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An Intimate Relationship. The City, the River, and their Wor(l)ds. Echoes from New Orleans and Vicinity

Mario Maffi
p. 23-37


Cet article s’intéresse à la manière dont la relation entre le fleuve Mississippi et la ville de la Nouvelle Orléans est une source d’inspiration (à la fois matérielle et métaphorique) pour la culture américaine de la fin du dix-neuvième et du début du vingtième siècle, en particulier pour des écrivains tels que Mark Twain et William Faulkner. La structure rigide de la ville (sa localisation ainsi que ses solutions architecturales et immobilières) s’oppose à la nature fluide et informe du fleuve (si imprévisible et si souvent modifiée par les pluies et les inondations) et engendre des réactions socio-culturelles et des approches stylistiques très différentes (en particulier dans la fiction réaliste et moderniste).

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11. In the "Prologue" to William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes (a novel which originated from the author’s stay in New Orleans, on and off, between 1925 and 1926), a brief but significant riverside description is offered, as a first-person narrative in a "stream of consciousness" modality intrudes into the third-person narrative. The night before embarking on a cruise, sculptor Gordon walks the streets of New Orleans’s Vieux Carre and from a wharf casts a glance at the surrounding scene: "The shore and the river curved away like the bodies of two dark sleepers embracing, curved one to another in slumber..." (Faulkner 1927, 47). A few pages below, the image, concise but painterly and effective, returns: "The shore and the river curved away in a dark embracing slumber to where a bank of tiny lights flickered and trembled, bodiless and far away..." (Faulkner 1927, 53). Condensed in this recurring image, in which sensuousness of forms and situations ("bodies", "sleepers", "curved", "slumber", "embracing") goes together with vague and dreamy suggestions of uneasiness ("dark", "flickered and trembled", "bodiless"), we have a vivid insight into the "intimate relationship" (Campanella 15) between the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi River—and the complex, real and metaphorical, geographies which contain (and, at the same time, derive from) it. From the very start, this intimate relationship (between human artefact and nature) was also a contradictory one, and recent, dramatic events, such as the widespread destruction and loss of lives following Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the area, have contributed to magnify it. At the same time, it is exactly in this dramatically contradictory "intimate relationship" that much of the "art of the city" lies, in the amplest meaning of the expression.

  • 1 On this specific issue, see Kidder; Kelman; Maffi 2008.
  • 2 It must be remembered that, in addition to the Lake Pontchartrain, other lakes contour the city: th (...)

22. When La Nouvelle Orléans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, it was immediately clear that a whole set of problems arose from the choice of the site.1 The city was built on the left bank of the Mississippi River, on the sloping side of a natural levee and soon, its own space had to contend with the flowing waters. Later on, when the city expanded beyond the original settlement (the Vieux Carré), it came to embrace an area which sat below the sea level, in a sort of bowl formed by the natural levee and by a relic natural ridge running along the edge of Lake Pontchartrain: the Metairie and Gentilly Ridge. Inevitably, this position left the city at the mercy of natural agents: the overflow from river(s) and lake(s),2 floods and rains which could not be easily absorbed, hurricanes raging from the sea, malaises originating from stagnant waters, thick fogs rising from the river, not to speak of the daily annoyance of a tropical climate and the continuous persecution of mosquitoes and bugs...

3Writes geographer Craig E. Colten:

The river built the land with its frequent inundations, and thus New Orleans’s original plan occupied a tract subject to regular flooding. The high-ground was not set back from the river but consisted of only the relatively narrow natural levee. The crests of the high ground stood only about 12 feet above sea level. The batture, or actual river bank, dipped into the waterway, while the back side of the natural levee followed an invisibly gentle gradient in the other direction. (Colten 2005, 17)

4At the same time, the site and position of La Nouvelle Orléans (which would become New Orleans by the early 19th century, after the sale of the whole Mississippi Valley to the young American republic by Napoleon Bonaparte) created a whole set of different situations—or, better, of geographical dislocations, which, taken together, deeply influenced the city and its culture, and the way in which inhabitants and visitors came to experience both. First and foremost, the "intimate relationship" between the city and the river (Faulkner’s "embrace") was not only one of passive dependence or subjection, but also of a (necessarily) active, creative attitude on the part of the inhabitants. This, for instance, ended up by upsetting customary perceptions as regards usual American urban geographies. As Colten again explains, "New Orleans residents have developed directional lexicon based on places’ position relative to the river. Making reference to a huge meander, these relative terms have little relation to the cardinal positions on a compass. Uptown is upriver, downtown is downriver. 'Rear' refers to places away from the river, toward Lake Pontchartrain" (Colten 2005, 196). Customary perspectives were thus distorted and new ones introduced, especially as far as critical (social and cultural) distinctions were concerned ("uptown" and "downtown"), and a different geography (material and imaginary, real and metaphorical) came to be envisaged and consequently deployed, out of the very acts of everyday life. In time, this would also account for the sense of "unreality" the city is impregnated with, so deeply ingrained as to become a local-colour peculiarity, an identifying mark, a cultural stigma or, in its worst cases, a tourist attraction—in any case, something which contains and conveys a strong (and strange) sense of place. Writing about Tennessee Williams’s association with New Orleans (an association ripe with a feeling of deep fascination, but also of uncertainty and unreality), literary critic W. Kenneth Holditch remarks: "In no city in the United States, with the possible exception of New York, is the sense of place stronger and more consequential than in New Orleans, shrouded as this city is in a literary mystique that for many, both residents and outsiders, has replaced reality" (Holditch 1992, 64).

5There is no doubt that this mystique has characterized much of the most recent literary production coming from New Orleans: from Anne Rice’s vampire novels to Andrei Codrescu’s and Barry Gifford’s para-surrealist writings, just to quote a few names. And, although it is probably still too early to point to a distinctive trend, it already can be detected in much post-Katrina writing, imbued as it is with an anguished sense of misgiving, bewilderment, rage and distress, as well as of awe and nostalgia. But it can even be traced back to that large set of popular beliefs and folk material (ghost stories, haunted-house tales, voodoo rites, legends of vampires and loups garous: what Mark Twain would call the "vivid sense of unseen or dimly seen things—vivid, and yet fitful and darkling") (Twain 1883, 314), which informed and still informs many aspects of the life of New Orleans and from which even such late nineteenth-century realist authors as George Washington Cable and Lafcadio Hearn drew inspiration for some of their "Creole narratives"—a kind of suspension in time and place, a mysterious and dreamy middle landscape in which not all is as it appears.

6It thus comes as no surprise that one of the most popular and successful genres of the last two decades in New Orleanian literary production should be the "genre noir", variously explored by such authors as Dick Lochte, Julie Smith, Chris Wiltz, and above all by James Lee Burke and James Sallis. And, of course, it comes as no surprise that a writer such as William Faulkner, who, especially in his Yoknapatawpha novels, would so subtly subvert conventions of time and space, should have completed his own apprenticeship in New Orleans, of all places.

73. But the peculiar spatiality involved in the relationship between the city and the river also had other consequences. Following the first disastrous floods, French architect Pierre Blond de la Tour first insisted in vain that the city be transferred to a more favourable place and then resorted to the construction of a line of levees, in order to defend the settlement from the natural seasonal overflowing, unpredictably swollen, from time to time, by exceptional weather conditions. This system of levees (thirty miles upriver, twelve downriver), which in the following decades and centuries would be greatly extended in length and height, was inevitably to mark the life of La Nouvelle Orléans-New Orleans, until it became, writes geographer Ari Kelman, "the most prominent topographical feature of the city... a crucial point of reference on many New Orleanians’ cognitive maps" (Kelman 171). At the same time, however, and less paradoxically than it would seem, the system of levees created the very conditions for some of the most disastrous floods to be experienced by the city: the rigidity, solidity, and increasing height of the man-made levees finally conflicted with the fluidity, direction, and rhythms of the "monstrous entity that drains a vast portion of the interior United States" (Colten 2005, 5). The Mississippi River’s natural tendency to spread to the surrounding area, with regular seasonal rhythms, and there deposit layer after layer of sediment, was contained and finally blocked by the levees: the waters were thus conveyed towards the sea with increased speed, force, volume, momentum, and this in turn was to have other dramatic consequences on the whole system of the river’s delta.

8The very intention to protect the city thus made it even more exposed to the rages of the river, and the depressed location of most of its neighbourhoods finally had other long-ranging effects. For instance, the problem of an efficient sewerage system was dramatically magnified (especially after the recurring bouts of cholera and yellow fever, like that of 1853, with its death toll of approximately ten thousand—10% of the overall city population), as was the problem of the many cemeteries, whose tombs, from a certain time on (after the disturbing consequences of repeated floods in the city), came to be built as elevated structures, giving birth to a peculiar New Orleans institution: the so-called "cities of the dead".

9Decay, miasmas, malaises of all kind, an intense feeling of the proximity of death, thus came to be entwined with the overall decadent aura of the city—a complex product of its contradictory history, of its continuous passage from one European power to another, of its socio-cultural division between Creole and American sections, of its past-and-present world of slavery and plantations and a rigid class system, of the traumas of the Civil War and of the Reconstruction... And this, in turn, would create an equivocal atmosphere of uneasy balance between forgetfulness and memory, persistence and disappearance, myth and actualities, which was well explored and expressed by Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and other less famous plays of his. Faulkner himself characterized this ambiguous sense of the city, especially in his 1925 sketch "The Tourist".

104. Another consequence of the city’s position on the river was of a subtler kind, and had to do directly with the use and perception of urban spaces, with the city’s peculiar "urban-riparian sense of place" (Kelman, passim). As we have seen, La Nouvelle Orléans was in fact built in the middle of a large meander, one of the many maze-like circumvolutions drawn by the Mississippi River in the final tract of its sea-ward course—a large meander which was at the origin of the city’s first nickname: "The Crescent City". From the beginning, the sinuosity of which Faulkner writes in Mosquitoes was deeply entrenched in the city’s reality and image and took up many different forms and implications. Somehow, it had (and has) to do with the Franco-Spanish-Creole heritage (its rhythms and lifestyles), with Caribbean atmospheres and a tropical climate, with a widespread sense of ripeness and rotundity, with a radically different cultural "milieu" to the Eastern and Mid-Western ones (and, in a way, also the Southern one), with Native American concepts of time cycles, with African American music (its circular rhythms and "call-and-response" modality), with a city mystique well summed up in its other famous nickname: "The Big Easy".

11At the same time, in the face of this intense and widespread sinuosity of forms and feelings (always verging on local colour, even on sensationalism), stands the regular rigidity of the plan of the Vieux Carré (literally, the "Old Square")—a grid made up of sixty-six square blocks (eleven in length, six in depth: 1.2 km. by 550 metres), designed by Pierre Blond de la Tour and Adrian de Pauger according to a clearly 18th-century, rationalistic, French Enlightenment scheme: or, perhaps more accurately, according to a military conception, "the elaboration of a colonial outpost designed by military engineers", wherewith "[a] regular town grid was imposed with force over the original makeshift arrangement of buildings" (Heard 1). This "orthogonal network of streets" (Heard 2), with Place d’Armes (present-day Jackson Square) as its focus, answered not so much to actual military necessities as to commercial ones: those were the times of John Law’s Mississippi Bubble, that early speculative scheme originating in Europe and quickly applied to the new continent’s rich lands, and, besides replicating French customs in terms of measurement and land subdivision (arpent and longchamps), the form and disposition of lots and plots along the river obeyed explicit real-estate imperatives (Maffi 2008, passim).

12In any case, two different material and metaphorical perspectives again faced each other, and conflicted: the rotundity and sinuosity of the natural landscape, the rationality and rigidity of economic laws and urban development—what could even be experienced (and the consequences on the cultural level, in a city such as New Orleans, replete with subterranean implications, motifs, and suggestions, would be varied) as a conflict between Id and Super-Ego.

13This same clash (and its inevitable social and class implications) was implicit in what came to be known as "the batture issue"—the batture being, as we have seen, "the part of the Mississippi’s banks remaining covered in times of high water and uncovered during low" (Kelman 19) and symbolically embodying "the vague boundary between city and the river" (Kelman 28). On this issue, a long dispute opened in early 1807, when Jean Gravier proceeded against "the Mayor, Aldermen, and Inhabitants of the City of New Orleans". In extreme synthesis, the dispute can be summarized as follows: was the batture to be considered a public space, open to general (and diversified) use by the city’s inhabitants, or should it become private property, part of a general shift of the city towards an early capitalist development, to the exclusion of the general public? The fluidity and unpredictability of the river, its constantly shifting nature, its recurring savage furies (almost those of an animal’s body, endowed with an inscrutable and sometimes perverse will), were opposed to the rigid necessities of economy, to the requirements of real estate and private property, to the harsh realities of urban development; and the batture thus became a veritable middle landscape (or perhaps a no-man’s land), one of the many thresholds which characterize American culture from its very beginnings. But the conflict also took on interesting and revealing overtones, when it translated itself (or was almost unconsciously "metaphorized") into potentially fecund cultural and literary dialectics, into an extension of cognitive maps well beyond the limits of the legal controversy: for instance, in the recognition that, "while deeds and titles—words on a page—remained inert, the constantly shifting river did not respect legal guarantees or borders drawn on a map" (Kelman 48, my italics)—again, the juxtaposition of fluidity and rigidity, of unpredictability and normalcy. New ways of experiencing the river and the city in their intimate relationship thus enhanced new ways of (story)telling those experiences. And this would become even more apparent, as soon as another legal controversy developed along the New Orleans riverside.

145. Ever since the early days of colonization along the Mississippi Valley, one obvious problem was that of the river’s navigation. At first, rafts, flatboats and keelboats descended its waters, giving them (and their early ports: St. Louis, Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans) a peculiar aspect, with markedly socio-cultural implications: the length and laboriousness of the voyage, the boatmen’s coarse ways and language, the difficulty of the up-river return voyage, the birth of veritable river-men communities with distinct cultural and social traits, all this soon became a matter of folkways, legends, and myths, and consequently of fiction. Then came the steamboat, and it ruled the waters, drastically changing the landscape. Beginning with the 1811 voyage of the "New Orleans", managed by a trio consisting of builder Robert Fulton, financial backer Robert Livingston, and pilot-inventor Nicholas Roosevelt, the steamboat became the main feature along the Mississippi River—a presence not devoid of problematic repercussions, especially in New Orleans, where once again the issue of who should monopolize the riverside (the batture), and thus radically transform the riverfront and the city harbour, made itself felt. The city (its technology) and the river (its wilderness) thus came into another kind of intimate relationship, which was from the very beginnings a turbulent one, an unresolved one. And, in cultural terms, a fertile one. Exactly in the same way as in time water distances came to be measured, in the boatmen’s lingo, in terms of city blocks (Raban 221), with a sort of conceptual dislocation, so too the land plots along the river (whether French longchamps measured by arpents or afterwards American lots measured in square yards and miles) not only had to accommodate themselves to the fluidity and sinuosity of its waters, drawing strange hieroglyphs on the land—they also slowly turned into literary plots. New cultural geographies, new cognitive maps, where space and words (and what lay behind: the contradictory formative processes and reactions to them) came to be in a direct and fruitful relationship.

156. With all this in mind, it is now time to return to the "Prologue" of Faulkner’s Mosquitoes and to read the pages containing the two short lines previously quoted:

The warehouse, the dock, was a formal rectangle without perspective. Flat as cardboard, and projecting at a faint motionless angle above it, against a lighter spaciousness and a sky not quite so imminent and weary, masts of a freighter lying against the dock. Form and utility, Gordon repeated to himself. Or form and chance. Or chance and utility. Beneath it, within the somber gloom of the warehouse where men had sweated and labored, across the empty floor lately thunderous with trucks, amid the rich overripe odors of the end of the earth—coffee and resin and tow and fruit—he walked, surrounded by ghosts, passing on.
The hull of the freighter bulked, forecastle and poop soaring darkly sharp, solid, cutting off vision, soaring its superstructure on the sky. The unseen river continued a ceaseless sound against the hull, lulling it with a simulation of the sea, and about the piles of the wharf. The shore and the river curved away like the bodies of two dark sleepers embracing, curved one to another in slumber; and far away opposite the Point, banked lights flickered like a pile of yet living ashes in a wind. Gordon paused, leaning over the edge of the wharf, staring down into the water.

He flung back his head and laughed a huge laugh in the loneliness. His voice surged like a dark billow against the wall behind him, then ebbing outward over the dim, formless river, it died slowly away...

They waited for a trolley to pass, then crossed the street. The wharf, the warehouse, was a formal rectangle with two slender masts projecting above it at a faint angle. They went on between two dark buildings and halted again while a switch engine drew an interminable monotony of cars up the track.

They passed through the warehouse and onto the dock. It was cooler here, quieter. Two ferry boats passed and repassed like a pair of golden swans in a barren cycle of courtship. The shore and the river curved away in a dark embracing slumber to where a bank of tiny lights flickered and trembled, bodiless and far away.... (Faulkner 1927, 47, 48, 51, 53)

16Not only do we recognize here the same (dialectical) juxtaposition of spaces, rigid and fluid—the city’s solid, geometric (almost Cubist) volumes, as opposed to (but also in an intimate relationship with) the river’s sinuosity and shiftiness: the "urban-riparian sense of place". What we also read in them is a reflection almost à la Eliot on modernity and naturalness, and—more subtly—an attempt to define a style able to explore and express these dynamics.

  • 3 Useless to say, the character of New Orleans as a cultural laboratory is quite apparent also after (...)

17New Orleans and the Mississippi River were indeed an appropriate landscape: in time, events, experiences, suggestions, implications had settled deeply in their lore, in the cognitive maps of those who lived in the streets and on the banks—until they would surface again in the form of cultural products, of the "art of the city". Ever since the mid-19th century, New Orleans had become an important cultural centre in the United States—problematically set in ante-bellum South for most of its life until after the Civil War, but at the same time, due to its location and history, open to a wide variety of influxes. The peculiar mélange of cultures which always was one of its main features, the acute contradictions stemming from slavery and from Americanization, the traumatic shift from an agrarian economy to a mercantile and capitalist one (well summed up by the shift, in its port, from the rafts, flatboats, and keelboats to the steamboats), the critical role played by the city as a gate to the North American continent, on the one hand, and to the Gulf of Mexico and the global world, on the other, these and other elements contributed to the development of New Orleans as one of the most exciting and stimulating "places to be" for American artists. This process climaxed in the 1920s, with what can justly be called the "New Orleans Renaissance", a relatively short span of years (roughly coinciding with the "Harlem Renaissance", with the "Little Magazines" phenomenon, with the "Expatriate Experience", with much Modernist experimentation), which functioned as another cultural niche in the larger Modernist laboratory, extending well into the 1930s. To the names of John James Audubon, George Washington Cable, Grace King, Lafcadio Hearn, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, as well as of famous visitors such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, those of Sherwood Anderson, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Lyle Saxon, Nelson Algren, Zora Ncale Hurston, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Arna Bontemps could thus be added, as representatives (insiders or outsiders) of a distinctive New Orleans way of writing. And the short-lived experience of the little magazine Double Dealer, to which many young and not so young American writers and poets of those years contributed, in a way aptly summed up that process.3

18How to reconcile static geometries and fluid geographies, the city and the river? How to draw mental, cognitive maps which could contain and express both, each with its own set of inner contradictions? And wasn’t this a matter of literary style as well as of daily, material experiences, of socially and culturally determined manners? How to translate land plots into fictional plots? Wasn’t this also the problem of shifting from a realistic style in literature to a modernist one? What role would this city play, and could this role be similar to that played by, say, New York (as John Dos Passos, another important visitor to New Orleans, was showing, in those same years, in his novel Manhattan Transfer)? And what role would the river play, and in particular such a river as the Mississippi River, charged as it had always been with an enormous history and carrying it upon waters drawn from every corner of the Northern continent, from every layer of time and memory, individual and collective?

19The problem was one which both Mark Twain and William Faulkner, in different ways and moments, and with their different ways of relating to the city and the river, would tackle—the former, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in the fresher pages of Life on the Mississippi (1885), the latter especially in the "Old Man" sections of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939).

207. Rivers played a key role in the development of a significant American culture (Seelye). This was clear all through the first half of the 19th century, when such rivers as the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri acted as great inroads for exploration and colonization. Also, around mid-century, the Hudson River (flowing from upstate New York) offered another inspirational landscape to the native school of painting which from it took its name, engaged in wrenching American art from a passive imitation of Old World canons. As to the Mississippi River, its being "the body of the nation" (Twain 30) conferred on it a very peculiar dimension, which was deeply historical (the early French exploration of the heart of the continent, the dramatic Indian wars fought along its banks, the original French, Spanish, American settlements, the development of a trade economy in the North and of a plantation system in the South) as well as significantly metaphorical (the "waters spreading upon a large surface" and "from beyond the time" of the Native Americans, the "Father of the Waters" of the young American nation, the "Old Man River" of the black experience, Melville’s "confidence man" and Mark Twain’s "monstrous river"...).

21Another stage was then reached when the river began to be colonized, settled, inhabited, "citified", and especially when technology came to it in the form of steamboats, railways and bridges (which, on their part, disrupted the earlier "life on the Mississippi", battling with steamboats as the prime movers of the developing capitalist economy and producing a whole set of other disruptions at all levels) (Maffi 2008 passim). Once again, it was the conflicting encounter of nature and technology, Leo Marx’s "machine in the garden" (Marx).

22In the Mid-Western and Southern landscape, the increasingly citified and "technologized" Mississippi River thus played the same decisive role that the bridges, the elevated, the underground railway, the skyscraper, the tramway, would play in the cityscape: a powerful instrument of magnifying and telescoping developments and contradictions. It was an economic and social lever, an instrument of knowledge, a test place for innovative creative reflections, and not by chance this was especially clear in Mark Twain’s experience, conception, and literary transfiguration: for instance, in the shift from the sentimental naiveté of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to the harsh realism of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), but above all in those pages in Life on the Mississippi (1883) which were originally written in the 1870s and recorded experiences taking place before the Civil War, well before the author’s 1882 voyage on the river—a veritable re-visitation which actually gave birth to the book. It is to these pages that we now turn back.

  • 4 "You see, this has got to be learned; there isn’t getting around it. A clear starlight night throws (...)

23Soon after Horace Bixby’s teachings to the young pilot,4 in a long passage worth quoting at length for its many indirect suggestions to the art of writing, we can read another perspective on (and from) the river, while Mark Twain acknowledges those teachings, but also ponders upon their consequences:

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book which was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher employment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting explanation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter.
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in on place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling "boils" show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the "break" from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river (Twain 94-96)

24Not only do we read here the coming to maturity of the young pilot, daily gaining experience, mastery, and command. What we also read (under the current, so to speak) is a commentary on the relationship between unreality and reality, and, more subtly, between the two conflicting literary forms of the American 19th century: romance and novel. This page is indeed a veritable "realist manifesto": it draws inspiration from the river, from the writer’s actual experience on the river (a sort of "view from the river"), but at the same time it is made possible by the presence and role of the technological (and "urban-riparian") innovation represented by the steamboat, travelling up and down the current and contributing new perspectives and new suggestions—a presence which would deeply change the natural as well as the city landscape between (at least as far as Mark Twain was concerned) St. Louis and New Orleans. From its deck, in the middle of the current, it was possible to glance at the river banks while the steamboat went upriver or downriver (in much the same way in which Faulkner’s Gordon glanced at the river from the wharf in Mosquitoes), and in this way the steamboat plays a similar role to that of the New York City Elevated in late 19th-century novels, and notably in William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), where the "view from the Elevated" introduces new perspectives and inspires realist fiction in its shift towards a new (almost cinematic) stage in the literary representation of the city (Maffi 1983). If we dare paraphrase and overturn Henry James’s famous metaphor, "the [boat] of fiction has in short not one window, but a million" (James 45): from that boat (from that steamboat due to become the tool and symbol of a new age), the point of view—on the river and its banks, on wilderness and civilization, on South and West and East—would necessarily change, according to economic, social, cultural, class, ethnic, gender positions. In this way, realism opens the way to modernism: fragmentation of the point of view occurs, in fact, which even pre-dates the turn-of-the-century period characterised by enormous innovations and contradictions, and is fed by the elusiveness and complexity of the Mississippi and the life in its riparian cities—first of all, as we have seen, New Orleans.

25This attack on romance, on the "unreal vision", is peculiar to Mark Twain, and not by chance will it surface again in the later pages of Life on the Mississippi— those more directly concerned with New Orleans, its atmosphere and cultural ambience, where it also takes the form of an attack on Walter Scott’s legacy in the city and more general in the American South. In fact, the "literary mystique that for many, both residents and outsiders, has replaced reality" is in some way associated by Mark Twain with all the negative influxes of romance (in the Walter Scott version) that burden the city and the region. The realistic literary mode should get rid of them and dispel this world of fancy—and the hard-fact necessities of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River, while connecting the two key cities of St. Louis and New Orleans, would (and should) contribute to that.

  • 5 On the 1927 flood and its effects on the city, see in particular Barry.

268. If we now turn to the "Old Man" section of William Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (published in 1939, two years after one of the Mississippi River’s most dramatic floods, and set in the middle of the better known and more disastrous 1927 flood, which directly menaced the city of New Orleans),5 we can single out a further step in these developments, by which a literary form is placed under strain by the very experience of space—be it a (new) metropolitan space, or a natural one, in which however technology has already insinuated itself, setting in motion a visual, psychological, ideological, and cultural chain of reactions.

27Writes Jonathan Raban, in one of the best travel books devoted to the Mississippi River (Old Glory, 1981):

The Mississippi was keeping its true nature hidden in more ways than one. I was afloat on one river while the chart in front of me showed quite another. The river I could see was a neat affair, lined on both banks by forest, so narrow that even I could have swum from shore to shore. It looked no wider or more scary than the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Only the chart revealed that the river was telling me lies. On paper, it was three to four miles from bank to bank. The wooded channel was just a single, arbitrary path through an enormous maze of forest, sand and open water. There it was, mapped in green and blue, fantastically elaborate scribble of loops, scrolls, dots and spurs: the river writing its signature in its inimitable Gothic script. (Raban 99-100)

28This "inimitable Gothic script" reminds us of the; modernist arabesque, too often associated with the urban experience only. And it is in this "script" (one that appropriately moves from land plots to fiction plots, passing through the river experience) that William Faulkner will narrate the river, its realities and implications, in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. This is a complex text, which alternates, chapter after chapter, two different sections, "Wild Palms" and "Old Man": the latter tells of a convict who, saved from the flood by the team with which he was working on strengthening the levees, becomes a fugitive against his own intentions and has thus to survive the fury of the waters, struggling against a river which subverts geographies and freezes and hypnotizes time. In this sort of Greek tragedy, Faulkner’s style is especially striking: and, little by little, we understand that it is necessarily in the river that its true wellspring must be sought and found in those peculiar river rhythms, in the baroque grandeur of the waters, in the endless circumvolutions of the flowing course, in "its inimitable Gothic script". Let us read the early description of the Mississippi overflowing the levees:

It was perfectly motionless, perfectly flat. It looked, not innocent, but bland. It looked almost demure. It looked as if you could walk on it. It looked so still that they did not realise it possessed motion until they came to the first bridge. There was a ditch under the bridge, a small stream, but ditch and stream were both invisible now, indicated only by the rows of cypress and bramble which marked its course. Here they both saw and heard movement—the slow profound eastward and upstream ("It’s running backward", one convict said quietly) set of the still rigid surface, from beneath which came a deep faint subaquean rumble which (though none in the truck could have made the comparison) sounded like a subway train passing far beneath the street and which inferred a terrific and secret speed. It was as if the water itself were in three strata, separate and distinct, the bland and unhurried surface bearing a frothy scum and a miniature flotsam of twigs and screening as though by vicious calculation the rush and fury of the flood itself, and beneath this in turn the original stream, trickle, murmuring along the opposite direction, following undisturbed and unaware its appointed course and serving its Lilliputian end, like a thread of ants between the rails on which an express train passes, they (the ants) as unaware of the power and fury as if it were a cyclone crossing Saturn. (Faulkner 1939, 53-54)

29This description of the flood—those "three strata, separate and distinct", moving at different speeds and in different directions, each of them with specific features, almost contradictory, but all of them joined by a unique effect, by a unique role within the general event; the juxtaposition of images natural and technological—can be read as another "manifesto of style": the true point of convergence between the Mississippi River (the river of history and of myth, of daily reality and of artistic representation) and Faulkner’s writing.

30Shifty, changing, deceptive: these recurring adjectives describe the river in Mark Twain’s and William Faulkner’s works; at the same time, however, the regularity and rationality of spaces by now dominated by human settlement, technology, urbanization and their demands, create a contrast, evoke and set in motion a subtle dialectics.

319. Wrote John Dos Passos in 42nd Parallel (1930) "The river was higher than the city. It was funny standing on the stern of the steamboat and looking down on the roofs and streets and trolleycars of New Orleans" (Dos Passos 347). It is a passage which effectively epitomizes the "intimate relationship" between the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi River—their wor(l)ds, and their "art".

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1 On this specific issue, see Kidder; Kelman; Maffi 2008.

2 It must be remembered that, in addition to the Lake Pontchartrain, other lakes contour the city: the Borgne, the Maurepas, the Ouatcha, the Cataouatehe, and the Lake of Allemands, not to speak of the many smaller rivers (the Bayou St. John, for instance) and extended swamps and wetlands that connect the area to the sea, east, south and west. Indeed, for a long time the city was called "Isle de la Nouvelle Orléans", a name which enhanced its character of suspended site, in geographical terms (but, as we shall see, not only).

3 Useless to say, the character of New Orleans as a cultural laboratory is quite apparent also after the 1920s, as such names as those of Walker Percy, Ishmael Reed, John Kennedy Toole, and the contemporary authors mentioned some pages above, sufficiently demonstrate. But of course such analysis—while worth of further expansion—goes well beyond the limits of this essay.

4 "You see, this has got to be learned; there isn’t getting around it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that if you didn’t know the shape of a shore perfectly you would claw away from every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it for a solid cape; and you see you would be getting scared to death every fifteen minutes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from shore all the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it. You can’t see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know exactly where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when you are coming to it. Then there’s your pitch-dark night; the river is a very different shape on a pitch-dark night from what it is on a starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and mighty dim ones, too; and you’d run them for straight lines only you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems to be a solid, straight wall (you knowing very well that in reality there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for you. Then there’s your gray mist. You take a night when there’s one of these grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn’t any particular shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of the oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways. You see" (Twain 86).

5 On the 1927 flood and its effects on the city, see in particular Barry.

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Bibliographical reference

Mario Maffi, « An Intimate Relationship. The City, the River, and their Wor(l)ds. Echoes from New Orleans and Vicinity », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 23-37.

Electronic reference

Mario Maffi, « An Intimate Relationship. The City, the River, and their Wor(l)ds. Echoes from New Orleans and Vicinity », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 28 March 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Mario Maffi

State University of Milan

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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