Old Man River: The Mississippi River in American History


This book begins with a fascinating tour through the prehistory of the Mississippi River Basin – about a third of the continental United States – from geologic prehistory through the amazingly complex Native American cultures that built cities and the great ceremonial complexes in present-day Illinois, Ohio, and elsewhere. Schneider then tells the stories of the insanely brave Jesuits and other French who explored the area, and “the war that made America”; that is, the French and Indian War of the mid-1700s. Only in the last fifth or so of the book does he devote chapters to what most Americans think of as “Old Man River,” the Mississippi of the Civil War and Mark Twain. He then finishes up with what 20th-century engineers, industry, and agriculture have done to the river.

I wanted to read this book for the history, and I was absolutely satisfied with those chapters. Schneider has a fine voice, and he’s a good storyteller. I was distracted, however, by the chapters in which he shared personal stories of traveling with his son on the river and finding Indian artifacts and such – a kind of Tony Horowitzian travelogue interspersed with the history. They felt like a diversion, like well-crafted advertisements delaying the progress of the show. I’d still recommend Old Man River, with the advice that you can safely skip the current-day chapters.

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