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The Heart of the Heart of the Country

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 corks, couldn’t be got back in again. T.S. Eliot was raised in St. Louis, but J. Alfred Prufrock lived in London. Even Twain, revisiting his childhood haunts along the Mississippi, had protected himself with the manners of an outsider, and had learned to speak French and German, and (like nearly all the others) been living in Europe or the East. What Raban discovers is as strangely cheering as what Twain rediscovered.

Raban puts in around Labor Day from Minneapolis–St. Paul in a sixteen-foot open aluminum boat with a fifteen horsepower motor, with the plan to go to New Orleans, more than a thousand miles down-river. Along the way he talks to people, mostly in the bars and other boats, and pauses in motels or hotels or with people who invite him to stay, according to his whim and chance. Then he writes down what he sees and what the people say. He more or less lets them speak for themselves.

Raban is a wonderful writer, with great powers of description, and above all the ability to interpret with elegant tact and lightness in the sort of tone one might use to criticize someone else’s child without giving offense. He captures, or else invests his companions with, so much pungent plain speaking that it belies his own criticism of the American language and “its fatal preference for theories, principles, and concepts over mere material objects and their intractable thingness.” It is ultimately the thingness of the life along the Mississippi that Raban shows us—and that his readers, apparently, find so surprising.

It is on their thingness, too, that his informants constantly insist, in the teeth of coastal dwellers who doubt it. “You come from England?… That’s what I thought. We got an English lady living here in town. She come over from England when she married Everett Asquith. He’s got a paint store up on Main.” “A hotel? You can stay at our place. Francie loves to have guests.” “That Ed, God, he’s such a dreamer. Ever since I’ve been in Muscatine he’s been saying that crazy stuff about the Rio Grande. Every fall he talks about going down there. He ain’t never going to get south of Hershey Avenue.” “I had a son. He drowned in the river…. It takes its toll.”

He meets some people who are embittered, alienated in their isolation from national concerns: “I don’t vote for no one. If Jesus Christ himself was running for president, he wouldn’t get my vote. Them politicians, they’re a bunch of outlaws.” Everything on TV is junk made by Madison Avenue. “Who do they think we are? I’ll tell you: to them this is Flyover Land.” He shows Raban his fancy rifle. “Eventually,” says Raban, “I got the hairlines on target and saw what I was supposed to see: Washington politicians, Madison Avenue jerks, college presidents and beautiful people. One by one they staggered to their knees like struck deer.”

But most people aren’t alienated. It’s them, they feel, who are there, and it’s the others who are outside. What they don’t like is that the outside doesn’t understand this. “Why is it that every time they show a bumpkin on a comedy show he’s supposed to come from Iowa?” In town after town, Raban’s Midwesterners express basic satisfaction with their place, and a mistrust of elsewhere. He asks a group of eighth-grade kids in Savanna, Iowa, where they would go when they grew up. “I pressed them to daydream and offered them the freedom to be anything from a New York dentist to a movie star in Cannes.” No thanks. The kids intend to move no more than a mile or two away from Savanna, and they hate the idea of the city. “It’s so noisy.” “Everything gets stole.” Raban grasps the Midwesterner’s “sense of slight and belittlement, this precarious pride,” everywhere, and the secret vanity, the belief that it is the region of balance and common sense. “We’re the calm, thoughtful center…if you take us out of the United States, you drain all the basic common sense out of the country. I know what goes on in New York, and Los Angeles. I can make judgments about them because here I’m at a remove.”

But of course they don’t really know what goes on in Los Angeles, and Raban understands this too. Urban social problems can only be imagined. They’ve only heard that everything gets stole. Some people in a bar laugh at Raban because he’s lent his boat to some blacks from Chicago. “All them Chicago niggers, I reckon they’ll be saving up carfare for England,” one man says. His wife objects. “That ain’t right, Harry. Them black people, I think they’re more honest than us. You don’t know no blacks. You never talked to a black person in your whole goddamn life.” “Shit,” admits Harry. Another person chimes in, wonderingly, “I don’t know what it is about them, but you never see a Negro coming back with no fish.” The blacks did return the boat and they did catch some fish.

The schoolchildren had none of them finished Huckleberry Finn because they couldn’t understand the black dialect. Noticing that this part of the country was a “vast white ghetto,” Raban asks why and a man in Dubuque just shrugs: “I don’t know why that is. I guess they just don’t like the climate around here. I don’t blame ‘em…the winters here, they’d freeze the ass off you…but it’s a wonderful climate for hogs.” A woman thinks its funny that Jews, as she’s heard, think carp a delicacy, whereas she herself wouldn’t touch it. Her husband points out that Jews wouldn’t eat pork, which she thinks a delicacy and that it’s all relative. She’s never thought of that. But she’s willing to think of it. The bigotry here seems naïve, open-minded, conventional, borne of unfamiliarity with the problems other Americans have riots and hangings over. The responses are not so much reactionary as fixed, on values widely shared.

In a recent book about the Jonestown tragedy, Shiva Naipaul, another foreign observer of American society, concludes after a visit to California that American problems are connected to, among other things, the cynicism and bad faith of our treatment of the urban underclasses. From California he is unable to imagine, just as many other Americans are unable to understand (evidenced by the hectoring tone of media civil rights reformers), that there is a vast part of America where the people can’t imagine blacks or other ethnic groups—they can’t even imagine cities. But if they can’t summon more than an abstract sympathy for problems they can’t imagine, they appear, on Raban’s evidence, not to have closed their minds either.

Raban sometimes feels lonely. From the perspective of Minnesota, “London was a city just a little east of Boston.” To the Midwesterners, Boston seems just a little west of London—both far, unfamiliar, inimical. The people are concerned with life where they are. When Jimmy Carter stepped off the riverboat at Guttenberg, Iowa, he was heard to remark, “Hey, is this Iowa?” Now “Hey, is this Iowa?” is a huge local joke. “People had rejected ‘America’ as an ungovernable abstraction,” but the democratic process was alive and well in the politics of the local community. The woman who was running for mayor of Guttenberg had hated her two years in California. “I’d say I came from Iowa. Iowa? They didn’t know if it was a city or a state.” She worried most about the decline of liberal arts education. “So many kids now are going into trade schools and technical schools, the whole vocational thing, and…unless we can get them back into liberal arts programs, they’re going to lose their understanding of the whole democratic process…. We’re raising a generation that isn’t educated enough to know what it means to be a citizen.” Liberal arts? It’s a bet that educators in California have never even heard the term.

Raban goes on downstream with the current, noting the beauty, the desolation, the past, old glory of the once busy river towns. The Midwest doesn’t photograph—the camera makes the people fatter than they are, the beautiful black earth seems flat and bleak. Raban brings the rich architecture to life as if no one had looked at it before, and perhaps they haven’t—the “glorious flights of unbridled nineteenth-century ambition”—Clerical, secular, Moorish, Steamboat Corinthian, Queen Anne, Gothic, Victorian, you name it. Muscatine, Iowa, watching television, “saw more than it wanted of Los Angeles and Manhattan. It felt that the imbalance was unjust. The floating mansions on its bluff…were really just as worthy of the loving gaze of the film camera as Rockefeller Center.”

They don’t hold this against Raban, representative of the outside world; instead they are anxious for his approval, want to know what he thinks of their place; they have the friendliness that foreigners so often deride in Americans. I felt, myself, a keen, American, hostess-like anxiety as Raban approached the place I grew up in, and keen disappointment when he didn’t like it at all—found it full of “ageing jocks, with their acrimonious divorces, their giant power boats and their glowering paranoia.” These would be the same guys I went to Calvin Coolidge Junior High School with, I guess. I was interested to learn that paranoia is a civic, not just a personal characteristic.

Calvin Coolidge a regional hero. Raban speculates that the resurgence of born-again Christianity in America is really a nostalgic wish to return to a specific period of history, “a time when worldly ambition and spiritual virtue existed in harmony.” Even now, the TV antennae and cars do little to disturb the essence of, say, Andalusia, a “bare conjunction of shack, forest, river and cultivated ground.” This region strikes Raban as it struck Twain, as one whose days of greatest glory are over. These for Twain had vanished with the Civil War, and he hearkened back for testimony to the witness of still earlier travelers—Marryat and Mrs. Trollope. Raban hearkens back to Twain. There are no more recent accounts of this voyage, which is perhaps why people are so surprised to discover that America has a calm center, itself hearkening back and confirming itself, restoring its buildings, researching its history, defending its eccentricities against the frontier mentality of the West, the sissy affectations of the East, a rich storehouse of cultural certitudes trying to ignore the shifting values and faddish self-doubts of coastal America.

On downstream. Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons were massacred; Hannibal, Missouri. The North merges imperceptibly at first into the South. Blacks appear, and catfish, and Civil War stories. People begin to say you-all, grits appear on the menus. Raban meets a girl in St. Louis and tarries there awhile. His severest judgments are reserved for St. Louis, a place which, having had the sense to tear down its high-rise public housing, has been thought of by others as a model of urban intelligence. Raban thinks St. Louis “gaunt,” crime-ridden, ugly, and dying; and installing fake gas lamps, cobbled streets, wine bars, gift shops and novelty restaurants, a stadium, a convention center, and a hideous arch which aims to be to St. Louis what the Eiffel Tower—an aspiration which sends Raban and tourists from California into stitches—won’t help. He can’t see the point of a city rehabilitating itself on well-heeled transients who only attract crime and prostitution, while the real citizens live in the suburbs.

Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee. He follows an election in Memphis and goes to a revival meeting. He meets riverboat pilots right out of Life on the Mississippi. In Vicksburg he meets people who talk Boston Irish, Manhattan, Harvard Business School—the accents of the New South. There is much talk of the New South. “There’s a line I keep on hearing from fellows who’ve come from the North,” a man in Mississippi tells him. “They say ‘Look, I don’t know whether you’re thinking of seceding again, but hell, if you are, we’re going to join you this time.’ ” One of the principal occupations for blacks in Natchez is acting in films, playing the parts of “field niggers” and “house niggers,” and “when there’s no movie work going,” says a local, “they sit in the ditches playing banjos and singing old darky songs for the tourists. Then the NAACP comes in and tells them they’re degrading themselves. So they wait till the NAACP guys get out of town.”

In December he arrives in Louisiana. In Houma, Louisiana, a jittery addict pulls a knife on him. “Here in Louisiana, Christ…people here, they go out of their way to run a dog down. It’s a goddamn sport,” someone tells him. His last stop is Morgan City, Louisiana, where there “ain’t nothing.” That’s the heart of darkness—Morgan City, Louisiana.

Mr. Raban is not one to shirk the consequences of his successes. On the jacket of his very good book about Arabia, he is photographed clutching a hookah. Now he’s Book-of-the-Month Club. And he’s been on CBS, gamely reenacting scenes of his river voyage, with voice-over passages from the book: Raban stares glumly at weather reports on the motel TV, Raban revisits a couple of nice folks on their cabin cruiser. With becoming embarrassment, he sports a duplicate of the funny hat he lost. The media are full of wonder. He praises the bird life along the Mississippi; the camera finds birds. Mr. Raban, says the narrator, has visited places with names like Red Wing! Wabasha! Prairie du Chien! Bettendorf!

Another day finds NBC’s weatherman in Indian headdress announcing with astonishment that he’s in Davenport, Iowa! Later on we find Tom Brokaw interviewing Harry Reasoner—the two taking note with satisfaction that like them the important anchorpeople have mostly all been Midwesterners. Probably, they speculate, because Midwesterners are so sensible and nice. There are two different ballads on the cowboy music station with the refrain, “Miss-iss-ipp-i.” It’s like a Twain story all right—the mysterious European stranger comes and sells to the locals something that’s been theirs all along. The Midwest has been ours all along, after all, but for those who haven’t known this, Raban’s book makes a continuously interesting pitch.

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