Boyd Tonkin: The river that runs deep in the American psyche

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"I do not know much about gods," begins "The Dry Salvages" in T S Eliot's Four Quartets, "but I think that the river is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable." Eliot grew up in St Louis, where the Missouri meets the Mississippi to become the strong – and often mischievous or angry – brown god that has rolled through American literature for more than two centuries.

Even before the steamboat pilot Samuel Clemens – who called himself Mark Twain after the cry that designated two fathoms of muddy water – had placed its winding course at the heart of the national psyche, the Mississippi had become a river of the mind. To 19th-century European visitors such as Charles Dickens, it already represented the wild new continent in all its vastness, its mysteries and its dangers.

Quickly, the river also became a site where America's conflicts and divisions found expression: above all, over race. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin – the second best-selling book of the 19th century, after the Bible – the slave Tom saves young Eva from drowning in its depths. In Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the river is a refuge and accomplice for Huck and the runaway Jim. Its shifting moods prompted Twain, who recounted his pilot's career in Life on the Mississippi, to reflect that "of all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get my mind or hands on, that was the chief". Fittingly, Herman Melville made a paddle steamer travelling down its treacherous length the venue of his novel of deception, The Confidence-Man.

For later African-American authors such as Richard Wright, the Mississippi – especially as it fragments into the Delta – figured as a mournful symbol of the plantation oppression that they fought to escape. And some of the river's finest poetry came, informally, in the lyrics of the Blues. "Michigan water, tastes like sherry wine," sang Jelly Roll Morton, voicing the black migrant's hope of liberation upriver to the north, "but Mississippi water, tastes like turpentine."

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