Old Glory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Travel literature is a rich and varied literary form; in part this is because of the correspondences which exist between reading and traveling. When Emily Dickinson cast her famous metaphor comparing frigates to books she was more than a little bit accurate. If reading is a kind of journey then so is writing, and no other kind of writing points this up in quite the same way that travel writing does.

It is perhaps too much of a generalization to say that, at heart, all life and all literature are based in travel. The case could, however, be made for such an assertion. From the darkness of the birth canal to the narrow-walled grave, from the first page to the last, numerous journeys are started and ended. Oftentimes vicarious journeys must suffice, voyages only imagined, dreamed. Rarely do the journeys of literature cross over into the journeys of life. When they do, the event is likely to be momentous, with a significance both individual and universal. Such is the case of Old Glory: An American Voyage.

The Mississippi River has itself long been a kind of metaphor for America, coursing as it does the heartland of the country, receiving many other noble rivers in its own progress to the Gulf of Mexico. Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, even such smaller cities as LaCrosse, Dubuque, Quincy, Natchez, Baton Rouge (not to mention countless other places)—all of these river towns (aside from the industry and commerce associated with shipment of goods along the length of the river) connote in their North/South axis much of America’s history and image, from early nationhood through the Civil War to recent civil rights struggles. Furthermore, St. Louis, as the historical gateway to the West, and Nauvoo, as the departure point for the Mormon march to Salt Lake City, both point to the importance of the Mississippi River as another axis, another topographical and migratory orientation: East/West.

Perhaps the Mississippi can most fittingly be thought of in terms of the “Old Glory” metaphor which Jonathan Raban develops throughout the eleven chapters of his book. At its most obvious, Raban’s title refers to the American flags which he sees on the masts and decks of barges, tows, flatboats, yachts, skiffs, and on town flagpoles. Beyond that, however, Raban’s book is about the wonder of place, people, and idea; about the process and history (another kind of journey), of America itself—and most especially of the Mississippi River as its representation.

Integral to America’s essence is its European and in particular its British beginning, and the somewhat ironic edge to Raban’s title derives from his perspective as an Englishman. At the start America represented to European immigrants a glorious promised land, and much of America’s early literature, whether in diaries and journals or travelers’ letters home, is a recounting of American voyages. So Raban’s subtitle reverberates back across the Atlantic with echoes of, among others, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur and his glorification of American enterprise and settlement. Raban’s travelog arcs back also to Mark Twain’s seminal dramatization of a boy’s life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

The America which Raban first dreamed as a seven-year-old child in England was, although separated by an ocean and a century, one and the same with Twain’s, for in reading about Huckleberry Finn’s exploits, Raban in his own boyhood envisioned a similar trip. At the age of thirty-seven, after deciding against both teaching and marriage, in the autumn of a year (1979) filled with news of greater moment—the Pope’s visit to the United States, Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Jimmy Carter for the presidency, the American hostage crisis in Iran—Raban atavistically simulates Huck’s river ride, not on a raft to Cairo with Jim but rather alone on a sixteen-foot, aluminum-shelled, blunt-backed, “customized” boat equipped with a small outboard motor, a swivel chair, a carpentered chart stand, a candy-striped canopy and playfully dubbed by its creator, Herb Heichert, “Raban’s Nest.” Although not outfitted to order, the impertinence of Raban’s boat matches his own temerity as a solitary middle-aged boy challenging the aged but ageless delights and dangers of the Mississippi.

As the conventions of travel literature go, trips are made for both practical and impractical reasons, for enjoyment and pleasure—to see and to know different, often exotic places and people; and in the process, though it is not usually stated as an end in itself, to learn something more about oneself, one’s own personal motives and beliefs. Traveling is living. So it is in Old Glory, where Raban as a Britisher abroad passes through the lives, jobs, and entertainments—the homes, offices, factories, bars, churches, picnics, and political rallies—of northern, midwestern, and southern Americans. He learns much about these individuals and about American class structure and values, but he learns even more, by way of implicit and explicit...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, November 9, 1981, p. B4.

The Economist. CLXXXI, October 24, 1981, p. 93.

Library Journal. CVI, September 15, 1981, p. 1733.

Nation. CCXXXIII, September 26, 1981, p. 280.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, October 28, 1981, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, November 19, 1981, p. 10.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 6, 1981, p. 1.

Newsweek. XCVIII, October 5, 1981, p. 83.

Saturday Review. X, September, 1981, p. 57.

Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1981, p. 1227.