THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

OLD GLORY: A Voyage Down the Mississippi by Johnathan Raban

Snarky – 1: crotchety, snappish. 2: sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner; 3: sarcastically critical or mocking and malicious

When Jonathan Raban was a seven-year-old boy living in England, he first read Huckleberry Finn and fell in love with the Mississippi River. Or maybe he fell in love with Mark Twain’s graphic portrayal of the river. I read the same book at about the same age, but I have a more substantial basis for my fascination with the subject. Almost my entire life has been spent within at least thirty minutes of America’s mightiest natural force. The only exception being the years I spent going to college and even then I was never more than ninety minutes from the Mississippi. I have moved from my birthplace in almost a straight line north but never east nor west (or south, for that matter).

The result of Raban’s fascination was Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi, published in 1981. It is the story of his attempt to travel almost the full course of the mighty river, 1400 miles, in a small sixteen-foot boat powered by a 15 h.p. motor.

I first read the book a number of years ago and recently gave it a second look after reading Raban’s latest travel book. I have to admit that I liked the book better the first time than I did the second go around.

Here is the problem as I see it. Raban loved the river, but didn’t have much use for what Americans have created along its banks, which in many cases is understandable. However, he seems to have a visceral disregard for the people that he meets along the way. He seems to be – well – snarky in his regard for the folks he meets.

Personally, I have had a much more pleasant experience in my contacts in the communities and rural areas that border the river. And I know why. Raban didn’t exactly re-enact Huck and Jim’s river voyage. Whereas they camped along its banks or on its islands, Raban headed for the nearest motel each evening. I don’t blame him for that, but on his way he nearly always stopped at the nearest bar – the seedier and sleazier the better. No wonder he didn’t like the people he encountered. When he stopped in the charming little historical town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, he headed for a bar and became involved in conversation with somebody totally unlike anybody I have ever met in that community. And yet, Raban leaves us with the impression that he has just met a person who is generally representative of the town.

Raban does a similar thing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, another town that I am intimately acquainted with. The people that he writes about are not truly representative of the people who live there. In his conversation with a waitress, whom he makes out to be scatterbrained, he misconstrues her comments. He thinks she is talking about Columbia University when in fact it is the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri that she is referring to. Well, he is not a native of either the United States or the state of Missouri and could be forgiven for his error, that is, if he hadn’t been so snarky about it.

But then one reviewer writes that Raban is “a sort of English Capote; vivid, funny, accurate, full of hyperbolic wit and outrageous metaphor; no reticence at all. But at least as important is the author’s ability to make an instant connection with virtually any human being whomsoever.” (I admire a writer who can so unselfconsciously use a word like “whomsoever,” a word that I believe I just typed for the first time.)

Even though Capote would have to be considered the epitome of snarkiness, I have always enjoyed reading him. And I admire Raban’s innate ability to connect with the people he meets, but I do believe that he and the reader could have been better served had he broadened his circle of connections.

Of course, Raban wants to write about the offbeat and thus seems to shun any objectivity in his analysis of the American people. But had he tried just a little harder he would have found some interesting people who do not frequent the bars and taverns to which he tends to gravitate. (I apologize if that came off a bit snarky.)

But having said all this, I have to admit that I like the book. It took courage for Raban to travel down the river the way he did. And he is a good writer and his vivid descriptions of the river – its seductive beauty, its dangerous siren call, and its unwillingness to be tamed (it escaped its banks once more this year) -- saved the book for me.

I like Old Glory better than I do Raban’s Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America (published in 1990), but not nearly as much as his Bad Land: An American Romance (published in 1996) (You can read Ron Scheer's review of Bad Land at Buddies in the Saddle). 

When I originally reviewed this book the title was Old Glory: An American Voyage, which I indicated was rather meaningless.   I went on to say that I thought a much better one would have been Big River: An American Voyage.  At some point somebody else must have decided that the title was lacking, and on later editions of the book the subtitle was changed to "A Voyage Down the Mississippi."

original title


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