Snaking its way through the Midwest and the South from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico beyond the Louisiana delta, the Mississippi River acts as a conduit for the cultural imagination of a vast multiregional area. Who gets to speak for the river, and whose voices define it? This seminar traces representations of the Mississippi in multi-ethnic literatures, focusing on African American and Indigenous rewritings of this iconic American space, which is typically associated with the most idyllic river chapters from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The discussion will focus on John Keene’s short story “Rivers” (2015), which reframes Twain’s narrative of interracial friendship from the perspective of the formerly enslaved Jim, who now goes by James Alton Rivers to honor the waterway that brought him to freedom, and on Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s “New Orleans” (1983). The poem uses the Mississippi as a vehicle of Native memory, highlighting histories and voices erased from settler records and connecting ancestral homelands along the Lower River to post-removal Creek lands in Oklahoma. On the one hand, the Mississippi in literature of the long twentieth century emerges as a battleground for racial ideology and a nostalgic symbol with ongoing currency in American memory. On the other, it serves as a repository of many different stories of life along its banks, providing an insight into sedimented histories of dispossession and extraction as well as of resistance.