississippi River basin.

Some rocks, when they are formed, align their internal magnetism with the earth’s poles, allowing paleomagnetologists to say with a surprising degree of confidence that those vertiginous peaks of the Central Pangean Range half a billion years ago ran roughly east-west, rather than north-south as the Appalachians do today. Rain nonetheless fell on those same slopes that would become Kentucky and Tennessee. Rain fell in showers and torrents and began the long work of tearing down the range and carrying it to the sea. Mountain brooks seem so ephemeral when approached on foot in a dry summer, or when buried under the ice and snow of winter, at least when compared with grand continental currents such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, and the Arkansas. But they are not.

Bounded as they are by metamorphic walls high above the rise and fall of the seas—what geologists call basement rocks—those tiny seasonal alpine rills are more permanent in their ways than the mightiest lowland rivers. The latest sediment of the day can be found on the soles of your shoes by the banks of Old Man River, but geologists know to look for the truly ancient up in the hills. The oldest river in America, and possibly the oldest in the world, is the ironically named New River. It flows off the western slopes of the Appalachians in North Carolina through a corner of Virginia and West Virginia, where it merges with the Gauley to form the Kanawha, which joins the Ohio at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and then the Mississippi at Cairo. The New River is older than the Atlantic Ocean, older than the dinosaurs.

Roughly two hundred million years ago the supercontinent of Pangea began to stretch and rift apart, tearing its central mountain range into pieces. The first break occurred between New Jersey and Morocco, slowly opening what became the Atlantic Ocean between Trenton and Marrakech; between, if you will, the Appalachian Mountains of the explorer Daniel Boone and the Anti-Atlas Mountains of the explorer Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta; between “Dueling Banjos” and The Sheltering Sky. Laurentia drifted away from the rest of Pangea at a rate of several centimeters a year, which suggests that for many thousands of years what would become the Atlantic Ocean was strictly a tidal creek. Meanwhile, rain that fell on those proto-Appalachian ranges gathered into rivulets and brooks, and into streams and rivers, from which thirsty triceratops quenched their dry throats.

The water flowing off the Central Pangean Range did not, however, gather itself into a single proto-Mississippi. With no Rocky Mountains to corral them at the other side of the continent, various streams and rivers wound their way independently across a vast, flat, and periodically marshy land populated by the familiar cast of hulking dinosaurs and skulking mammals of the late Triassic and early Cretaceous eras. Along the way, Europe and Asia broke off from New England and drifted toward their current positions, and an upwelling of magma known as the Bermuda hotspot split the Ouachita Mountains off from the main branch of the Appalachians and sent them toward their current location in Arkansas. The new ocean widened, as the Atlantic is still widening today. What would become the Pacific shrank, as it still is shrinking today.

Finally, some hundred million years ago the ocean floor to the west of Laurentia began to slide under the crust of the neighboring plate, pushing up ranges along the leading edge of the drifting continent including, most importantly, the Rocky Mountains. The familiar pieces of North America were coming together: an older, decaying range of mountains running up its eastern coast and a younger, sharper, taller spine of ranges rising in the west.

Instead of a river between them, there was a sea. The lowlands between the new Rocky Mountains and the old Appalachians initially buckled downward, the way a piece of cardboard might pop down in the middle if pressure is exerted along two sides. Into these lowlands salt water flowed from both the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, creating a vast, shallow sea that, at its largest, stretched the entire distance between the two great ranges. For forty million years this “Western Interior Seaway” was a warm and fertile place, full of whale-size toothy mosasaurs, along with sharks and rays, finny fish, horseshoe crabs, and clams. Rockhounds today find shark teeth a thousand miles from the nearest salt water in the watershed.

Ultimately, however, the colossal uplift that forged Pikes Peak and the Grand Tetons, and lesser ranges as far east as the Black Hills of South Dakota, raised the land between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The sea retreated, until by sixty-five million years ago the mouth of what can now rightly be called the Mississippi was around Memphis. North America was just beginning to look recognizably like itself, with mountains to the left and mountains to the right and a big winding river coming down the middle when a massive meteor struck the Yucatán Peninsula, just across the Gulf of Mexico. This set in motion the great extinction of the dinosaurs and 75 percent of the other species around the globe, and gave the skulking mammals their opportunity to evolve: into mammoths, sloths, and, eventually, archaeologists and anthropologists.


Copyright © 2013 by Paul Schneider

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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
The Mississippi River is an amazing river and I think in this book I expected to find the same attachment to the river as I found as I journeyed from Minneapolis to the Gulf. Instead I found more about the Mississippi River Basin and the rivers that flowed into the River. It is more of a story of the human history around the river but had very little to do about the author's experience on the river. I think I would have expected more about the source of the river down to Minneapolis but instead, Minneapolis is barely mentioned and only one sentience is dedicated to the headwaters. I got so much out of the author's kayak trips on other rivers but little out of his time on the Mississippi below the Ohio River. So much is missing from this book starting at the headwaters down to the Ohio. That history is amazing but it is not contained in this book. The author is an excellent writer but this book is incomplete.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
efm More than 1 year ago
lots of information and surprises about the Mississippi
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