Going to Hell with Huck


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.

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