Old Glory: An American Voyage
by Jonathan Raban
Simon and Schuster, 409 pp., $16.95
Explorers, like metaphysicians, have always liked a river, straight route to the heart of things. Englishmen in particular have their tradition of great river explorations—it follows that it would be an Englishman who explores the Mississippi and gets at the heart of the American middle, unexplored darkness deep in the flyover. What doesn’t follow is what has happened, that Jonathan Raban’s book has proved to have interest, beyond the usual appeal of a well-written travel book, for other Americans. Following Raban, like an art dealer discovering the new market in primitives, America turns a speculative eye on downstate Illinois.
In one sort of travel book, by Stanley or Amundsen, you get to know the traveler and see how he comes through danger and unsympathetic diet, improved or broken by his ordeal. In books of the guidebook sort you are concerned only with the place and mostly unaware of the noticing presence of the reporter, who forbears to remind you that he is staying in the dreary motel he tells you to avoid. Raban says he intended his book to be of the former type, about himself and his reaction to a place which had intrigued, perhaps obsessed, him since his childhood reading of Mark Twain, visited at a moment of adult spiritual crisis.
As a spiritual odyssey, Old Glory doesn’t quite convince. Raban is too good-mannered to inflict his particular problems on us; perhaps he is too reticent to mention them. And the terms of his personal situation are so emblematic of the modern condition, so-called, that he becomes Everyman instead, afloat on a metaphoric river: “I had gone stale and dry. I felt that I’d run out of whatever peculiar reserves of moral capital are needed for city life. I couldn’t write. For days on end I woke at five, confused and panicky, as the tranquilizers that I’d taken lost their grip.” And as Everyman he enacts everyone’s dream of a life where for a time “everything would be left to chance. There’d be no advance reservations, no letters of introduction…as much like a piece of human driftwood” as could be managed.
Disguised as harmless flotsam, Raban is exactly right for making sense of a land where, as Mark Twain said, river people will load up the gullible with picturesque and admirable lies and put off the sophisticated with dull and ineffectual facts. People are eager instead, it seems, to tell Raban the truth; he’s the confidence man or mysterious stranger so fascinating to American writers and everybody else, the European invested by his accent, his ineptness with local utensils, and his slightly suspect intentions, with a glamour Americans just submit to, just like that.
The basin of the Mississippi is less well chronicled, at least in modern times, than the Yukon. Of the great many American writers to have come from the Midwest, only Twain wrote much about it; the others, having left with velocity, like champagne …