Douglas Brinkley: The Vital Role of the Mississippi in America's History

Roundup: Talking About History

Kevin Duchschere,  in the Pittsburgh Star Tribune (July 2, 2004):

The Upper Mississippi is"the most beautiful part" of the entire river, according to Douglas Brinkley, even if it's not as famous as the lower half from Missouri to New Orleans.

Brinkley ought to know. One of the most prolific of U.S. historians, he traveled the river three years ago to research a book for National Geographic with fellow historian Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose died in 2002, at about the same time the book,"The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation," was published.

Since then, Brinkley, 43, has written books on D-Day and John Kerry's Vietnam War experiences, and he remains busy as a television and radio commentator for events such as Ronald Reagan's funeral and the release of Bill Clinton's memoirs.

An Atlanta native, Brinkley is a professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

In a recent telephone interview from his home in New Orleans, Brinkley spoke about the role the river has played in the nation's development, how the Upper Mississippi fits into its larger story and this week's Grand Excursion.

Q You make it clear in your book that the river ties together much of American history, running from Aaron Burr and Louis Armstrong to Ronald Reagan and Charles Lindbergh. Is it the nation's most important river?

Without question. Thomas Jefferson thought of it as the great spine of the nation. If you sit at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, you realize that you're seeing raindrops from the Rockies and the Appalachians and water coming from all those tributaries, the Arkansas, the Ohio, the Illinois, the Missouri. It's truly the most important natural resource we have as a country.

So much drama has taken place along the Mississippi. It's lined with communities, not just the large places like the Twin Cities, Memphis and New Orleans, but small towns that have had big impacts in numerous ways. Alton, Illinois, for instance, is the birthplace of Miles Davis and also [was] the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. John Deere built his factory on the river [in Moline, Ill.]. There were important [Civil War] battles, such as Vicksburg and New Orleans. ... It's an endless stream of significant achievements and activities that occurred there.

And the Mississippi helped form the fiction of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Mark Twain. It's hard to imagine American music and literature without the river.

Q How far upriver did you travel in 2001?

We traveled the entire length of the river, from the Gulf of Mexico, by helicopter -- we'd look down and see the dikes and the way they're built into the gulf -- went by steamboat all the way from New Orleans to St. Paul, and all the way from St. Paul to Lake Itasca by canoe and hiking.

Itasca is the most amazing part of the river in Minnesota. Itasca [State] Park should be a national park, with its wildlife and dense forest. It doesn't disappoint. You know, the Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges walked into the Mississippi when he visited Hannibal [Mo., Twain's hometown] and he said,"Now I understand the essence of America." Stepping across the Mississippi at Itasca should be a rite of passage for every American.

Q What makes the Upper Mississippi distinctive, compared with the rest of the river?

It's the most beautiful part. Anything from Dubuque north to the Twin Cities, it gets spectacular. You get almost angry that people don't talk about it enough, that people don't make enough noise on how gorgeous the Upper Mississippi is - extraordinary cliffs and bluffs, gorgeous vistas, the swimming holes and little eddys off the river. It's so clean - you think of the Mississippi as being dirty, the Big Muddy and all, and in truth it's just a gorgeous blue in parts of it.

The Upper Mississippi becomes more and more storied as people start claiming their river history. There's the Black Hawk War [in 1832] and Zebulon Pike [who explored the Upper Mississippi River in the early 1800s] . But then there are stories like Jane Muckle Robinson, who lit lanterns to guide river traffic [in St. Paul], or Charles Lindbergh growing up staring at the sky with his bed almost on the banks of the river. You're getting stories now that are becoming part of our folklore.

I think more and more people are finding interesting the tales of the Upper Mississippi. That's one of the things that the excursion does. It makes people realize that all of Mississippi River history didn't take place in Hannibal.

Q Why was the Grand Excursion of 1854 significant in the history of the Mississippi?

The best minds in America wanted to bring some attention to the river's scenic possibilities, as a second home or a vacationland, or as a new place to raise a family. It had an ex-president, historians, geologists -- the combination was an exciting event, and it started creating a new consciousness of the Upper Mississippi as a wild and pristine region of the country, with fertile land on both sides of the banks, making it a fascinating place to visit. Lake Pepin was more beautiful than the lakes of Switzerland, but it hadn't achieved the notoriety.

It was a publicity stunt and a great way to educate people on what was going on in those four states -- Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- and people who went on it had great memories. The flotilla would have been a great sight to see back then. It still will be today.

Q You mention in your book that Ronald Reagan grew up closer to the Mississippi, and that his life more often intersected with the upper stretch of the river, than any other president. How did Reagan's life reflect his upbringing in the Upper Mississippi region?

His whole life, Reagan was looking toward the Mississippi. His family never looked eastward, they always looked west. He got his first significant job in Davenport at WOC radio overlooking the Mississippi, and rented a room in a building where Buffalo Bill used to live. As a boy he said his favorite book was"Huckleberry Finn." He found that sunny optimism, the sense of adventure in Huckleberry Finn. It became almost a metaphor for his entire career. Other presidents also have been associated with the river -- Ulysses Grant, Zachary Taylor, Abe Lincoln. And now, thanks to the Twin Cities, Millard Fillmore!...

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