- The Nature of the South
My tenth-grade Language Arts teacher insisted that all literature could be (and, in her class, would be) fit into one of three thematic categories: man’s [sic] relationship to nature, man’s relationship to man, and man’s relation to himself. (As I recall, the last was usually the safest bet, since some internal psychodrama could usually be wrenched out of the text at hand.) The works under review here may appear at first glance to fit fairly neatly under category one. But as even a cursory second glance shows, categories two and three inevitably make their appearance, and they do so in markedly different ways. If nature—or, in Trefzer’s case, the figure of the Indian as an imagined “child of nature” (12) often deployed to describe or consolidate certain relationships to “the land”—appears even fleetingly as a thing held in common, a consideration of these three monographs reveals its multiplicity as an object of contemporary critical analysis.
In River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi before Mark Twain, Thomas Ruys Smith marshals a wealth of materials to draw a multi [End Page 122] faceted portrait of the Mississippi from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War. Presented as “gently” chronological in its organization, River of Dreams explores how the Mississippi acquired historical significance and cultural meanings as an “ever-shifting symbol” meandering into the national consciousness of antebellum America—a symbol, Smith writes, “of the West, its strange and unfamiliar waters threatening and full of promise; of American nationalism, its waters a melting pot that brought forth new and distinct types; of European disapprobation, its waters a murky embodiment of the republican experiment; of technological advancement, its waters the crucible of steam and the subject of new industrial images; of unsettling undercurrents, its waters the home of dark, hidden, uncontrollable forces; of union, slavery, internal division, conflict, liberation, and decline” (194). To put it mildly, that is a daunting list, and it is to Smith’s credit as a cultural historian that these themes are well established by the time the reader encounters the passage above.
Following an introduction that presents the Mississippi as “The American Nile”—a commonplace antebellum analogy on which Smith thoughtfully meditates—the first two chapters are organized historically. In the first, “Empire: Jefferson and ‘the Mississippi We Must Have,’ ” Smith situates the Mississippi as it emerges as a central site and icon of American expansionism between the Revolution and the period surrounding the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson, George Rogers Clark, James Wilkinson, and Robert Fulton figure prominently in Smith’s intriguing account of the Mississippi’s place in a shifting national and international scene. The second chapter, “Frontier: Jackson and the ‘Half-Horse, Half-Alligators,’” uses Andrew Jackson as a somewhat tenuous pivot around which to tell the story of the cultural and economic development surrounding the Mississippi through the 1840s. As in a later chapter that explores the realities and mythologies of the Mississippi underworld, Smith proves adept at braiding historical fact and the fictions that emerge from it: the reality of the Battle of New Orleans and its translation into cultural iconography, the actuality of social stratification in the Mississippi Valley and the mythology of Jacksonian leveling, and the river trade and its literary incarnation in Mike Fink and other half-horse, half-alligators are all deftly analyzed as complex cultural interactions, although not subordinated to any overarching thesis.
With his third chapter, Smith shifts to a more topically driven mode. “Travel and Tourism: Europeans on ‘This Foul Stream’” explores the resistance of the Mississippi to the aesthetic criteria of the picturesque brought to bear by European travelers including Frances Trollope, [End Page 123] Frederick...