Mississippi River Literature

 

"Through history, music, and literature the River helped create America's soul" -National Center for Mississippi River.

The river pulses 2, 350 miles south through the heart of the US. It leaves in its wake fertile soil, teeming wildlife, and a string of cities like sparkling jewels. This "Father of Waters" has fed the soil with nutrients to a level of unparalleled fertility and just as the river has nourished the farmland of the US it has served as a fosterer of the imagination and a source of inspiration for the people and writers along its banks. To those who have come in contact with the River it has struck people as less a geographical entity and more like a human being with its own unique personality, whims, mood swings, strong will, and generous character. Consequently, there is an abundance of literature inspired by the river's character and the cultural diversity of the people who have resided along its banks.

The last jewel in the string is the cultural center of the South: New Orleans. Itself a product of the river with its diverse people, refined amalgam of culture, and worldwide commerce and vibrant life, New Orleans and, indeed Louisiana as a whole, has experienced a concentration of the South's most talented writers. Many authors have been inspired by the River in New Orleans to write their masterpieces and most famous works. Although not always directly mentioning the river, authors such as Tennessee Williams and John Kennedy O'Toole have created memorable characters whose lives and social status revolves around the whims of the river and its effect on the landscape and the attendant society. The flow of the river can be felt in the literary quality of their prose even when not directly seen or mentioned.

TS Eliot long ago realized "The sea is all about us . . . the river is within us" and, just as the river is within all those who have been in its mighty presence and experienced its life, the river is within the stories and novels created alongside its banks.

While there is a great body of literature by fine Southern writers, the following pages only include authors who have arguably drawn inspiration from the river and the culture of its people. Surely there are names that some will feel were unfairly omitted or wrongly included, it is felt that this web page will stand as a door left ajar that may be pushed open and expanded into a great new world of Mississippi River-inspired work that comprises the nexus of Great American literature.

Earliest Recorded Accounts:

The Mississippi River has inspired literature from quite early in time. The earliest recorded account depicting the Mississippi River comes from 1543 by Garcilaso De La Vega, a member of Hernando de Soto's expedition and one of the first white men to see the Mississippi River. ( Link to the recorded account) Various other explorers and non natives wrote about the awe of the Mississippi River in travel memoirs as well as journals, such as Marquis W.Child's book entitled Mighty Mississippi as well as Timothy Severin's book Explorers of the Mississippi.

"The lore of the Mississippi, the feel of it, was in my bones. Going up and down the river to New Orleans, I was pleased to think that the city held something of the past I was exploring. The theme of the river occured over and over, the mysterious river itself as broad as a sea, the great river that must empty into the South Sea."

-The Mighty Mississippi by M.W. Child

Short Stories:

The Mississippi River has served as the setting and inspiration for countless short stories and folk tales by those living along its banks and coming in to daily contact with it. Mississippi River Tales one of a series entitled American Storytelling Tradition and is a collection of short stories in which the river plays an important role in the lives of the characters and advances the plots in a myriad of ways. http://members.aol.com/Mmcbs3/books.html Notable authors included in this collection are Grace King, who wrote of life in New Orleans and the South in the ante and post bellum periods, H. Bedford-Jones whose exciting account of a steamboat race titled "Ram Him, Damn Him" is included, and Willis Gibson, of whom little is known but whose stories reveal an intimate relationship and complex knowledge of the Mississippi River. "Philo Gubb's Greatest Case" is part of this collection and its story of possible suicide, drowning, and suspected murder among overworked dockside shipping workers is an amusing and interesting read for the way in which the river forms an integral part of its characters and for the eccentric Philo Gubb the river has nurtured.

MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF HENRY SMITZ

Body Found in Mississippi River by Boatman Early This A.M. Foul Play Suspected.

Mr. Gubb unfolded the paper and read the item under the headlines with the most intense interest. Foul play meant the possibility of an opportunity to put to use once more precepts of the Course of Twelve Lessons, and with them fresh in his mind, Detective Gubb was eager to undertake the solution of any mystery the Riverbank could furnish.

-Mississippi River Tales

In the southern horror collection, Nightmares in Dixie, Cornell Woolrich relates the chilling account of a jazz musician haunted by the ill will he has wished on authors with the use of voodoo. Another short story collection by authors influenced by the river is A Treasury of Mississippi River tales, Goodness of St. Rocque and other stories, New Orleans stories; great writers on the City. Howard Jacobs, who made contributions to children's Mississippi literature, also wrote Charlie the Mole and Other Droll Souls, an anthology about bizarre New Orleans characters and situations. He collaborated with the humorist Justin Wilson on Justin Wilson's Cajun Humor, a Cajun tale collection. Southern authors and story collections includes titles New Stories from the South, which is a collection of short stories by southern authors published by Algonquin Books every year, and American Local Color Writing 1880-1920 ,which includes notable southern authors inspired by the river. For more southern horror haunted by the river check out : www.drcasey.com/cabinet/maps/MississippiRiver.shtml

Poetry

In order to write poetry one often has to be deeply moved. The Mississippi River's grandeur and constantly changing moods seems to fit that profile quite well since numerous poems have been written about the great river. In addition, song lyrics straddle the boundary between music and literature, for while it is set to the time and rhythm of instruments, the words are strung together much like that found in a poem. Poets and poems about the Mississippi range from the very well known such as Langston Hughes and Charles Bell, author of Delta Return, to lesser known poets like Dick Stahl and Arthur Brown, all of whom have been moved by the river. In 1968, the 250th anniversary of New Orleans an epic River poem was inspired and published by Amy Boudreau epic.Here are some examples of such poetry: http://mariah.stonemarche.org/poetry/mississippi.htm, http://cgee.hamline.edu/rivers/Resources/voices/czarn.htm, and finally, http://freespace.virgin.net/david.mied/poems/poem970602.htm. Link to new page with more poems.

Children's literature and short stories

The Mississippi River has played and continues to play a vital role in the lives of those who work, live, and have grown up along its banks. A collection of charming stories and tales that have been inspired by the river for children have been put together under the title Louisiana Stories for Boys and Girls. One story that was included is actually a short play for children by Paul T. Nolan entitled "Justice for Andy Jackson". It is extremely amusing to note how the Mississippi keeps coming up in what the batture residents feel is an unjust upbraiding of the man who defended their rights, Andrew Jackson.batture justice Also in this book, Louisiana Stories for Boys and Girls, is a great collection of Creole oral folk stories, painstakingly researched by Tulane alum, Alcee Fortier. His chapter is "Creole Folk Tales". The chapter "Indian Folk Tales", including stories of Indian folk tales told by the Chitimacha the early French explorers found living in between Bayou Teche and the Mississippi, was compliled by Dr. Fred B. Kniffen, author of The Indians of Louisiana. Once Upon a Bayou by Howard Jacobs and Jim Rice is a great source for a whimsical coming of age stories about Cajun little boys and girls. Stories include "Mixup at de Fais Do Do" and "Ol' Boudreaux".

Here are some helpful links to help teachers and parents teach their children about the significance of literature and the Mississippi River: http:schools.discovery.com/lessonplans/programs/mississippi/, www.education-world.com/a_lesson/lesson199.shtm

Back to top

Notable Authors:

The following authors have been selected for special elaboration for their distinguished and copious contribution to New Orleans River literature. While there are undoubtedly many others who deserve to be included it was thought best to at this point remain within the realm of celebrity and widely-held recognizance.

Tennessee Williams

Tennesse Williams lived in New Orleans for several years- at one point in an apartment above Pirate's Alley in the French Quarter. The Mississippi River's influence is a constant undercurrent of influence in his works, especially "Vieux Carre" and "Streetcar Named Desire". In "Streetcar" Stanley, the rough around the edges dockworker, spends his nights getting drunk at the riverside Jax Brewery, when he's not tormenting Stella's sister (the character played by Vivian Leigh). Every year a festival in honor of Tennessee Williams and his lasting influence on both literature as well as the South takes place. Here one can watch the Stella shouting contest and even try their luck, as well as viewing clips from his traditonal plays. For more information contact: info@tennesseewilliams.net

Mark Twain

Mark Twain and the Mississippi River are almost inseparable in American culture. The pen name Mark Twain was taken from Sam Clemens own experiences as a steamboat pilot, http:www.steamboats.com/museumu.html It means " mark two fathoms," later shortened to "Mark Twain" by the leadsmen whose job it was to monitor the water's depth and then to report it to the pilot. Mark Twain often used his childhood experiences growing up along the Mississippi River in a number of works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, ( http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/twain/huckfinn.html)The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and a thorough depiction of the river seen through the eyes of a steamboat pilot in his famous novel entitled Life on the Mississippi . Mark Twain's book version of Huckleberry Fin was later made into a Broadway hit play called "Big River", http:// www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/albm8.htm, or try this website to see more about the play as well as some pictures; http://multimuse.homestead.com/BigRiver.html To learn more about Mark Twain and his extensive accomplishments and influence please take a look at these various web sites, each his writings, each offers its own little bit of flavor. Helpful Links to try: http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html, http:www.robinsonresearch.com/LITERATURE/AUTHORS/Twain.htm, http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/95nov/twain.html, http:library.berkeley.edu/BANC/Exhibits/MTP/index.html, http://docsouth.unc.edu/twainlife/menu.html.

Frances Parkinson Keyes

Frances Parkinson Keyes is a writer who is simultaneously a Southern author and a Mississippi River author, for while her novels cover a socially and geographically wide range, she drew influence by her residence in the French Quarter to write many books on Creole New Orleans life. Some of her New Orleans include: River Road, Steamboat Gothic, Crescent Carnival, and Dinner at Antoine's. In the following excerpt from Once on Esplanade her characters, the Villeres, are an old Creole French family who visit the stylized tombs of St. Louis Cemetary. Thus, while not ever saying the word river, the Mississippi is inevitably the backdrop of her story. St. Louis

Kate Chopin

The Mississippi River was an indirect influence all through Kate Chopin's life. Originally born in St. Louis, Chopin moved to New Orleans upon her marriage to a Creole gentlemen. Her short novel The Awakening takes place in Grand Isle and New Orleans and tells the story of the stifling role forced upon women in Victorian Creole society and details the creeping madness of the protagonist. "The Storm" is a brief story of a Creole young woman named Calixta living in the Quarter with her husband and young son. One stormy afternoon, just before embarking on passionate lovemaking with her old flame, Calixta first worries about whether the levees will be able to contain the flooding Mississippi. Interesting how the Mississippi River weaves its way into daily life. Kate Chopin also made contributions in the Mississippi River short story genre with her works: Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie tales of Louisiana Creole Life.

Alice D. Nelson & Grace King

Alice D. Nelson, a native New Orleanian made a generous contribution to New Orleans literature inspired by the Mississippi River. Her short story,"The Stones of the Village", is an account of how a "yellow" or mixed-race little boy manages to conceal his true racial identity for most of his life in order to achieve the success that would be denied him as biracial. It is a haunting and consciousness raising story of the absurdness of excluding blacks and mixed race people to the margins of society and it tears apart the foolishness of nineteenth-century society's stubborn divisions. In "The Praline Woman" an old woman selling pralines around Jackson Square rambles the sad story of her life and her customers in between her exhortations of pralines for sale. pralines Grace King, a born and bred Southerner, drew much inspiration from Creoles and Cajuns and their interaction with the Mississippi River. Among her works are the titles: New Orleans, the place & people . Throughout these the reader can almost hear the rushing flow of the river in the background and can begin to understand how the river's presence has shaped the course of the character's lives and defined their status in society.

William Faulkner

William Faulkner is a highly regarded Southern author who could arguably be said to have been influenced by the Mississippi River with such works as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.For more on William Faulkner and his Mississippi inspired literature please consult: http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/faulkner.html, http://www.unf.edu/~alderman/faulkner.html. To join a Faulkner fan club here is a link for your viewing pleasure: http://www.acad.swarthmore.edu/faulkner/. In addition, every year there is a William Faulkner festival , for more information contact: www.olemiss.edu.depts/south/faulkner/.

Historical & Personal Travel Writing

People have come in contact with the river and made it part of their lives in a myriad of ways, including as dockworkers, fishermen, steamboatmen, and as tourists. In these working or visiting capacities the Mississippi has still managed to inspire enough for people to write recollections, memoirs, and diaries of description in order to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the Mississippi. Examples of inspired tourist and travel writing include: Travels on the Lower Mississippi 1879-1880 A Memoir by Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg, a wealthy 19th-century aristocrat who spent his days exploring and having adventures in order to delight readers with his accounts. In the following excerpt von Hesse-Wartegg experiences the early days of steamboating on the Mississippi and writes with the charmed tone of one truly impressed phantasmagoria. Recollections of the Last Ten Years in the Valley of the Mississippi, which were passed in Timothy Flint's words, "in occassional residences and journeying in the Valley of the Mississippi of the early 19th century American West", Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, and Old Times on the upper Mississippi: the recollections of a steamboat pilot from 1854 to 1863 are all further examples of the tourist/personal contact published account type.

The Opening of the Mississippi A Struggle for Supremacy in the American Interior touches on the historical type of writing with its account of the early history and white man encounter with the Mississippi, "the history of discovery, exploration, and contested rights, of navigation prior to the final securing of American supremacy in the War of 1812". The Mighty Mississippi published by the National Geographic Society, The Mighty Mississippi and New Orleans by Amy Boudreau, and the Mighty Mississippi: biography of a river are all attempts at describing the biology, geography, and the tendencies of the river as it flows down to the Delta. However, The Mighty Mississippi tends to be most scientific and comprehensive having been published by the Society, whereas Boudreau's book relates the history of the Mississippi's discovery and the founding of New Orleans in epic poem form in honor of the 250th anniversary of the Crescent City in 1968 history. Mighty Mississippi describes the history of the river in terms of its discovery and the quest to control it over time. No doubt numerous contributions have been and will continue to be made in this area of Mississippi-inspired literature.

Plays and Musical Scores

Theatrical productions are yet another form of literature where the Mississippi River's influence has left its mark. As mentioned above, Mark Twain's play "Big River" has been entertaining audiences both on as well as off Broadway. Yet another main stage play that involves the Mississippi is the well-known play named "Showboat." To see more links and musical scores to these numbers please link to the website: http://americantheater.about.com/musicperforms/americantheater/cs/showboatthemus/.

African-American authors and literary tradition

The African-American experience with the Mississippi River is multi-dimensional in a way that is different from that of whites. The River was the source of their enslavement-its overflowing waters having made the agriculturally fertile soil upon which they were forced to toil. The Mississippi represented the highway upon which African-Americans were transported for sale and separated from loved ones. The heartwrenching experience of permanent family separation is expressed in Langston Hughes's poem "Wide River", which may be viewed in the previous poetry link. Langston Hughes also articulated the sometimes contentious relationship with the Mississippi and what its flows represented in "The South" and "Aunt Sue's Stories". The Mississippi could also symbolize freedom as portrayed by Jim, the slave Huckleberry Finn befriends and helps escape.

Historically, African-American authors were ignored, dismissed, or marginalized for their contributions to the body of American literature and, unfortunately, this is evident in most older (pre 1970's) collections of the stories and tales about the Mississippi. Much of the African-American contribution to Mississippi River literature has been in the form of poetry, working songs, and lyrical music. The Amistad Research Center, a great Southern repository of African-American literature, can be reached via the Tulane University library homepage www.library.tulane.edu

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes

I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy/bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

 

I've known rivers:Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Science

"That it is also for me a going home, enforces the sense of ultimate and eternal return. Even more since the section I come from, the alluvial flood-plain of the Yazoo and the Mississippi rivers, called the Delta, suggests in every detail the mysterious surrender of form. It is a landscape made by water and still as it were half-floating, wound across with lakes and sluggish streams, threatened in the spring rise by floods. One descends from the hills to its floor, and it spreads under a sky of recessive vastness, an unbroken horizon of fields and swampy woods." This quote can be found in the book Delta Return by Charles Bell.

In this science section it is our wish to illustrate that literature of and inspired by the Mississippi River encompasses a wide range of genres- from writing of the people along its banks to writing about the history and biology of the river itself. As is made obvious by the previous excerpt from Delta Return, even attempts to describe the Mississippi's physical majesty and space in the psyche of the individuals it has touched inevitably echoes the fine literary quality of novels. A further illustration of this occurence, mere description nearly turning into poetry, is in the account given by the first white explorers of the Mississippi River, Hernando de Soto's men. excerpt

Link to some more information on floods and flood footage as portrayed in books. http://www.geo.mtu.edu/department/classes/ge404/flood/missriver

For those who do not have a clear understanding of river dynamics or engineering but, wish to be able to comprehend the nature of the Mississippi and its contentious role in politics, history, and border designation, Rising Tide is a great beginning. Rising Tide, a prizewinning book by John Barry, is an absorbing river epic that combines the elements of history, biography, and science to tell the story of the Mississippi River and the aftermath of the devastating 1927 flood. The following excerpt is taken from "The River" chapter and is the account of the event, a giant crevasse in the levee of Greenville, Mississippi, that ultimately spelled the doom and folly of the "levees only" policy. excerpt Literary Journal link: http://www.big-river.com/

Mea Culpa & Conclusion

New Orleans, Louisiana, Mississippi River-inspired, and Southern literature are all deeply intertwined with authors frequently making the leap from one category to the other, even in the same work. For the purposes of this website, the attempt was made to include the most famous authors and well-known works, as well as works that specifically mentioned the Mississippi, whose plots were advanced by the Mississippi's presence, and those works which actually take place on the river. Arguably, many authors were excluded but this website is intended as a tool for further research and a source for a solid foundation for understanding the importance of the inspiration and influence of the Mississippi River in Great American Literature. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

List of authors (selective, by no means "complete"): TS Eliot, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, Alice D. Nelson, Myra Beauchamp Byrd, Mark Twain, John Barry, Anne Rice, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Frances Parkinson Keyes, John Kennedy O'Toole, Cornell Woolrich, Alcee Fortier, John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Langston Hughes, Grace King, Arthur Brown, Dick Stahl, Jonathan Raban, Eddy Harris, and the list goes on and on. To see more authors and books we may or may not have already mentioned, check out the website: www.asle.umn.edu/archive/biblios/mississippi.txt For greater reference and a larger list of authors and works inspired by the Mississippi River please check out the Louisiana Special Collections located at Jones Hall, Tulane University. http://www.tulane.edu/~1miller.html

Bibliography may be viewed by clicking here.

PS If you've made it this far thanks and click here for a treat! http://www.athenapub.com/rivers1.htm

Top of Page

 

Questions or Comments please email: Jenell Rubin or Christina Miranda