Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's in a River?

  I first came to Mark Twain through the usual entryways of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, intent only on the kinds of adventure attractive to boys of my age, and with no immediate thought of following Twain through the doors of the literary life, although the memory does persist of my asking a fifth grade teacher if one might actually make a living in such a manner.  Mrs. DeAngelo replied with her characteristic understatement wrapped in a boxing glove, "Twain seemed to have done well enough for himself, but you have nothing in common with him and you have that funny California accent."

That encounter seemed to have planted at least one seed.  I resolved to get myself somehow back to California, where I would not appear to have an accent, and I resolved to follow Twain, which in some ways at least I did.There were a few other ventures into Twain fiction, notably Tom Sawyer Detective, and Puddin'head Wilson, but I was not pushed entirely through the door of my life's calling until shortly after my thirteenth birthday, when I was gifted with a book still in my possession, a large, inexpensive compendium of Twain's work, including Tom and Huck and Connecticut Yankee as well as several of the sketches, the text of some speeches, and large portions of one of the most magesterial and remarkable works I had ever read (and to this day dip into with soaring admiration and enjoyment).

By this time, I had read enough Twain and comments about him to be sure I had found a sturdy companion as well as text book in this volume, enthusing from time to time on the spot on drama and cultural accuracy of:


  No answer.


  No answer.

  "What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

  No answer.

  The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

  "Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll -- "

  She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

  "I never did see the beat of that boy!"

This was revelation, pure and simple, launching me into the landscape into which I desired launching, each time I picked up a book.  If I could learn the reasons why this opening was so precise, so transformative and transportational, I might, indeed, get the hang, as Twain did, of making a living from story telling.

The revelation grew with my own emerging education as I learned the more subtle nuances resident in Huck Finn.

  "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

  "Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body could tell what to do with..."

This was Tom Sawyer with a voice, which meant the narrator's voice, which meant you could pick your narrator because of his or her voice, and you were no longer stuck onto the age but could fly forth from it, as it were, splattering itself all over the white shirt of credulity worn by the reader.  You could make the reader feel that someone finally understood you, got you, knew the forces that shaped who you were and why you did what you did.

In an epiphany of understanding, as you grasped the importance of this magesterial work, the enormity of what lay ahead of you was shown to you in a vision that has never completely left you.  

"The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world -- four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope -- a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

  "It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half way down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water: thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the 'Passes,' above the mouth, it is but little over half a mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi's depth is eighty-seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.

  The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable -- not in the upper, but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uniform down to Natchez (three hundred and sixty miles above the mouth) -- about fifty feet. But at Bayou La Fourche the river rises only twenty-four feet; at New Orleans only fifteen, and just above the mouth only two and one half.

  An article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, based upon reports of able engineers, states that the river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico -- which brings to mind Captain Marryat's rude name for the Mississippi -- 'the Great Sewer.' This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.

  "The mud deposit gradually extends the land -- but only gradually; it has extended it not quite a third of a mile in the two hundred years which have elapsed since the river took its place in history. The belief of the scientific people is, that the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge, where the hills cease, and that the two hundred miles of land between there and the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that piece of country, without any trouble at all -- one hundred and twenty thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfullest batch of country that lies around there anywhere..."

You will or won't recognize this as the opening paragraphs to Life on the Mississippi.  These paragraphis are presented with a voice as avuncular and respectful as, say, the voice of the late Walter Cronkheit, embodying the actual personality of the river, giving to the page a sense of the River's life, its reach, its enormous appetites, its personality, its graceful stature, its seemingly inherent sense of being the most elegant monster, a Leviathan with courtly style and manners.

It has been a long time since you first beheld those words and those that came after it, realizing in slow degree that the book is only about the Mississippi River in subtext; this is a plangent, remarkable memoir of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, emerging in many ways as Huck Finn, appearing for all the world to see a good deal other than what was intended--the heart, soul, and creative swagger of the man who wrote it and who found his voice and swagger right there on the river.

These early paragraphs remind you of an emblazoned moment from your fourth year, when your father took you to a posh jewelry store on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, whereupon he advanced you to a concave window, directed your attention to a wrist watch on display, then told you to reach in to claim it.  You were only too happy to comply and accordingly only too frustrated when your hand struck the obstacle of glass instead of the object of your pursuit.  Over your mother's complaints that this was a terrible thing your father was doing, your father bade you to always consider things that appeared to be in your grasp, things too easily taken without effort.

For years you did not conflate your father's words with Mark Twain's words about how statistics, particularly dry statistics, could be used to convince individuals of realities that were not in fact realities but rather fantasies or deliberate distortions.  Even now you are amused at how long it has taken you to question some of Twain's statistics and figures, particularly because you knew that he had once been a pilot on steamboats plying that Mississippi River so elegantly brought to life in Life on the Mississippi.  You are amused by the past times you have been taken in by Twain, and reckon you have once again been taken by this outpouring of statistics and comparisons.

Make no mistake about it, Twain knew that river as few others did,its turns, tides, and shoals, its reefs, its depths and banks.  Steering steamships up and down its miles of meander and whim, he developed an intimacy with it of staggering compass, causing him to walk with the lover's swagger and dress with the captain's cap, cutaway coat, and tie.  Few men were as equipped to speak of it as he, allowing for the reach of analogy that Mark Twain knew of the Mississippi as Honore St. John Crevecoeur or Alexis de Toqueville knew of the emergant America.  Few men were so mischievous as Twain, and thus, recalling across the distant years your father's words, you look at the concave windows separating you from jewelry shop and text, bidding you to look at things that appear within your grasp and look at them closely, lest you be taken in and brought to the frustration of the illusion.

No comments: