My first encounter with the Mississippi River was in song, in the early eighties, before I’d ever seen an airplane up close. It wasn’t until many years later, as a scholar in southern Illinois in 2009, that I first saw the real thing—under the giant silver Gateway Arch, which marks the role of St. Louis, Missouri, in the story of the expansion of the United States into the Wild West. I’ve visited the site many times in the years since, still marveling at the multitude of stories that came forth from the river banks and changed the country, and the world, for good or ill.
The song had been sung to me by my father, and may have come from his own colonial education. I’ve never been able to find the source of this song. But it ended with the line, “Mississippi, the longest river in the world.” From childhood, this had been my only reference point whenever I needed to answer that geographical question. My father could not be wrong; the song said so. It had to be so.
It’s a paywall, but a small one
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