Upholt’s “The Great River”: A Review

Though Louisiana and Illinois can claim a greater geographic relationship to the Mississippi River, we in Mississippi—perhaps more precisely, those of us who call ourselves Mississippians—feel an affinity with the river that some might pass off to eponymy but could well be more attributable to the cultural and historical impact of the Delta—more properly known, Upholt reminds us, as the Yazoo Basin.

In his introduction, Boyce Upholt declares the Lower Mississippi (downstream of Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River enters) “the river I know best,” a river “distinct from its tributaries in nearly every way,” even in what he calls “psychic heft,” which might be taken as Upholt’s term for the allure of the river itself. He calls The Great River “a tale” of “a river that has been the victim of some of the world’s most intense and elaborate engineering, and of a river that is as wild a place as you can find on earth.”

“On my first camping and paddling trip, I had no real expectations, because I didn’t know what to expect,” Upholt said. “I became entranced by the landscape — and shocked that no one had told me what the river was really like. I wanted to keep going back, and writing about the river was a good excuse.”

“Eventually, I decided the best way to understand the place where I lived — which was so important in the country’s history — was to write this book. And I hoped (and hope) it might inspire others to look at the river anew, too.”

Upholt likens the modern river to that of the map in Jorge Luis Borge’s “Del rigor en la ciencia”: an “imagined canvas that we’ve stretched atop the geological frame of the continent.” This canvas, fabricated in a large part by products of the Corps of Engineers’ “river-building mania”—the locks and levees, dikes and paddings—aim to “freeze an ever-changing river in place,” to make it into a map “that will wither with time. And beneath the infrastructure, another Mississippi River persists.”

The Great River encompasses these levels, as well as others, including the Mississippi River of imagination—of literature, poetry, and myth—and—perhaps above all–of history. The Great River is a staggering work of scholarship, deeply meditative, and incessantly thought-provoking. Upholt is a writer with a command of his language and a journalist with a command of his subject; he writes with his ears and eyes, his prose by turns utilitarian and lyrical

Great works bear the magic of time, and The Great River is in so very ways magical, born not only of time, but a sense of awe, reverence, and love. It’s also gently evangelistic, imploring us to look at the Mississippi again, and with different eyes, which for many of us here means to come to know our river for the very first time.

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