By William Lyon Phelps
On the first of several agreeable visits to Carbondale in southern Illinois, whither I went to address the best of all audiences-public school teachers-I enquired of the superintendent, Mr. Black, as to the precise distance that separated us from the Mississippi river. I told him I loved all rivers, and this one particularly. I had seen
it at St. Paul, at St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. I wished to see it far from the noise, smoke and artificiality of cities. I wished to see it naked. He informed me that he was the proud owner of an open Ford car, that the Father of Waters was only eighteen miles away, and that he would lead me to it that very afternoon.
It was a charming day in early spring. I stood on the bank of the mighty Mississippi. There was no town, settlement, not even a house in sight. The glorious old river at this point was one mile wide, fifty feet deep, and running seven miles an hour. Away up stream on the Missouri side the trees were in the living green of April; and the flood came rolling along in silent majesty.
I thought of the old seventeenth century poet, Denham, and what he said of another
Oh, could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme l
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full.
Every river has a fascination for me, because it is alive. In a green landscape, or in a rocky gorge, or in the midst of a forest, or dividing a city, it gives to every scene the element of life.
Living waters flowing through meadows, over sands, between mountains are always mov-ing, progressing, going somewhere. If one climbs a hill, and looks off on a vast expanse of fresh woods and pastures new, and suddenly sees a river, the heart leaps up with recognition.
Looking at a map-the expressive face of the world-I have often wished to follow the course of various rivers. I should like to go down the Amazon, the Yukon, and the Yangtze. Each river has a personality. Most rivers that empty into the ocean are tidal; their current is pushed backward by the incoming sea. But the Amazon is so mighty that it overcomes the force of the tide and transforms the ocean into fresh water. Unless voyagers and novelists are abandoned liars, one can be off the coast of South
America, out of sight of land and dip up fresh water, so tremendous and fax-reaching is the shove of the Amazon. Its mouth is so wide that one could place in it crosswise, the whole Hudson river from New York to Albany, without touching either shore.
The personality of the Mississippi is striking. In the greatest of all Mark Twain's contributions to literature, the first volume of Life on the Mississippi, he gives us marvellous impressions of the character and behaviour of the stream.
And in one of the foremost novels of our time, Charles Stewart's Partners of Providence, the peculiar habits and whims of the Mississippi are set forth. It quite rightly regards itself as socially superior to the Missouri; so much so, in fact, that for some time after the entrance of the Missouri into its waters, the Mississippi positively
refuses to have anything to do with the interloper.
In the old days "before the war" (our war), luxurious passenger steamers plied from St.
Louis to New Orleans; and I understand that, after the lapse of many years, we are to have similar vessels. This is as it should be; an immense amount of American literature and his-tory, from De Soto to Edna Ferber, is associated with this river, and the opportunity of traveling on it should be given to all Americans. I have not yet abandoned my youthful dream of travelling on the Mississippi from St. Paul to St. Louis, and from St. Louis to New Orleans.
I never miss a good chance for a river voyage. One has the element of adventure as one rounds the next bend. I have been on the rivers of southern Florida, I have been on the Savannah river in Georgia, and the last time I was at Vanderbilt university, in Ashville, friends gave me a memorable excursion on the Cumberland.
One of the most interesting of all inland voyages in the United States is to take the steamer from Norfolk to Richmond on the James. From seven in the morning to eight at night it is a panorama of American history.
The word river occurs many times in the Bible, and think of the part played in the story of mankind by the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Jordan! The Bible begins and ends with a river. In the second chapter of Genesis, we read "And a river went out of Eden to water the garden," a lovely spectacle, for Paradise would never have been
complete without a river. In the last chapter of Revelation, we read, "And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb."
It is curious when the Bible speaks of the River of Life-"on either side of the river there was the tree of life"-that the idea should persist of the River of Death. This is a heathen and pagan idea and has no place in Jewish or Christian thought. Many people speak solemnly of crossing the river-they get the notion either from Greek mythology or from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, or metaphorically, from the Promised Land lying on the other side of the Jordan.
In reality the Bible tells us that both the earthly and the heavenly Paradise had a river to refresh and gladden the people.
Without sermonising too grossly, we may say that a river is like a human life. The source is often obscure and humble, then a tiny stream, then growing bigger and more important (the widening of influence), then flowing tranquilly (prosperous, happy days), then getting into sand flats, hardly moving (serious illness), then roaring tempestuously in rapids (times of ex-citement and adventure), yet going on, some-how
Furthermore, they always arrive ultimately at the same destination-the mysterious open sea, leaving narrow circumstances for a deeper and greater existence.
And even those streams that seem to perish without fulfilling their destiny, are in their sub-sequent influence like the lives of obscurely good men. Some travellers in a desert came to a bit of green meadow where a river once had been.