Thursday, April 25, 2013

Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin

First off, I want to apologize to everyone this week about not having a Raiding the Stacks feature like I usually have done at the end of the month. Unfortunately I had a rather large backlog of books to work through and I couldn't decide on an old-school book to read for this month so I ended up just skipping it and going with Wicked River, which I'm talking about this week. As some of my readers are aware I've been volunteering down at the local history museum and have, among other things, been dressing up as a steamboat pilot from the 1860's. As part of my ongoing research into life on the river during that time period I read Wicked River and unfortunately was left rather disappointed.

I will admit that attempting to provide a broad overview of the history of the entire Mississippi River from about 1800 to 1863 in 250 pages is definitely an audacious undertaking to say the least. Unfortunately Sandlin's text is incredibly narrow in its focus and relies almost entirely on interesting anecdotes from various points in river history. From a historical perspective while anecdotes can be amusing, they are typically not a good resource for historical information because they are unusual. Overall the book provides a very narrow view into river life during the early 1800's which cannot be extrapolated into a larger picture of river life.

A typical example of the incredible focus which is in Wicked River is the case of the Crow's Nest, an island in Louisiana which was the base of an infamous band of pirates in the early 1800's. Sandlin goes into great detail about how the pirates located near the Crow's Nest plagued local shipping for years and despite the best attempts of river travelers they remained a constant menace. At least, until the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 destroyed the Crow's Nest and cleared the river channel. Although this is an infamous example of river piracy it doesn't shed light on how wide-spread piracy was on the Mississippi or if pirates still operated on the river (which I assume they did) after 1812. It's a lot of information to be sure, but with such a limited scope it cannot speak for the entire river.

Another problem which I had with Wicked River was its tendency to focus on the scandalous aspects of river culture, specifically the orgies that happened around camp meetings and the thriving prostitution trade up and down the river. I'm not bothered by the fact that people in the past had sex. Clearly all of us today wouldn't exist if a great many people in the past hadn't had sex so it had a very good purpose. The problem is that Sandlin fails to put these facts into a much larger context and instead seems to just draw them out because they're "shocking" to modern audiences. There's just enough information included for it to be titillating but doesn't go far enough to educate the reader in an appropriate manner. Human sexuality throughout history is a complex and interesting subject in its own right, but just tossing it in to boost readership is pandering of the worst sort.

Among the other issues which I found most irritating was a relative dearth of information regarding steamboats and steamboat life on the Mississippi during this time period. From its invention in the early 1810's to its absolute dominance of the river in the 1860's the steamboat came to define river life on the Mississippi. While there are a few sections interspersed among the book that talks a little about steamboat conditions and the characters a traveler was likely to meet on a river journey, there is no single chapter devoted to steamboats. I thought it was a grievous oversight on the part of Sandlin to barely touch upon a literal driving force of Mississippi life. The death of the steamboat industry is given only a couple of pages as well, merely stating the railroads did them in which, while accurate, fell short of a satisfactory answer as far as I was concerned.

Although Wicked River contained a handful of useful tidbits of information within its pages, for the most part  I found it to be pulp history of low quality. Although well-researched and exhaustive in detail, it focuses almost entirely on anecdotal evidence which provides a very narrow and specific view of river life rather than a cohesive whole. The inclusion of, for lack of a better term, naughty bits which really only exist to spice up the narrative further makes the book feel like an attempt to pander to the masses rather than investigate history. I'd suggest my readers pass this book by and I shall be looking elsewhere for more research on river history.

- Kalpar

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