Old Glory – Jonathan Raban

In 1979, Jonathan Raban journeyed down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans in a specially equipped 16-foot motorboat. Quite the loner, he makes the trip on his own, exploring a river that has fascinated him from afar since early childhood. "The book and the journey would be all of a piece. The plot would be written by the current of the river itself. It would carry one into long deep pools of solitude, and into brushes with society on the shore. Where the river meandered, so would the book, and when the current speeded up into a narrow chute, the book would follow it."

To undertake such a long and dangerous journey, Raban had to have been fascinated by the river’s power and presence, its history. He attempts to learn how to watch it, though he’s sure that it’s unlearnable. "Even when I was asleep, I was still travelling on it, dreaming of waves and dark sloughs and the endless scribble of the current on top of the water. … Actual life was the river itself. It was the roll of a wake lifting the boat and slamming it down." He writes of his fear of and respect for the river. He keeps running into people who have lost family and friends to the river’s sweeping current.

Raban is a great reader. As in his Passage to Juneau (2000), he brings books from earlier centuries along on his trips to see whether they help him understand the landscape and locals. For the Mississippi he’s found various river guides, including a volume on navigation among sandbars, boils and eddies (they may have shifted actual location, but they remain awe-inspiring – and arbitrary) and a handbook for European immigrants, even The Book of Mormon. The quotations he chooses provide appropriate comments for the situations with which he’s confronted.

Raban grabs the attention with original turns of phrase: "The nearest I had come before to driving a tow was managing narrowboats on British canals … This was more like trying to steer six or seven blocks of Madison Avenue down a twisty country lane." Travel writers make lists of phenomena; good ones put observations together in a way that the list itself comes to life. "The voices had slowed and turned more musical in their phrasing; the architecture had aged and spouted trailing wrought-iron balconies and trellises; the vegetation had grown knottier and more festooned. Now the South was coming in a rush of symbols: squashed-faced pirates, lianas, brown-bagging, water-moccasins."

It is easy to make fun of "ugly Americans" – overweight and dressed in polyester, ignorant, oblivious to the world beyond their doorsteps – and many authors have done so. Raban is a bit more subtle – and he later chose the freedom and openness of the US to the restrictiveness of his native England. But he does describe racism along the river, ignorance about the hostage situation in Iran, hokey tourist traps.

Raban is very much on his own. He’s given up an academic position because he couldn’t stand the narrow regimen; his marriage fell apart a year before. He occasionally meets women for a date (even stopping off and living with one for several weeks in St. Louis). And he now and then finds kindred spirits among the men, guys who spend weeks and years of their life observing the water, dreaming of heading out on it, envious of him for doing so. But mostly he just rides the river and observes places and people: "His words were easy and open-handed. His face wasn’t. It looked as if it masked a complicated inner life. Twenty years before it would have been a simple face, hawkishly handsome, with a tight mouth and eyes set a little too thoughtfully far back in the skull. Since then it had taken on a contradictory pattern of fine lines and furrows."

Most Sundays, he pays a visit to a local church. As his own father was a small-town vicar, he has a wary, respectful relationship with religion. Like a sociologist, he observes many different ways of celebrating church services; he is somewhat outside the action but well informed. "Community Baptism was a religion of straight talking, practical know-how and self-reliance, in which making out as a successful farmer or carpenter was intimately connected with the doctrine of personal salvation. Between then and now, though, something had gone terribly stale. The down-to-earth metaphors which had once been exact and fresh had turned to routine exercises in folksy crackerbarrel about pay cheques, TAP airlines and drugstore prescriptions."

Old Glory is long and winding like the river itself. But Raban’s way of looking at the world is so trenchant, his writing so vibrant, that you, too, will be disappointed when the trip ends upon his arrival in the bayous of Louisiana.

– Nancy Chapple