From sea to shining sea: devoted to the 'Rivers of America'

An unexpected literary find kindled a passion for the series on America's great waterways.

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Charlie, an avid collector of illustrated children's literature, is rarely happier than when he's allowed to root through the books stored in some nether area of an antique shop far from the madding crowds.

After he asked a proprietor in Shelbyville Ind., whether he had anything "in the back" and not yet priced, the fellow ushered him to an unopened cardboard box – castoffs, he said, from the historical society across the street. If anything caught his eye, $5 would be fine. Moments later, Charlie pulled "The Wabash" out from the jumble, unaware at that point that it would awaken a new passion in book collecting.

Appropriately enough, his devotion to the "Rivers of America" series would gather strength like its individual subjects, flooding our shelves with evocative titles such as "The Cape Fear," "The Yazoo," "The Winooski: Heartway of Vermont," "The Cuyahoga," "The Housatonic: Puritan River," "The Chagres: River of Westward Passage," and "The Humboldt: Highroad of the West."

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Conceptualized by poet-historian Constance Lindsay Skinner and launched in 1937, the series presents the history of the US with a focus on its remarkable system of waterways, an enterprise considered unique in the history of American publishing.

Ms. Skinner succinctly explained her idea to profile the nation through its rivers: "We began to be Americans on the rivers." The 65 books were written by various authors and published by Farrar & Rinehart and two corporate successors.

In 1997, the Library of Congress celebrated the series' 60th anniversary, with six of the nine surviving authors attending. (Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of "The Everglades: River of Grass" was 107 years old at the time and did not attend.)

That volume on the Wabash was a natural place for Charlie to begin exploring the geography, natural history, and three centuries of human experience on America's great rivers. The Wabash cuts diagonally through our own Midwestern state and is just a stroll away from the small cottage we had restored in New Harmony, Ind. (a very short stroll indeed when the river's in flood).

Charlie bought "The Ohio" in short order and scouted earnestly for "The Brandywine," about a river he'd navigated a few years back in a rented canoe after visiting N.C. Wyeth's home and studio in Chadds Ford, Pa.

Charlie's first passion, after all, is illustrated children's literature. He'd hitchhiked from the Amtrak station in Wilmington, Del., to the studio that had produced so many of the illustrations in his classics' collection, then relied on the river to bring him back to the train.

He had yet to discover the "Rivers" series, let alone that N.C.'s son, Andrew Wyeth, illustrated the volume on the Brandywine.

River books suddenly beckoned from bookstore shelves, book-fair booths, and occasionally (oh, happy days!) thrift shops and garage sales. The collection soon stretched metaphorically from sea to shining sea – "Salt Rivers of the Massachusetts Shore" at one end and "The Columbia" at the other, with the likes of "The Kaw: Heart of a Nation," "The Missouri," and "The Illinois" sandwiched in between.

Charlie graciously gave me first reading rights to his volume on the Genesee, which runs right through the heart of my hometown, Rochester, N.Y.

How could I not help but be pulled in? On a recent trip to Florida, I looked out over the Everglades knowing that I was gazing at a river flowing inexorably gulfward below the broad, peaceful expanses of saw grass and hammock. I resolved to pluck Charlie's third edition from the shelves this winter and read what Ms. Douglas had to say about it.

We're still looking for a few volumes we're missing and for an exceedingly rare companion to the series, "Songs of the Rivers of America." We house the collection (with many other volumes) in floor-to-ceiling butternut bookshelves in our New Harmony cottage, which has thus far been spared wetting by the Wabash, even at its historical highest. It just seems fitting to keep these books on a flood plain. When we visit and browse the shelves for something to pull down and read, the river books look right at home.

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