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Sandlin's 'Wicked 'River' once a magnet for commerce, thievery

| Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

Mark Twain is inexorably linked to the chapter of United States history when the Mississippi River was the heart of American commerce. His books, notably "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Life on the Mississippi" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" cast the region in a romantic, albeit wild, aspect.

But Twain's writing was not contemporaneous. By the time he wrote his river-centric tales -- "Tom Sawyer," the earliest of the aforementioned books, was published in 1876 -- that way of life had passed.

"Most of that history had already been forgotten," says Lee Sandlin, author of "Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild." "The thing that people forget about (Twain) was that he was writing his books long after that time had ended."

Starting in the early 1800s until the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863 during the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley was one of the most unpredictable places on the planet. From its origin in Itasca, Minn., to its terminus 95 miles below New Orleans, the river was not only a geographical marvel, but also the channel by which all commerce in the surrounding regions took place.

Sandlin, a Chicago-based writer, notes that the Mississippi was "the commercial market of the heartland." The promise of financial opportunities attracted entrepreneurs, farmers and anyone else who had a product or item to sell. It also was a magnet for those fierce individuals -- drifters and grifters, men and women -- who wanted to live their lives free of rules and regulations.

"The wildness of the life there had a lot of attraction for those who were not too interested in order and tedious civilization," says Sandlin, who notes there were rumblings of discontent about the region becoming too civilized as early as 1820.

By any measure, however, the Mississippi was a dangerous place, starting with the river itself. Before steamboats started to become prevalent in the 1830s, a man overboard was a man lost; flatboats and rafts could not easily turn around in the river's strong current. Because of the hydrology and geography of the Mississippi valley -- the "chutes and points, bends and reaches, false points and sycamore snags" -- travelers on the river never knew what to expect when they set out.

"It was a completely different river every time," Sandlin says. "There were never any good maps, because maps would be constantly out of date."

The populated areas bordering the Mississippi lacked "many of the elements of a functioning society," Sandlin writes. There were few roads, no hospitals or schools, little public sanitation, sketchy mail service, a variety of local currencies and very little law enforcement. It was where people came to seek whatever fortune they could; the river itself was almost incidental, even a nuisance.

"I don't get the feeling that many of them liked the Mississippi very much," Sandlin says. "They were drawn to it only because they needed it. It was the only way through the wilderness in those days. There were no roads, there were no trails, mostly. The only way to travel was by the river, and so they had to find ways to live with this thing, even though most of the accounts, when people were talking about it, they kind of hated it. It's only when you get to Mark Twain that you get people feeling nostalgic."

Twain, who was a steamboat pilot, had that career interrupted by the Civil War. His impressions of that era would thrill readers around the world.

But when he returned in 1882, after an absence of 20 years, the Mississippi River was traversed by bridges that allowed trains to cross. Docks were empty, warehouses shuttered and steamboat traffic was negligible. Sandlin thinks that Twain's longing for the riverlife of yore was unmasked in a second part of "Life on the Mississippi," which, he contends, is filled with less than humorous passages.

"(Twain) never once comes out and says, 'I had a horrible time, it was a nightmare to see the river destroyed,' but that's really what his message was," Sandlin says. "Instead, he kept on compulsively making bad jokes, which is one of the reasons nobody reads that half the book. When I was reading it, I thought he was really devastated to see the river gone. ... That became the natural endpoint for my book."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

The romance of the Mississippi River by way of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer has captured the imagination of readers for more than 100 years. But Lee Sandlin's 'Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild' casts the river and its surroundings as a fitful, dangerous place, a haven for gamblers, cheats and other entrepreneurs of dubious lineage who created a Wild West atmosphere that pre-dates cowboys, cattle and wagon trains.

• Rege Behe

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