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Life on the Mississippi – the Real Story: Author Lee Sandlin Creates a Patchwork History of the “Wicked River” PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 13 September 2012 05:33

“Many in the crowd got roaring drunk – and the drunks at their most extreme were hard to tell apart from the fallers and the jerkers and the howlers. Others gave in to the general mood of riot and began fighting and beating each other up over nothing. But what made the camp meetings truly infamous were the orgies.”

Lee SandlinThis is not the Mississippi River that most people remember from Mark Twain. This is the real deal in all its lurid detail.

Lee Sandlin, who will be speaking at the Bettendorf Public Library on September 27 and the Upper Mississippi River Conference on September 28, said in a recent phone interview that he aimed to re-create “the Mississippi River culture in the first half of the 19th Century” in his 2010 book Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. “Basically what I’m doing is trying to introduce people to that kind of very strange little world that had formed then around the river.”

“Very strange little world” is the gentle way of putting it.

The quotation that begins this article comes from Sandlin’s section on camp meetings, which he writes “were a routine fixture of life in the valley from the beginning of the 19th Century until sometime in the 1840s. They were wild and disorienting events. ...

“A typical meeting began in a low-key, almost solemn way. A preacher gave a sermon of welcome and led a prayer for peace and community. This was followed by the singing of several hymns. Then there would be more sermons. Gradually, as the hours went by, the atmosphere changed.”

Spiritual fervor took hold over the week-long meetings, and in that context came the drinking, the falling, the jerking, the howling, and the fighting. And the orgies: “The meetings were always intensely erotic experiences,” he continues. “In the pervasive atmosphere of extreme excitement, people weren’t all that careful to make a distinction between religious ecstasy and sexual hunger. ... According to one scandalized report from a vigilance committee, a woman at one camp meeting invited six men to meet with her in the woods at the same time.”

Sandlin said that after his initial research for the book, he wasn’t surprised to find mentions of camp meetings. What did shock him was the volume of firsthand accounts of the gatherings, and “how insane they were, how close they were to pagan orgies. I’d read references to that, but I hadn’t realized that I’d be able to find so many people who were describing them directly, and just how bizarre they were.”

The first draft of Wicked River, he said, was full of quotations from those sources, “simply because I thought that people would think I’d made it all up. ...

“I didn’t have to exaggerate anything. I kept on thinking, ‘No one is going to believe this.’ I put in a lot of long quotes initially, and the publisher said, ‘We’re not paying for other people’s quotes; we’re paying for your words.’ ... I really felt like this was just extraordinary how strange and violent and chaotic this environment was.”

A Foreign Planet

“Soon after the squirrels left, the comet disappeared. And then the earthquakes began.”

Prior to Wicked River, Sandlin’s writing career had focused on essays for the Chicago Reader. But that publication’s famously generous leash with writers disappeared about eight years ago as a result of Craigslist, he said; his last long-form piece for the Reader, “The Distancers,” was intended to run in two parts but was instead serialized in 12 issues in 2004.

That pushed him toward books, and one idea was to write about the Mississippi River.

“I had been writing a lot of things about the Midwest, and when you do that, you keep on sort of bumping up against the Mississippi,” he said. “It fascinated me historically, that here’s this huge thing sitting right in the middle of our country, and people didn’t seem to know very much about it. People don’t spend a lot of time traveling on it now. ...

“The specific trigger was that I came across an odd fact that Mark Twain – who everybody associates with the river – when he wrote Life on the Mississippi and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn [between 1876 and 1884] hadn’t actually been on the Mississippi in 20 years. His books were acts of nostalgia; they were re-creations of the way the river had been, and it was no longer like that around the time of his writing.” And Twain’s experiences as a river pilot missed the entire first half of the 19th Century.

So Sandlin began doing research that, he said, “would have probably been impossible ... 15 or 20 years ago.” Google Books, a project that started in 2004, had scanned huge numbers of public-domain books from the 1800s. “It turns out that there was a vast library of books written about the Mississippi in the first half of the 19th Century,” he said. “Very few of which have been reprinted since then. And I don’t think very many of which have been read at all since maybe the Civil War. And all of them are available in the Google archives if you can find them.”

These included traveler’s tales, letters, histories, essays, and reflections found in regional libraries. While these books survived, he said, “even by Twain’s time, they were hard to find.” Now, more than a century later, they are available to anybody with an Internet connection.

Collectively, the works hardly captured the full range of river life. “There are blank spots up and down the line,” he said. “I was able to find huge masses of material about the everyday life on the river, but there were a lot of voices I wanted to hear that just don’t seem to exist. There’s not very much, for instance, written by women who were living on the river then. And I really felt that as an absence.”

But Sandlin had more than enough source material for his book. And “the more I found,” he said, “the less it seemed to resemble Twain.”

Consider Wicked River, then, an attempt to wipe out idyllic visions of the Mississippi. “The simplest way of doing it was just to tell these stories,” he said. “Because the more stories I found, the more bizarre the river became to me. There’s this old saying: ‘The past is a foreign country.’ And after a certain point, I started to feel like the Mississippi is a foreign planet. It was so odd compared to what I was expecting. ... The nostalgia just seemed to evaporate on its own. ...

“There were a lot of surprises in the material, because each chapter was a new exploration. And I didn’t really know what I was going to find, other than a general sense. I’d read enough to know that New Orleans was a very interesting place before the Civil War. Not that it’s dull now, but it was very strange then. So each chapter that I would get into, there would be sometimes major surprises along the way.”

And Sandlin said that even many of the most outlandish tales are corroborated: “There’s so much available that nobody has looked at. There are so many testimonies and so many memoirs that there really weren’t many things that I found where it was like, ‘Oh, this one guy told the story.’ ... The thing that surprised me is just how well documented most of it was. ... ‘Did that one guy just make it up? ... No, no, I can find 10 more books, all of them talking about the same thing.’ ...

“The world is kind of a stranger place than we think it is. ... The more accurately I describe it, the stranger it started to seem. I think that’s a fairly common experience of writing history.”