Mostly Mississippi (1927)

Gallery of Artwork Plates by Harold Speakman

Inset Illustrations Gallery (HS, above)

MOSTLY MISSISSIPPI
360 pgs; 15 plates of paintings and drawings by the author
& his wife Russell Lindsay Speakman Dodd, Mead & Co.

Dedication: “To My Wife and Friend Russell Lindsay Speakman”

Gallery of Portrait Plates by Russell Lindsay Speakman

Inset Illustrations Gallery (RLS, above)

Dust Jacket Blurb:

“In ‘Mostly Mississippi,’ his first travel book on an American subject, Harold Speakman enters into the life, past and particularly present, of that great river, taking the measure of its strength and beauty and terror with an understanding heart.

Its narrative is based on a ‘terrific voyage of 2,450 miles’ by canoe and twenty-foot houseboat, from the headwaters of the Mississippi, where one crosses over the stream on stepping-stones, to the Gulf where one does not. The resulting volume with its delightful humor, its swiftly changing spectacle of city and town and country, its gay, vagrant spirit of the open, its paintings of the landscape, and its portrait sketches of Mississippi people holds a blithe adventure in understanding, told with all the charm that has endeared the author’s ‘Here’s Ireland’ to thousands of readers.”

Foreward:

“Three characters persist throughout the following pages – a man, a woman, and the Mississippi River.

Of these, only one is solid, consecutive, enduring. That one is the river. As long as the clouds are, and the forests are, its tawny-maned flood will go foaming down to the dark bowl of the sea. The story of its strength will be told again and again in books, and records, and charts, and relentless dates.

The man and the woman are impermanent, perishable. Their journeys will be short and few. They will be seen only for a moment on the face of the river. In that fact alone they may be a certain value – provided we look at them squarely, not as at a pair of wooden mannikins on which to hang a few gay ribbons of scenery.

So, throwing off any embarrassment I may feel, as something quite aside and stupid, I shall look into the man’s mind and to the other’s responsive presence for the volatile essence of this adventure, always shielding my somewhat delicately exposed position behind the consoling thought that the river, by its sheer magnificent strength, is both the villain and the hero of this book.”

Excerpts, Pages 3 & 5 (Harold & Russell):

“I watched the paddle blade in front of me sink noiselessly into the water, run along the side with a swift, even sweep, and, rising from its aqueous fold, send a silvery, funnelled eddy racing by. A good canoeist ahead! As for me, I knew nothing about canoes. I was at the back paddle, the important paddle, only by courtesy. Well, perhaps I’d learn.

* * * * Then from the front of the canoe:

‘How far did that man at Bena tell you it was to New Orleans?’

‘Nearly two thousand five hundred miles.’

She laughed with a little thrill of anticipation in which I could detect the presence of bears on a dark stair behind.”

Excerpt Page 50 (Death on the River):

“As the afternoon wore on, great numbers of gossamer-winged Mayflies came flitting and dancing out over the river. What were Mayflies doing on the river in September? Committing suicide, it seemed. Sometimes, lured by their own reflections, they dipped to the surface of the water only to find themselves caught and helpless in the strange, cold terror beneath. Others, fluttering above, would brush one of the captives with their wings, and she, or perhaps he, feeling the warm stir of life, would struggle desperately up, freeing herself from the clinging death; or more often falling back, would flutter a few times and then lie still.

As the shadows lengthened, others too, over-zestful of life, or perhaps very tired, would sink down and embrace the river. Then some hidden eddy, some whim of the current, would sweep them slowly into line and send them down stream in a conclave almost stately – the mourners and the mourned – all dead.”

Excerpt, Pages 227-226 (Man in a doorway):

“Kentucky had turned its river front over to Tennessee. Across the way, Missouri had capitulated to Arkansas. Flat lands folded away on both sides. There were few farms; distant sandbars and more distant banks were covered with timber. We passed down the river in sunlight. It was an enormous river now, nearly three miles wide, stretching out lazily in the heat, uncoiling its huge folds good-naturedly.

We found the entrance to a chute at the right, and turned into it. The day was perfect. Reflected in the chute before the trotting Isador, was the blue sky with white clouds in it. At the sides, there were low willow thickets – brown with rose-colored tops – and giant, white-trunked cottonwood trees shining out against a haze of purple underbrush beyond. Above, as below, like the completing line of a triolet – the blue sky again, with white clouds on it.

Here is an unpainted ramshackle little group of farm buildings, lending the tonal beautitude of their gray to the bright color about them. A man with a dull, hopeless face, is standing immovable in his doorway watching us. Perhaps he was born in that house, or perhaps he was brought there when he was very young and has grown up there, and has married there, and will die there on the bank of the chute without ever having had a view of the river beyond the island. As I look at him, I feel for a moment, as though not he, but I were standing heavily there. The impression is so vivid that the very color of the landscape, which I am sure he does not see, goes out of the day as though a cloud has passed over. A strange, slight dread comes over me, and the necessity for escape. Escape from what? I do not know. A remembered sentence comes to my mind – “They did not complain because in all their lives they had never known anything else.” Perhaps I want to escape from the uncomplaint in the man’s eyes.”

Excerpt, Pages 264-265 (Drifting In The Fog):

“Again southward, with a new battery and a rejuvenated motor. On the left, Mississippi, and on the right Louisiana. Over both banks there was a fog. Only the right shore near which the Isador plodded like a slow, faithful turtle, showed its presence by the blue silhouette of its tree-tops rising out of the prevailing obscurity. A delicate but steady insistence on the part of the current against the left tiller line, showed that its direction was changing to the other side of the river. Should we follow it, losing ourselves again in that detached, mysterious world of gray space? The ayes won. I loosened my hold on the tiller, and let the boat go where it would. In a moment, the shore was gone.

The mate, who had been making the cabin shipshape, threw a crumpled letter out into the river. We watched it disappear, a morsel in the mouth of the fog. A little breeze came up, ruffling the water and stirring the mist into vaporous shrouds. We chugged on for half an hour, straining our eyes for the trees and logs, which singly or in groups, float down the river, with their talon-like roots ready to pounce on shantyboats. A slight object, by no means a log, approached us on the water. It was the mate’s letter. Like men lost in the woods, we had made a complete circle. We set off again, but at the end of twenty minutes, to our vast surprise, the letter reappeared, coming toward us on the same side as before! About us was the uncanny presence of the fog, with that bit of paper drifting past our bow.

We stopped the motor expecting to find out at once which way we were drifting. We could not tell! We had no way of knowing where the river itself was going. Certainly we were moving, but which way?”