There are a few things you can do in American literature. You can escape the provinces for New York City (and you may or may not be able to go home again). You can go out West. You can stay in the South. Or you can go down the river.
When she was pregnant with me, my mother spent many hours of each day reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Her dissertation was an authorized edition of the book, and in order to make it, she had to go through all the extant versions looking for discrepancies, and then she had to decide whether Twain meant to use a comma or a semicolon, whether he mean to use “blackness” or “darkness,” whether he preferred “school house,” “school-house,” or “schoolhouse.” Sometimes I think I must have been rather bored as a fetus.
But something about it must have rubbed off on me, because even though I’ve never read the whole book myself and have never seen anything of the Mississippi but the bits of it in Iowa and Minnesota (and Illinois and Wisconsin), have always imagined floating down it, floating lazily through history and story and song, and ending up, of course, in New Orleans.
Natural disasters have never affected me particularly, either physically or emotionally. In 1993, when huge portions of the Midwest flooded, and some of my friends who lived down near the river lost their homes, the only thing I really remember was an epic bicycle ride Sara and our friend John and I took one night to Donutland from my high school. Under normal circumstances, it would have been 10 minute ride, but that night, because of the flooding, it took us an hour and a half–but it was more of an adventure than a hardship. My good friend Felicia lives in Miami and has been through many a hurricane and lost some things along the way. Just this past summer, my friend Ned was leaving Mumbai about the time the incredible monsoons hit.
But for whatever reason, it is the hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast that has gotten me–gotten me so that I can’t listen to the news and also can’t stand not to, gotten me so that I find myself in tears when I think I’m just going about my business, gotten me so that I’m writing about it.
I don’t know anyone who lives in New Orleans or along the Gulf Coast. I’ve never been there. But the place looms large in my imagination. Easy Rider. “Me and Bobby McGee.” On the Road. “City of New Orleans.” “House of the Rising Sun.” So many songs by Lucinda Williams. And in this song by Greg Brown, which is both about my hometown and about escape from it:
Find some long river and follow it down
Where our old sins have washed up in New Orleans
—Greg Brown, “Spring and All”
I’ve read a lot of American literature and listened to a lot of American music, but I don’t know what happens when you get to the end of the river and it isn’t there anymore. I don’t know anyone who’s written about that. I’d hoped that no one would ever need to.