(Note: I wrote this during the recent flooding but it got bumped from the schedule. Since I kinda like it, I'm running it even though it is dated now. It owes a serious debt to Ben Metcalf's "American Heartworm" for the inspiration and P. Hawkins for the title, which he improvised as we drove over the muddy, shit-colored ditch itself.)

Since I never tire of lobbing molotovs at inaccurate or misguided aspects of American folklore, let's spend a few minutes talking about the "mighty" Mississippi River. It occupies a special place in our history, especially in the West and Midwest. The Mighty Mississip! Old Man River! Big Muddy! Mile Wide and a Mile Deep! What an awe-inspiring force of nature, one whose imprint is visible not only in our art and culture but also on the very shape of the country we call home.

In reality, the Mississippi River is a glorified creek that floods like a little bitch at the first sign of rainclouds. This incontinent drainage canal – stagnant, baby-shit brown, and stinking to high heaven – originates in a nondescript pond in Minnesota and steals flow from the actual major rivers in the US (Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, and others) in order to create the illusion of being impressive. If it were Mighty, it wouldn't flood three or four states every time the Midwest gets some rain. Nor would it need the herculean efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers just to make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nor would it destroy a few billion dollars' worth of communities every ten to twelve months because it is better suited to appearing in Mark Twain stories than actually carrying water, a task at which the average backyard creek is better.

Neither its width (max. 3000 feet, generously rounded to a mile) nor its depth (an average of less than 100 feet, a.k.a. a mile) suggest that it is a force of nature to be reckoned with. In many places it maintains a navigable shipping channel of as little as six feet. The next time someone idicates "respect" for it (i.e., blatant ignorance of the fact that living next to something that floods every summer is a bad idea) please be sure to punch them for me. Aside from its appearance and reverential mythologization in a few colorful pieces of literature, the Mississippi's gift to the American Midwest has been to bring destruction – from the rifle- and smallpox-bearing Europeans who came to do away with its initial inhabitants to the steamboats integral in the slave trade to the annual devastating floods and finally to the riverboat casinos which expand the River's capacity to destroy beyond the physical plane and into the psychological.

I do not understand why people of the region – Iowans, rural Illinoisans, Missourians, etc – hold annual festivals commemorating something whose only contribution to their lives is to submerge all that they own in fetid water on a regular basis. I do not understand why they speak reverently of something that exists only to take their money and teach them lessons in hopelessness, chaos, and the unfathomable stupidity of rebuilding their homes and lives so near something intent on destroying both. Fuck you, Mississippi River. Respect is given only to rivers that put up at least the appearance of a fight against the waters they purport to tame.


  • Excellent. As an Australian and bombarded via the media with American culture, I would otherwise never have known this. That Mark Twain has a lot to answer for!

    However, no matter how much trouble the river causes, at least it has water in it. Of that I'm jealous.

  • Minor quibble — the Missouri is the Big Muddy. That's the river that's been described as "too thick to drink but too thin to plow."

  • Brilliant. There's nothing quite so satisfying as watching this kind of cultural crap being artfully reducing to the steaming pile of bullshit that it is.

  • When Iowa flooded about a decade-and-a-half ago, Christopher Hitchens (who hadn't yet drunk himself into his current state of brain-dead lunacy just this side of a massive stroke) did a short video piece on the news coverage, seeing how long it would take the various reports to quote Twain after mentioning the Mississippi. The longest gap was about ten seconds. I'm comforted by the fact that were Twain alive, he'd be the first to tell people to knock it the fuck off.

  • David Recine says:

    Horsefeathers. Every culture should have a big-ass river to make up stories about; it should be a universal human right or something. Before I left the U.S. (possibly for good, although I do come back here for vacations) I lived at the Minnesota end of the Mississippi river (a stretch which— thank God— doesn't flood…..). It was kinda cool to know that I lived right near the very beginning of a river that stretches— albeit somewhat artifically— from one end of the country to the other, a river that one of the most beloved authors in the world saw fit to write so much about.

    Incidentally, for those who've actually read Mark Twain in depth, most of what he wrote about the Mississippi River revolved around how filthy it was. His secondary descriptions about its might and awesomeness came off as very tongue in cheek. My favorite thing about the Big River's contribution to U.S. culture is our willingness to insult it and acknowledge its unpleasantness.

    I currently live in South Korea. Let me tell you, the writings of Ed or Mark Twin before him are a refreshing break from the truly nationalistic delusional fervor that revolves around the Han River in SK. An appalling percentage of schoolchildren surveyed each year think the Han River is the longest river in the world, and the last time I made a joke to my students about how dirty the Han is (you actually will get sick if you eat a fish caught in it), a fellow faculty member yelled at me for "disrespecting the river".

    Just saying it could be worse is all. I wonder what delusions the Egyptians hold about the Nile?

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