Good Books Friday: The Rivers of America Series

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone.

A few years ago I was doing a periodic dive into Chicago history, as will frequently happen, and was perusing the relevant section at the local library. Over the preceding few years, I had gotten more and more interested in Chicago as a city built on a lake and river, which we all know, but tend to take for granted. While Chicago is a major port city, for most residents, that takes places completely out of sight. The river and the jawdropping lakefront are for recreation and beauty; they are no longer the economic engine.

So an old book called “The Chicago” caught my eye. It was plain blue, no jacket, but you could tell it was going to have that musty and delicious old book smell, with pages that hadn’t taken a breath in years, if not decades. It was by an author named Harry Hansen, and not knowing too much about it, I put it on the pile. How bad could it be?

It turned out to be a thing of wonder. Hansen was an old-time Chicago journalist, originally from Iowa, who loved the city but looked at it skeptically. The book blended history and the present- or, rather, Hansen’s present, as it came out in 1942, but was clearly written before the outbreak of war. He took us up and down the still dirty and gritty river, which still had grimy industrial buildings and warehouses and factories on most of its grim banks.

But he also took the reader through time. He had the history of exploration, the Kinzies and Du Sable, and the earlier French explorers who found the portage. It was amazing to read, as he’d talk about a place at, say the 31st and Western, on the south branch, and talk about what was there when he had come to the city some 40 years beforehand, when the smoke from the fire could still be detected in memory and the city had yet to celebrate its first century. And, reading it some 80 years later, both waves of history have been lapped, but both are still present in any given spot.

This journey, it turned out, was part of the Rivers of America series, a huge, sprawling, ambitious piece of Americana that spanned nearly 40 years and three publishers. The idea was to tell the history of America through its rivers, those first highways, along which all cities were built. It is a 50-book series, with the first being The Kennebec in 1937, and the final one The American  in 1974. It’s also instructive to think of how much America itself changed over the years. The series takes you from Panama to Alaska, and from Maine to California. It is, fully, American. (Towns End Books and Wikipedia have complete lists)

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