Cairo, Ill. — The Algonquins named it ''the father of waters.'' But you could just as easily call it a mother of words. The Mississippi River carries silt from half a continent down to the sea. It has also borne a torrent of language from La Salle the explorer to Black Hawk the Indian chief, from Mark Twain to Charles Dickens, from the derisive to the adulatory. Its primitive powers and the gaudy exploits of its human denizens flow through the country's literature.
This reporter has followed the river halfway down by car and much of the route through the literature and found that both journeys possess a compelling power that continually draws one along.
The car journey was made possible by the Great River Road, which is nearing completion. This linkage of highways and smaller roads grew out of a federal commission appointed in 1938. But it wasn't until a $314 million state and federal allowance granted in 1973 - $23 million of which remains to be spent - that the project gained momentum. Fourteen states have participated in the networking and landscaping of existing highways, in an effort to create a ''Mississippi River corridor.''
Whether or not a corridor exists, there is no doubt that the river itself draws powerfully on the American imagination as a central artery out of the nation's heartland.
Marquis Childs wrote, in his excellent book ''Mighty Mississippi,'' about ''this inordinate, this irresistible, this magnificent flow of life,'' and about ''the urge of the river, its insistent, unfailing invitation.'' Fortunately for us, people have been weakened by, and have yielded to, this invitation over the centuries.
Even better, they have taken their notebooks with them.
One early chronicler of river explorations, the historian Francis Parkman, described the journey of La Salle ''... as he drifted down the turbid current, between the low and marshy shores,'' on a first discovery voyage to the river's mouth, when ''the brackish water changed to brine and the breeze grew fresh with the salt breath of the sea. Then the broad bosom of the great gulf opened on his sight, tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life.''
To get close to La Salle's experience, most Mississippi-philes recommend that you get as close as possible to the water itself. Until recent times, that priviledge was reserved for those with a boat.
Today, the Great River Road makes a curvaceous passage along the skirts of the river, at least as far south as Kentucky and Tennessee, where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the river in sight. After the Mississippi swings into the Deep South, ''that road hugging the river all the way down just wouldn't be there'' because of the flood plains, levees, and other obstacles, says John Edman, executive secretary of the Mississippi River Road Planning Commission.
But you can follow the river's meandering course from its Minnesota headwaters, where few road signs have been erected, by driving down unmarked country roads.
If you are successful, you'll cross the Mississippi time and again, back in the deep woods and out in open fields, watching it follow its secret paths through the Chippewa National Forest.
From then on, the river becomes a recurring theme, along back roads and highways that are easily followed on the well-marked Great River Road.
Despite the best efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the river, you can still glimpse here and there, all the way down to the South, the places Mark Twain described as ''utter solitudes,'' where ''the dense, untouched forest overhung both banks of the crooked little crack, and one could believe that human creatures had never intruded there before.''
You get some sense of the magnitude of ''the infinite river'' (as early explorers called it) when you go up on the high bluffs and look into the distances that the river nourishes. From Pikes Peak (this one in Iowa), you can see the Wisconsin join the Mississippi - just as elsewhere the Missouri and the Ohio and a thousand other streams do - and speculate how it must have looked to the first white men.
The history of white men on the river has largely been a struggle over the exploitation of abundant natural resources - first between men and the river, then between rivermen and railroaders. The railroads, of course, won. And the gaudy procession of steamships that once choked these waters disappeared.
Sam Clemens marked their passing by describing St. Louis in the wake of its river prosperity:
''The pavements along the river-front were bad; the sidewalks were rather out of repair; there was a rich abundance of mud. All this was familiar and satisfying; but the ancient armies of drays, and struggling throngs of men, and mountains of freight, were gone; and Sabbath reigned in their stead. The immemorial mile of cheap, foul doggeries remained, but business was dull with them.''
While St. Louis and less populous river towns may have no apologies to make for their riverfront today, the Mississippi itself often presents a desolate aspect to the passing motorist. It's not the same kind of fecund solitude the first explorers wrote home about. Instead, it often looks used up and discarded.
But here and there you see it coming around a wild bend in the landscape. There's no one around. The sun catches fire on the crests of the currents.
At such moments, even a cynical observer of Mississippi River life, like Britisher Jonathan Raban - who wrote about his voyage in search of the Mississippi he had always pictured as a little boy reading about it in England - is swept along by the magic of the thing:
''I had entered an absolutely seamless world,'' Rabin wrote in ''Old Glory.'' ''In front of the boat, the water had the gleaming consistency of molasses; behind, it lay smashed and buckled in my wake. I slowed right down until the propeller left only a little string of corkscrew whorls, and even they were the marks of a vandal on an otherwise immaculate landscape.... For me, the moment was unalloyed magic. The picture in my head had been real after all. ''
Such images are easily gathered from the father of waters. Unfortunately, if you don't live near the Mississippi, they are just as easily forgotten: They fade with time.
But then, there is always this river of words. A cruise along the river of words
From its most fertile chroniclers, the ink has always flowed. The Mississippi has never left folks at a loss for words, especially in the heyday of settlement. Then, even the common folk occasionally produced letters and journals that author Marquis Childs compared to ''early glass and lusterware,'' with ''the clarity of outline, the bright primary colors of Stiegel glass.'' Better known are the literary observers, who pictured the old river as a thing of mayhem and mystery, beauty and dismay. Mark Twain:
''The river was an awful solitude, then. And it is now, over most of its stretch ... the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense forest away on the other side ... bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea ... a very still and beautiful one.'' Frances Milton Trollope:
''I never beheld a scene so utterly desolate as this entrance of the Mississippi .... Only one object rears itself above the eddying waters; there is the mast of a vessel long since wrecked in attempting to cross the bar, and it still stands, a dismal witness of the destruction that has been, and a boding prophet of that which is to come.'' Charles Dickens:
''A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away, cleared here and there for a space of a few yards, and teeming then with rank unwholesome vegetation ... the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold ... a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.'' Marquis Childs:
''There were weary women, there were bleak towns sunk in the mud of the river-bank ... there was frustration, there was bitter defeat, there was early death for the heedless raftsmen, there were the wracking winters and the long damp chill of spring. But there was, too, the glory of a beginning world, ecstasy, wild delight. The glow of this was so rich, so brilliant, that the frustration and the embitterment seem only faint shadows....'' Vital statistics The Mississippi at a glance
* World's fifth-largest drainage system, approximately 1,244,000 square miles in 31 states, an area roughly one-third the size of Europe, and stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. The topography of this drainage basin is probably as various and fascinating as any in the world.
* Third-longest river in the world, if you add the Missouri River to its flow; otherwise easily bested by a dozen other rivers, much to the disappointment of folks like Mark Twain, who felt it deserved a better standing.
* Eighth-greatest discharger of water, with 350 billion gallons per day, which has contributed greatly to the river's reputation as a mighty stream, especially in those places where it flows thick and fast between high bluffs.
* A mighty ''sewer'' that dumps 495 million tons of sediment each year and pushes its delta shoreline six miles into the sea every hundred years, a fact that contributed, no doubt, to the nickname ''Mrs. Sloppy.''
* A massive destroyer of property and life, until tamed by dams and levees; the 1927 flood alone caused $1 billion damage, by today's money scale, and killed 214. The problems have not been fully solved, and news of floods pours in now and then.
* ''Mississippi Flyway'' is a nickname for the north-south corridor of bird migration along the river. It accommodates, among others, 8 million ducks, geese , and swans. This is not to mention the alligators, carp, garfish, walleyes, suckers, shrimps, and other water denizens of the river. A Mississippi sampler Books that can take you on your own trip down the river 1. Mighty Mississippi -- For all the antique classics written on the Mississippi , this clear, tight account by newspaperman Marquis Childs probably stands as an essential first read. 2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- How convenient that the essential book to understand the modern American novel, and the best piece of fiction ever written about river life, should come between the same covers, and under the signature of Mark Twain, who, after all, took his name from the river he chronicled. 3. Life on the Mississippi -- Mark Twain's book reads like a friendly biography of a controversial figure: full of lovingly observed detail and deep-flowing prose. 4. American Notes -- Mostly of interest as a reflection on Charles Dickens's xenophobia, especially as far as the United States was concerned, this book nevertheless contains a telling chapter on his Mississippi voyage. 5. Father Mississippi -- If only for its first-person observation of early Mississippi life, Lyle Saxon's hard-to-find book of river history is worth digging for. 6. Mississippi Valley Beginnings -- Ornately written and often more fanciful than factual, Henry E. Chambers's history is definitely for the dedicated Mississippi-phile. 7. Old Glory -- British author Jonathan Raban came to bury America, not to praise it; and almost every page of this nasty book paints some river denizens in distorted gray. Still there are some lovely river passages here and there.