"Life on the Mississippi" | Reviewed by William Winkler
In 1883 Mark Twain published “Life on the Mississippi,” the first book ever submitted for publication as a typewritten manuscript. In it, Twain describes his apprenticeship as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, then describes a trip from St. Louis to New Orleans and back up the river to St. Paul, with a stop in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.
Rinker Buck’s new book, bearing the same name as Twain’s work, details his experiences in building, then piloting an early 19-century flatboat down the Monongahela, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Buck was inspired by reading of the exploits of Henry Yoder, a late 18-century entrepreneur who realized that using the interior rivers of America’s burgeoning westward expansion was the most efficient means of transporting goods to a saltwater port, from which said goods could be transported to the rest of the world.
Buck describes his research into the design and construction of a wooden flatboat similar to those that plied the western rivers up to the time of the larger and more efficient steamers. After nearly a year of planning and construction, Buck launched his boat, named “Patience,” into the Monongahela, upriver from Pittsburgh. For the next four months he sailed downriver, learning from experience and the wise counsel of others the vagaries of river navigation. He describes the natural hazards and beauty of such navigation as well as the challenges posed by the ever-increasing volume of commercial river traffic he encountered on his journey.
But Buck’s book is more than mere travelogue. He was driven to the expedition by his love of history, and a large portion of the text is devoted to the historical trends that drove the earliest exploration of the rivers and the factors that led to their importance for the economy of the growing nation. He came to be appalled by two little taught episodes in the nation’s history. The first was the forced relocation of the five great southeastern Native American tribes from their ancestral homes to barren, less idyllic lands in Oklahoma, the infamous “Trail of Tears.” The second was the translocation, primarily by river, of hundreds of thousands of African slaves from the failing plantations of the eastern seaboard to the exploding cotton industry of the deep south, an episode of history that gives us the expression “sold down the river.”
Buck’s book includes periods of quiet reflection about his relationships with his family, and descriptions of his interaction with the varied personalities that comprised his crew. In this sense, “Life” reflects on the style of one of his earlier books, “The Oregon Trail,” in which he drove a mule-drawn wagon from the pioneer trail’s origin in Missouri to its terminus in Oregon. Both books are written with attention to detail, but also with welcome dollops of humor. Readers who enjoy history or travel will find “Life” to be a worthwhile read.