Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild — Lee Sandlin

The mighty Mississippi River remains perhaps the signal geographical symbol of the United States of America. It divides our country neatly into East and West, flowing down from the industrial North to the agricultural South, and in this sense, the Mississippi is the major artery of America’s heart. We find in the Mississippi a rich mythos, one that both informs and reflects our national character. And while plenty of writers have striven to capture and express the river’s culture and character, it is Mark Twain who more or less invented our idea of the Mississippi. In his fascinating new history Wicked River, Lee Sandlin observes that, “There is a pretty much universal idea that Twain has a proprietary relationship to the Mississippi. It belongs to him, the way Victorian London belongs to Dickens or Dublin belongs to Joyce.” Sandlin’s goal in Wicked River is not to wrest the Mississippi from Twain; rather, he aims to show us the gritty turbulence swelling under Twain’s romantic myth–a myth that many Americans have come to hold as a received truth. Sandlin points out that Twain’s “Mississippi books are works of memory, even of archaeology”;  they point to a vibrant river culture in a prelapsarian past, one “with its own culture and its own language and its own unspoken rules.” Sandlin’s own book plumbs that culture, revealing strange, wild tales of river pirates and con-men, fiddlers and gamblers, road agents and robbers, politicians and drunkards, and Indians and would-be “civilizers.” Sandlin’s canny observations come from a myriad of first-hand accounts–always the sign of a legitimate history–but Wicked River is never dry or dusty, but rather brims with vigor and intensity, whether we’re learning about the earthquakes that shook up New Madrid, the tornado that smashed Natchez, the sinking of the Sultana, or the ice floe that destroyed the St. Louis Harbor. Sandlin’s writing is concise, lively, and often wry and earthy–although always grounded in fact. (One colorful passage begins, “There was one simple explanation for the wildness of river culture: everybody was drunk”). Wicked River does a marvelous job conveying the tumultuous and eclectic history of an American frontier in the nineteenth century. Recommended.

Wicked River is new in hardback this month from Pantheon.

My Father’s Bonus March — Adam Langer

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Early in his new memoir My Father’s Bonus March, Adam Langer writes: “It seems appropriate that the most dramatic event in my relationship with my father might be one that I can’t actually remember happening.” Langer then goes on to describe a particularly colorful episode at an old-timey barbershop, wherein he, as a young lad, chokes on a piece of hard candy and is saved by his dad. “My father would never tell me this story,” Langer concludes, revealing the sense of disconnection at the heart of his book. Simply put, My Father’s Bonus March is Langer’s attempt to know, or at least understand his father. Strangely, he uses his father’s passion for a little-remembered event in American history as a means to better know his father, who passed away in 2005, leaving Langer with a sense of unfinished business.

In 1932, a group of WWI Veterans and their families (and sympathizers) camped out in Washington D.C. in protest: it was the middle of the Great Depression and the vets were demanding the bonuses they were promised. (The book’s jacket calls this “a forgotten moment in American history, but I’d like to go on record that, after the intensive hell that was Ms. Bone’s first-period AP US History class, I knew exactly what the bonus march was before I got the review copy). Langer’s father was seven at the time of the protest, but his father served in WWI, and, in any case, it left enough of an impression on him that writing a book on the subject became a life-long dream. Langer’s project is to complete that dream–which he does, quite successfully. Langer’s historical investigation is thorough without dreariness; he draws not just from first-hand sources, like newspapers and editorials covering the march, but also the memoirs and diaries of figures like Eisenhower and Studs Terkel, as well as the work of novelists like John Dos Passos. He even interviews neocon Norman Podhoretz and Bonus March aficionado John Kerry.

Langer’s scholarship is successful, but more affective are his interviews with people who knew his father, including cousins, neighbors, and classmates. Langer has the good sense to present their comments as first-hand accounts, presented with little context. Their stories build a concrete, vivid depiction of Langer’s predominantly Jewish old Chicago West Side neighborhood (“‘GVS’ is what we called it. The Great Vest Side,” one witness recalls). I wish Langer had employed this straightforward documentary technique more often in his memoir as its succinctness and clarity achieves an emotional immediacy in contrast to Langer’s prose passages, which sometimes come across as sentimental or too-artfully constructed. This is simply a matter of taste, of course; I prefer my memoirs raw, and I occasionally found myself grimacing at some of Langer’s constructions, like a trip with his brother to the Hoover Presidential Library or the opening scene with his daughter on the stoop.

At its core, My Father’s Bonus March successfully evokes the reality of one of literature’s oldest narratives–the attempt of the son to know his elusive father (Telemachus and Odysseus, Oedipus and Laius, Stephen and Simon Dedalus, etc.), and it does so with affecting aplomb. Whether we really need another story about a son trying to understand his distant dad is beside the point–Langer has found an inventive and rewarding way to do so. I can’t end without mentioning that at the same time I was reading Bonus March, I also happened to read another memoir about a son trying to better understand his elusive father, Stephen Elliott’s recent essay My Father’s Murder” (published in last month’s issue of The Believer). Elliot’s terse, frank, reportorial style is in direct contrast with Langer’s overt sentimentality, yet both authors are working toward the same theme–one that clearly resonates across styles and genres. With this in mind, I think plenty of readers out there will both identify with and enjoy Langer’s memoir.

My Father’s Bonus March is available October 20th, 2009 from Spiegel & Grau.

A Short History of America Courtesy Of Robert Crumb

Progress!

From Terry Zwigoff’s fantastic 1994 documentary Crumb.