Going to Hell with Huck

by Jason Peters on August 1, 2012 · 4 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


Rock Island, IL

The Great River runs East-West here, and that’s a disturbing geographical fact for someone of my moral disposition. I want such North-South rivers as the Mississippi to run North-South.

And I like maps. I hang them in my office, my garage, my basement, my shed. And I like them to tell me intuitive truths—that, for example, N-S rivers behave like N-S rivers.

The Mississippi, for example.

But here the Great River assuredly does not behave. It runs East-West.

I’m told our stretch here is fairly young: about twelve-thousand years old. And, as a parent, I get this: youngsters don’t behave.

So yesterday, absent my youngsters, I took about a seven-mile walk along the river on the Iowa side. I was passed by bikers and roller-bladers and runners. For a spot of time lasting I don’t know how long I passed a forest of lily pads, fragrant in the warm summer breeze. In doing so, surprising and being surprised by several mallard hens, I thought that no one really needs to go on a research trip: there’s plenty in the back yard.

I saw herons poised on driftwood. I saw pelicans rise and fly off the water in a formation more synchronic, beautiful, and certainly less noisy than those we often see from the engines of death that frequently thunder over these parts. I saw the bleached white underside of a dead freshwater drum floating belly-up and visited frequently by death-munching flies droning lazily in the late-morning heat.

And I walked and sweated, for we’re being pounded by heat and drought.

The muddy Mississippi picked up passing well the color of the clear blue but unmerciful and rainless sky. The “all-beholding sun,” as William Cullen Bryant called it, beat me like a red-headed step -child. I thirsted. I watched the river traffic—and also the traffic along River Drive. I tried hard to be amused by all of it, as I’m sure a certain Southern novelist would have been. I tried hard to be annoyed by much of it, as I’m sure another would be.

Here is the modern dilemma: what do you do when you’re both amused and annoyed by what’s around you?

A fifteen-container barge sat idling while a smaller barge approached the next lock-and-dam. This river along which I walked is not a natural river. Once upon a time it was wide and shallow. In many places you could walk across it. Now it is an artificial river, made narrow and deep by a lock-and-dam system and a nation addicted to commerce. Huck Finn and Nigger Jim did not float down the river beside which I walked. Their Mississippi wasn’t engineered. And that was the point, because their relations were.

I paused to cease from worrying about Huck’s and Jim’s river, which I will never see. I looked about me. There were gulls on the water, pelicans aloft, a heron poised and motionless on the driftwood, mallard hens among the lily pads, and that white drum dead and belly-up. And there were other men and women with me on the path. Occasionally I was regarded in a manner I didn’t care for, but I felt for the moment that, like Huck, I would go to hell for Jim.

Notwithstanding the decline and entropy, what holds all this together?

I looked more intently upon the lily pads, the herons, the mallard hens, the brown rolling muddy water that, viewed at a distance, took on a serene blue from the blue serene. For a moment I was sure that the force that holds it all together is nothing less than the gravity of love. “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”

Later, alone, I prepared the best-tasting repast I know of and serenaded it with the most civilized of all floodwaters.

No. Dead freshwater drums and barges and the East-West trick be damned. The mysterious and ever-rolling river still lives, still asserts itself. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” as the poet said. This amusing-annoying life is no trick, no accident, and Jim, floating south, is a man worth going to hell for.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar robert m. peters August 1, 2012 at 9:52 am

Down here in Louisiana it is hoped among a remnant of us nesters, yeoman farmers and swamp folks that the Mississippi will, at its whim, end run the Old River Control Structure, leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans high and dry, and make his way to the sea along his ancient bed now known as the Atchafalaya. The Mississippi is, were he allowed to be, a jealous father, anxious to protect the delta and the costs which he has built over the millennia. He has, however, been hog tied by levees, weirs and channelization. We know, that some day, he will break free and counter the Gulf of Mexico which is encroaching on his good work.

As an aside, if the Mississippi is the “Father of Waters,” why isn’t he called the Mr-ssissippi? (I think that said question was first asked by Buckwheat on “Our Gang.”)

avatar David Smith August 3, 2012 at 8:12 am

“We know, that some day, he will break free and counter the Gulf of Mexico which is encroaching on his good work.”

Mr. Peters:

There’s doubtless a metaphor or two lurking around here regarding our incessant arrogance in attempting to “dam” Reality, not only due to our absolute faith in the-progress-of-man and his technology, but also due to this same confidence in the many abstractions we’ve built our “civilization” upon. Unfortunately, the Delta silt where we’ve built our house of cards on (I know, more metaphors!) will ultimately prove no more stable than that house our Lord spoke of that was built upon the sand. When Reality reasserts itself, watch out! In the meantime, roll on, Mississippi!

avatar love the girls August 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Mr. Peters writes : “This river along which I walked is not a natural river. Once upon a time it was wide and shallow. In many places you could walk across it. Now it is an artificial river, made narrow and deep by a lock-and-dam system and a nation addicted to commerce.”

The roads I drive on are not natural paths, they’re a grid because men a social and a grid is better for socialization.

The same with the river, it’s been changed to fit the needs of men to whom commerce is natural.

avatar dave walsh August 16, 2012 at 8:49 pm

A couple of friends of mine are academics and can’t walk 50 feet without some new insight into the 17th century whatever. Brilliant, really. So it happens that half the time they can’t remember why they started across the quad in the first place. Anyway, send someone like that on a long trip and there’s really no telling where they might end up.
So Polet’s hitting all the scotch festivals in Canada, you’ve taken to long walks along river banks. I noticed Deneen’s last post was from somewhere in Tennessee, which I happen to know is not really on the way from DC to South Bend. I figured he was retracing Tocqueville’s long journey. Not in a particularly accurate way, but as you mention, the past is past. We can only walk in the present.
Which is an awful lot of work to simply write what I’m wondering, which is this: did you see Deneen or not?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: