Going Home With Mark Twain

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Many of his river landmarks in Life on the Mississippi are my landmarks too—New Orleans, Natchez, the Rodney and Grand Gulf region, Vicksburg, Greenville, Memphis. And none more so than New Orleans: to him, and to myself today, the metropolis of the South—no matter Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta—and which in all its sorcery beckons me time and again just as it drew him back in affection and memory in 1882. There is no finer writing in the first half of Life on the Mississippi than the opening pages of chapter 16, with the steamboats leaving the wharves in late afternoons of the older days to commence the long journey upriver. Now, in 1882, he tours the Quarter with George Washington Cable, rides along a raised shell road with alligators swimming in the canals to Lake Pontchartrain, visits an ice factory (the ice-making establishments here, and in Natchez and Vicksburg, fascinate him, for in his time on the Mississippi “ice was jewelry”), reports that the telephone is everywhere, and judges the city’s electric lights better and more numerous than New York’s: “The finest thing we saw on our whole Mississippi trip, we saw as we approached New Orleans in the steamtug. This was the curving frontage of the crescent city lit up with the white glare of five miles of electric lights. It was a wonderful sight, and very beautiful.” I would give much to spend a day with him in New Orleans: walk the Quarter, pause in Jackson Square, ride the St. Charles streetcar, browse the bookstore in Faulkner House, dinner at Galatoire’s, nightcaps at the Napoleon. What would he make of the Superdome? Probably wish it had been his idea?

 

ON HIS ’82 RETURN he loiters in another place of his youth, Natchez, and also the notorious Natchez-under-the-hill, which “has not changed notably in twenty years; in outward aspect—judging by the descriptions of the ancient procession of foreign tourists—it has not changed in sixty; for it is still small, straggling, and shabby. It had a desperate reputation, morally, in the old keel-boating and early steamboating times—plenty of drinking, carousing, fisticuffing, and killing there, among the riff-raff of the river, in those days.” Today under-the-hill I could show him boutiques and restaurants and, not far out in the river, a casino boat.

The countryside along the river north of Natchez remains to me one of the most haunting in America. Mark Twain knew this neighborhood. The earth is spooky and seductive. In this southwest corner of Mississippi resides the core of the colonial, territorial, Confederate, and American history of this tortured and beguiling state. Before the Civil War this region was the richest in the United States, all of it undergirded by slavery. The splendid plantation homes, many of them now crumbling or derelict, were the apex of this culture. The woods are dark and profuse with creeping vines, snakes, and the ubiquitous moss. The hills and entangled embankments are deep, the older roadways tunnels of green, and the river is never far away. The land is full of ghosts.

Not far from here is Rodney, which Mark Twain knew from his steamboating days and mentions in Life on the Mississippi , a ghost town ever since the river changed course years ago. And the ghost town of Grand Gulf, where the river began to cut into the bluffs and where Confederate trenches, caves, and breastworks are still visible, was also familiar to him. Nearby is Bruinsburg, deserted today and surrounded by cypress woods along two forks of Bayou Pierre, where Twain’s friend Grant, along with Sherman, landed twenty-four thousand men from the Louisiana side of the river in ’63, that war’s closest equivalent to the Normandy beachhead. The most striking landmark of all is the Windsor Ruins, twenty-two enormous Corinthian columns giving the outline of an old destroyed mansion that ran red with blood as a hospital during the Civil War. As a pilot Mark Twain used the tops of these pillars to chart his course. Vines now cling to the fluted columns. Not far from here is Alcorn State, a small black university where in 1994 a quarterback nicknamed Air II finished third for the Heisman Trophy. Mark Twain understood such spectral and indwelling terrain. He saw it from the river.