Saturday, September 14, 2013

Paul Schneider's "Old Man River"

Paul Schneider is the acclaimed author of Bonnie and Clyde, Brutal Journey, The Enduring Shore, and The Adirondacks, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Old Man River was one of the first pages of the book to be written. It falls near the beginning of a brief description of a voyage I took with my then-15-year-old son in kayaks on the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where the Missouri joins the river, to Cairo, where the Ohio arrives. We camped on sandbars, ran along the tops of boxcars on sidings above the river, or squirreled our boats among the weeds and crept into river towns like Huck and Jim might have if they carried credit cards that could buy them a night in a hotel and a steak dinner.

Old Man River is not, however, primarily a travel narrative: page 99 is one of a relatively few pages describing adventures up and down the watershed during the course of researching the role the river has played in the history of the continent. Far more pages are devoted to the ancient mastodon hunters and mound-builders, to the failed conquistadors and fearless French, the marching Anglos and enslaved Africans, the river rats and backwoods pirates. And of course to Twain, Dickens, Trollope, Melville, Audubon and the other 19th century riverboat tourists.

Yet, the moments of personal reflection on the river--whether in kayaks on the Lower Mississippi, in canoes on the Bayou Teche, in a tin-boat on the Ohio--are to me more than mere leavening for the more traditional “history.” I am not one who is particularly convinced by the argument that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it: would that it were true that educated leaders could learn from the mistakes of the past.
For me the main reason to study history is to enhance our experience of the immediate present, which after all is a part of the past as soon as it is noticed. Just as a person who knows the ins and outs and rosters and rules of baseball is likely to enjoy the world series more than a neophyte, so a knowledge of where we have come from informs where we are.

So I travel. “As soon as you are on the coffee-colored water,” I wrote on page 99, “you know immediately that you belong to the Mississippi River.”
Learn more about the book and author at Paul Schneider's website.

--Marshal Zeringue