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The Meaning of Rivers

Flow and Reflection in American Literature

T. S. McMillin

Publication Year: 2011

In the continental United States, rivers serve to connect state to state, interior with exterior, the past to the present, but they also divide places and peoples from one another. These connections and divisions have given rise to a diverse body of literature that explores American nature, ranging from travel accounts of seventeenth-century Puritan colonists to magazine articles by twenty-first-century enthusiasts of extreme sports. Using pivotal American writings to determine both what literature can tell us about rivers and, conversely, how rivers help us think about the nature of literature, The Meaning of Rivers introduces readers to the rich world of flowing water and some of the different ways in which American writers have used rivers to understand the world through which these waters flow.
      Embracing a hybrid, essayistic form—part literary theory, part cultural history, and part fieldwork—The Meaning of Rivers connects the humanities to other disciplines and scholarly work to the land. Whether developing a theory of palindromes or reading works of American literature as varied as Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and James Dickey’s Deliverance, McMillin urges readers toward a transcendental retracing of their own interpretive encounters.
      The nature of texts and the nature of “nature” require diverse and versatile interpretation; interpretation requires not only depth and concentration but also imaginative thinking, broad-mindedness, and engaged connection-making. By taking us upstream as well as down, McMillin draws attention to the potential of rivers for improving our sense of place and time.


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-ix

Water floats memories. Think of any phase in your experience and soon I remember very well, for example, the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. It was in June 1970, forty years ago now. I had driven north from Phoenix in a crippled VW bus and, after managing to locate a repair shop in Flagstaff, got back on the road and headed north again for the last few miles....

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Introduction: What Do Rivers Mean?

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pp. xi-xviii

Standing by the upper Mississippi and casting his eye out over the river, Larry, one of my brothers-in-law, wondered aloud about the human fascination with water. What attracts us to seashore, lakeside, or riverbank? So many things bear on such a question—elements of biology, psychology, chemistry, theology, geology, history, cosmology—that it is both difficult to know where to begin and unlikely...

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1. Overlooking the River

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pp. 1-26

Our local newspaper ran a syndicated strip on the funny pages that provides a tragicomic introduction to rivers and meaning in the twenty-first-century United States. In the strip a father and his teenage son stand on a bluff looking down upon a stream as it flows through a valley, sun setting in the background, the tranquil atmosphere nearly cloudless except for a wisp of a cirrus, a flock of birds in the distance hovering above the water. The father, with his walking stick in one hand...

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2. By the River

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pp. 27-60

How much life happens “by the river”! Throughout human history in North America, visitors to and inhabitants of these parts have fished and farmed, worked and rested, drunk and bathed, prayed and sung the blues as the river rolled on beside them. People have flirted, honeymooned, and fooled around by the river. Often they just sat there and thought, “watching the ...

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3. Up the River

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pp. 61-86

Who goes up the river? As our idioms indicate, we might find ourselves up a certain creek without a paddle or sent up the river to prison, but we seldom go upriver of our own volition: it can take an awful lot of volition to paddle, swim, or even wade against the stream. The force of the water, the pull of gravity, the course of time, the call of destiny—nature itself seems ...

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4. Down the River

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pp. 87-125

I think I was in junior high school when my parents took me to Washington, D.C. It was mostly a standard self-guided sightseeing tour of memorials and monuments, leaving me with a general impression of the nation’s grandeur and few distinct memories. The one souvenir that remains, after thirty-some years, is a set of eight-by-twelve-inch reproductions of Thomas Cole’s series ...

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5. Crossing the River

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pp. 127-152

To go upstream or downstream entails moving in one particular direction, doing so with a particular goal in mind, and experiencing a particular length (though in some cases the entirety) of a river’s course. Starting out at one end, one is driven, by one’s own will or by the river itself, to the other. Crossing the river turns direction on its side; it is a transverse movement, ...

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6. Up and Down the River

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pp. 153-174

Time, blood, consciousness, cash, traffic, electricity, information, tears—all are often said to flow. And when we say such things flow, we are generally likening them to rivers and streams, to moving water. Rivers are the preeminent example of flow, and flow is one of the most (if not the most) characteristic features of rivers. Rivers are rivers, one might say, because they flow; flow is what...


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pp. 175-202

Works Cited

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pp. 203-216

Index of Rivers, Writers, and Artists

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pp. 217-220

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299780

Page Count: 220
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 711003841
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Meaning of Rivers

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Subject Headings

  • Rivers in literature.
  • Philosophy of nature in literature.
  • American literature -- History and criticism.
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