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Taking a river cruise on the American Queen from Minneapolis to St. Louis? Boarding the City of New Orleans at the Chicago AMTRAK station? Driving from Pittsburgh to Paducah? You might want to pack Paul Schneider’s Old Man River. Anecdotal and informational, written for a popular audience, Old Man River has been designed to be a good traveling companion. Schneider mixes travelogue and history, moving from mammoths to Cahokia to the siege of Vicksburg to present-day Pilot Town, far out into the gulf where the Father of Waters finally blends into the sea. Some of the stops on this voyage will be more entertaining than others, depending on the reader’s interests and level of knowledge about American history.
Schneider starts at the beginning, sketching out the geological origins of the river. From there, the book moves rapidly to the earliest paleo-Indians, the development of Indian societies, the building of mounds and effigies in earth, and the rise of Native American civilizations and their decline. He discusses the impact of Spanish invasions in the south and French explorations in the north. One section of the book recounts the origins and impact of the Seven Years’ War, the connections between the peace concluding that war and the outbreak of the American Revolution, and the new republic’s acquisition of the Mississippi Valley through the Louisiana Purchase. A set of chapters discusses the people and commerce of the river in the early nineteenth century; the next chapters focus on the Civil War. Finally, Schneider concludes with twentieth-century attempts to control the river, and the ecological damage caused by those attempts and by man-made catastrophes like the BP oil spill.
That is a lot of history for 334 pages of text. Schneider makes it work by skimming from one topic to another, often using his own travels on the river as a bridge to his next subject. The result is fun to read, but any professional historian is likely to find it shallow. (It is [End Page 655] probably telling that I liked best the chapters covering matters I know the least about, like geology and early Indian culture.) This is not the sort of book one would recommend for a university library; nor would one assign it in a graduate class. But then, professional historians and their students are not the audience for which Schneider is aiming.
As a work of popular history, Old Man River is mostly successful. But the general reader may share this historian’s puzzlement at Schneider’s decision to include events on the eastern tributaries of the Mississippi in his narrative. Someone casually picking up a book on the history of the Mississippi probably does not expect to read so much about the Iroquois of upstate New York or the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in western Pennsylvania. One might instead prefer more about the nineteenth-century century heyday of steamboat travel and the golden years of river towns like New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. Schneider is a good writer, and his descriptions of his own travels, on the river and ashore, are among the most entertaining parts of the book. If expanded, they would have added to the value of this book as enjoyable light reading.
JEANETTE KEITH is a professor of history at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Her latest book, Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City, is about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis.