Rivers in Southern Literature

» December 26th, 2018

This piece originally ran in The Smart Set.

In the morning,” wrote a wistful Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist.” And so the Merrimack River, which young Henry was surveying with a friend in 1839, emerged in print as an idealized thing, a natural phenomenon of a Massachusetts ecosystem inseparable from human activity — mingling its elegant vapor with the “smoke of our fire” — while being warmly respectful of all surrounding features. Nice.

I recalled these dulcet Thoreauvian reveries while at the same time observing the Merrimack’s cantankerous counterparts: the violent rivers that wreak Biblical havoc in the literature of the American South. Rivers do not gracefully ebb and flow through the southern literary landscape; instead, they swell into angry ribbons of mud thickened sludge, rising with ruthless force to exceed their boundaries and submerge human ambition and hubris in the same gutted delta, washing the folk away — physically and emotionally — alongside the precarious detritus of their betrayed surroundings. Nothing calming about them. A river in Thoreau’s oeuvre invites admiration; but in the southern variation it becomes, as Eudora Welty put it in The Eye of the Story, the South’s “describable outside,” the very essence of place “that defines us, willy-nilly, to others.”

Once you key into that definition, the distinction between the Merrimack and its southern brothers takes on more than anecdotal regional significance. Whereas rivers in the literature of the north urge us, as Whitman cheerily suggested in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (Leaves of Grass), to be “refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,” in the iconic work of southern literature they are a collective phenomenon that, as Faulkner explained in Absalom, Absalom!, “runs not only through the physical land of which it is the geological umbilical, not only runs through the spiritual lives of the beings within its scope, but is very Environment itself, which laughs at degrees of latitude and temperature . . .” The southern river does not, in other words, merely coexist; it coopts, swallows, defeats, humiliates, drowns.

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