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)
It is ultimately an incredible biography of our country. The genius of the project, created by Constance Lindsay Skinner (who also served as the first editor) was not to use academics or major historians, but rather journalists, novelists, local writers, etc: regional experts. The kind of people who can take you on a journey through the past, but also the living present, and who can show you how the two aren’t that different. The kind of writer who can talk to a guy who has been fishing on the waters since 1894. The kind who knows the country, or the city, like the back of his or her hand. You get a granular feel for the river, and the history alongside it.
Because none of the books are just about the river; geology gets short shrift. It’s about how the river impacted the people, and how the people impacted the river. The two-parter about the Tennessee is one of the great stories of our time, a massive project to tame a river that had run wild, and that had wreaked wordless and unconcerned havoc on battle plans and colonization attempts, on all our efforts to mold nature. It gives you to sense that nature will eventually still win.
Regardless, though: through the books there runs a sort of big country liberalism, a generosity for joint projects and dreaming big, and for recognizing that moving through the vast rapids of the land took a joint effort and shared dreams. There is no pinching greed in the books, no small-mindedness about the work it takes to make a port on a wild river or a city on its banks or to turn the endless flow of water into electricity. They are, I think, and antidote to the idea that there is no such thing as the public good, that our collective efforts are alien, and that the only possible freedom is in individual profit.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some uncomfortable parts in various books. The Lower Mississippi, by Hodding Carter, has some odd moments of race, progressive in its way (he is always complimenting the Negro), but frequently lashes out against outside troublemakers stirring up passion– that is fighting for civil rights. And really with every book, you read wondering what the author will say about the extermination of the natives. Usually, the mood is one of respect and even sorrow, though usually in service of accession to the necessary.
And that makes sense. These were written in a time and place, and that is what makes them so valuable. While some books are better than others, they have all been worth reading. There’s even a songbook: most of the books have lyrics to regional songs. If anyone wants to make a recording of these, I’ll be happy to write the liner notes.
This is Americana at its finest: a celebration of the vast differences in the country, but what binds us all together. It’s a throwback to when not every place had the same strip malls with the same stores. It’s a time when we were more defined by natural limitations, by the graceful curve or sharp falls of a river. We pretend that stuff doesn’t matter, anymore, and it will haunt us. We don’t take care of them. We’ve forgotten their importance. This is a different time, not a better time, but one that we’ve lost. Unless you make your living on a river, you might forget that these defined us as a nation.
If you want to read about this country, about who we were, which is the only way to understand who we are, and which direction we’re flowing, I’d find one of these. Find one that is close to your home, a river you may have seen 10,000 times. You’ll see it differently after picking it up.
I can’t say I’ve read them all yet: not even half. I don’t want to order them. I like finding them in old bookstores, in garage sales, chanced along some rural dollar shop. I want to find the whole collection before I resort to going online, even if I wish I had them all now. It seems better that way. It seems right to stumble on them. It seems good to let it flow to you, to let the country appear unexpectedly, suddenly wild again, vast currents rumbling underneath the pavement.