A river that commands truth

I used to live near the Mississippi River. In fact, I lived there longer than Mark Twain did, and like him I have seen the great waterway in a constantly varied array of moods. I have seen it so smooth a passing swallow would perturb its surface with the slight wash of its wings. At other times it surges with churned whitecaps. I have seen vague wisps of mist rise from its surface and huge rolls of steam fog boil out of it into the morning sun when a sudden cold had come in the night.

I have seen the sun set across it, striping a path of yellow, or fuschia, or dull red, or if the ice covered it, staining the whole river surface with its juices. And I have seen it shrouded in bales of fog that only island treetops faintly surmounted.

I have seen a mayfly hatch of hundreds of millions lift out of its moiling waters and weigh down the trees and bushes near its banks. And when all such creatures are snug in its chill mud, I have seen barge tows bull through ice more than two feet thick and push huge chunks, strangely clear, into windrows near the shore.

I have floated on my back in the river in starlight, felt the shoulder of its current in flood, boated quietly behind wooded islands that let one set aside all of present-day America, and return to a world of fish, herons, and the heavy green of viny trees.

But I never knew the river anything like the way Twain did. Not only did he spend a boyhood near it, and in a river-centered society, but also he became a riverboat pilot. It is the people who guide the big boats on the river who know its depths and sinuosities as the rest of us cannot as we look at it or glide in small boats through its channels and shallows without great concern for its underwater nature.

Weekend water-ski boats will swing around the foot of an island, even leaving plenty of room, and drive into a mud bank, unaware that every island tails off in a bar downstream, often one longer than the island itself. No towboat operator would be so silly.

In reading Twain's river novels we sense the exact rightness of each slight evocation of the river, and in his nonfiction masterpiece, ``Life on the Mississippi,'' which preceded ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' and perhaps stimulated its completion, we learn in humorous but telling detail of Twain's schooling as a pilot, learning the shape of a thousand miles of ever-changing river in all kinds of weather and states of light, holding it all in memory.

Eventually another thing dawns on us -- Twain always told the truth about the river. In fact, the Mississippi may be the one thing in all of Twain's writings he did always tell the truth about. In his travel books, like his early and outrageous ``Roughing It,'' only readers aware of the tall-tale tradition he grew up in can be fairly sure to tell where he begins to shade away from his factual story and add on increasingly incredible inventions.

Much of his best fiction walks on the cliff-edge of impossibility, and in his best-known novel, ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' Huck continually muses about the advantages or at least the viability of lying. Occasionally Huck, or his guiding author, lies to the reader, as when the snakes Huck and Tom capture drip off the rafters into the Phelpses' soup. But we are so delighted with this nonsense, we agree at once to believe it. At other times Twain maintains his extravagant inventions only through the hilarity and dramatic vividness of his style. We don't notice when fiction drifts over into farce.

Though Twain exaggerated the horrors of the familiar Hannibal cave of his boyhood, he never tampered with the river. For one thing, the Mississippi is itself so grand a fact, and capable of such vast displays of power and mass, that it is hard to exaggerate. There is no need. It exaggerates itself. For another, Twain knew it intimately and respected it deeply. His best writing is associated with the river. It gave him a focus, a physical phenomenon so remarkable, complex, and satisfying that he could safely rest large structures of invention on its dependable essence.

The river is the central myth of the American Midwest. More than anyone else, Twain developed this myth in the American consciousness, but he did it by understatement, by exploring the facts and letting them speak for themselves. Whether this is cause for praise of Twain's instincts or a realization of the power of the river itself is a question. But we can say that the combination was a very fruitful one.

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