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Old Glory : A Voyage Down the Mississippi (1981)

by Jonathan Raban

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500935,142 (3.96)27
Navigating the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans, Raban opens himself to experience the river in all her turbulent and unpredictable old glory. Going wherever the current takes him, he joins a coon-hunt in Savana, falls for a girl in St Louis, worships with black Baptists in Memphis, hangs out with the housewives of Pemiscot and the hog-king of Dubuque. Through tears of laughter, we are led into the heartland of America - with its hunger and hospitality, its inventive energy and its charming lethargy - and come to know something of its soul. The journey is as much the story of Raban as it is of the Mississippi. Navigating the dangerous, ever-changing waters in an unsuitably fragile aluminium skiff, he immerses himself with an irresistible emotional intensity as he tries to give shape to the river and the story - finding himself by turns vulnerable, curious, angry and, like all of us, sometimes foolishly in love.… (more)
Recently added byMendoLibrary, Steve_Walker, TerryWeyna, private library, CliffIslandLibrary, TonyLloyd
Legacy LibrariesThomas C. Dent, Anthony Burgess
  1. 10
    Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: Although in seperate periods in time, both these river trip narratives share a joyous commonality of excitement and awe of the river.
  2. 10
    Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban (John_Vaughan)
  3. 10
    River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: While these two journey are opposite in compass headings (Least Heat Moon from East to West and Raban from North to South) they share the sheer joy of the trips and the awesome detailing and description of places and peoples.
  4. 00
    Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (SilentInAWay)
  5. 00
    Coming down the Seine by Robert Gibbings (John_Vaughan)
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» See also 27 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
The Mississippi is the fourth longest river in the world and drains a total of 31 states with a watershed of1,245,000 square miles over its 2300 mile length. In parts, it is up to a mile wide, though the largest lake is 11 miles wide. Raban had first come across this river that cleaves America in two after reading about the Tales of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and wanted to travel along it and absorb the American culture. Starting in Minneapolis which is about 200 miles from the source of the river, he bought a 16-foot Aluminium boat with a 15hp engine, a tiny minnow compared to the vastness of the river. After a crash course in how to handle his new transport and some advice that will prove invaluable later, he is ready to depart, but he just needs to get through the first of the massive locks.

That terrifying experience achieved, the next few days are quite relaxed while cruising downstream. After a days boating, he pulls into the bank to find the nearest hotel or motel and to find some of the locals to talk to. It is a dangerous trip and he has a few near misses. Thankfully he follows the advice that he was given earlier to get off the river when the sky looks strange and just misses a horrendous storm. Apart from these moments, it is a relaxed trip, he enjoys smoking a pipe while watching drifting down the river, only resorting to the whisky when he has been scared witless. One lock keeper advises him to travel at night, but it nearly gets him killed by a barge, so he decides against that.

Where this book comes alive though is his interaction with the people that he meets. He talks to anyone and everyone, from politicians to widows, rednecks and the transient men who work the river. In Memphis, he joins the black reverend judge, Otis Higgs, campaign to overturn the incumbent mayor and sees the endemic racism that was bubbling under the surface of society, something that is worryingly prevalent once again. Every day the river teaches him something new, sometimes it is about the places he passes and other times it is about himself.

This is the second of his books that I have read. The intention is to read them in the order that he published them. Really enjoyed Arabia, but this is another level up again. He is a keen observer of people and places and his writing is spectacular, probing and lyrical. He can sketch a place or a person in a scant number of words, making you feel that you are bobbing along in the boat or sitting alongside him at a bar. Fantastic book. Looking forward to the next, Coasting. ( )
  PDCRead | Apr 6, 2020 |
Started out well, but got bogged down. Description of Minnesota State Fair was hilarious and spot on. DNF. ( )
  Grace.Van.Moer | Mar 6, 2018 |
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

It's obviously no coincidence that Raban gives the young woman he lives with for a few weeks in St Louis the name "Sally" - this is first and foremost a book about the author's long fascination with Huckleberry Finn and its narrator's ability to slip away from sivilising influences in the nick of time. Raban might be disappointed by the detail of the 1979 America he finds in his journey down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to the Louisiana swamps, but he never loses his fascination for the scale of the country and the possbilities for lighting out that it offers.

The river itself is a major character throughout the book - it's striking how much, here as in his other travel books, Raban has to say about water. There are paragraphs and paragraphs of description of how the water looks and sounds, and how it moves under different conditions. Eddies, swirls, risers, chutes, confluences, washes, waves, reflections, bubbles - you name it, he finds something to say about it. Oddly enough, most authors of books on rivers and the sea only tend to make rather fleeting references to the element they are travelling on, but in Raban it is always present. Even when he's on land and merely catches a glimpse of the river in the distance, he takes the trouble to tell us something about what the water is doing.

When he's not writing about the water, he also has some pretty interesting things to say about the towns and cities he stops in, and the people he meets there. Speech and its quirks apparently matter a lot - he takes a lot of trouble capturing the eccentricities in the way people talk to him and using them to make his characters come alive. This sometimes comes over as a little bit too Mark-Twainish, but he's usually careful to avoid sounding like a patronising Englishman making fun of simple Americans (except when he catches himself acting just like the patronising Englishman and indulges in a bit of self-mockery). He perhaps isn't quite sufficiently aware of how much he succumbs to the Huck Finn temptation to search out the oddest characters in every place he visits, but as this is one of the most entertaining aspects of the book, we needn't complain about that too much.

There's a lot of America going on in the margins of the story - it's the autumn of 1979 and many of those he talks to are busy with the Iran hostage crisis and the run-up to the Reagan-Carter election. The apparently irreversible decline of the inner city, the parallel loss of the economic relevance of riverside small towns, and the growth of fake history tarted up for the benefit of short-term tourists are all recurrent topics. There's a nice irony in his finding the most vapid example of the last of these in Hannibal, where a local businessman points out to him that the whole tacky Mark Twain souvenir business is irrelevant to the economy of the town, which really depends on a massive grain-processing plant. In Memphis, he spends some time with the campaign team of a black mayoral candidate (Judge Otis Higgs), trying to make sense of relations between races in the modern South. Needless to say, he doesn't find any easy answers to that question, but what he does have to say sounds sensible. ( )
  thorold | May 11, 2017 |
This multi-award winning book, see Raban take a 16 foot motorboat down the Mississippi River. Along the way, Raban travels from pub to pub and church to church in search of the Mississippi that he longed for as a young child in England reading Huckleberry Finn.

Like the river, I found this book gained momentum towards the end with his insights around race relations and politics in the deep south. Even though it's 30 years after being published, the book still has a timeless quality about it. While 'Passage to Jeneau' is celebrated, I think this is a much, much better piece of writing. ( )
1 vote kenno82 | Jan 18, 2014 |
Great "outsider" look at 1970s Middle America self-consciously placed in the existing canon of the Mississippi... Raban walks a wonderful balance between accessibility and erudition.
( )
  Cedric_Rose | Aug 20, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
''Old Glory'' remains more successful than 99 percent of the books about America since de Tocqueville's ''Democracy in America.'' Back in his pedagogue period, writing technical criticism about ''Huckleberry Finn,'' Mr. Raban put his finger on what gives that book its special vividness. It is the narrator's freedom from the need to dominate his material. ''Huck submits himself to the sights and sounds around him,'' wrote Teacher Raban. The sentence applies exactly to Drifter Raban, floating through the heart of America, hearing and recording its manifold beat.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Noel Perrin (Jul 13, 1981)
 
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Navigating the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans, Raban opens himself to experience the river in all her turbulent and unpredictable old glory. Going wherever the current takes him, he joins a coon-hunt in Savana, falls for a girl in St Louis, worships with black Baptists in Memphis, hangs out with the housewives of Pemiscot and the hog-king of Dubuque. Through tears of laughter, we are led into the heartland of America - with its hunger and hospitality, its inventive energy and its charming lethargy - and come to know something of its soul. The journey is as much the story of Raban as it is of the Mississippi. Navigating the dangerous, ever-changing waters in an unsuitably fragile aluminium skiff, he immerses himself with an irresistible emotional intensity as he tries to give shape to the river and the story - finding himself by turns vulnerable, curious, angry and, like all of us, sometimes foolishly in love.

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