Thursday, May 13, 2010

The flow of history

Constance Lindsay Skinner was a Canadian writer, living in New York, who in 1936, the year of my birth, conceived a series of books that would tell the history of America through the story of its rivers. It was a brilliant notion, given that our history hangs on the armature of flowing water. The books she had in mind would be written by novelists and poets, not professional historians, and illustrated by artists. The publisher Farrar & Rinehart bought the idea, and the first of the Rivers of America series, on the Kennebec of Maine, came out in 1937. Eventually, the series included 65 volumes issued over a 37-year period.

I have read at least a half-dozen of the books, including The Susquehanna, The Delaware, The Shenandoah, and The Cumberland. The two volumes I most enjoyed, naturally, were those about the Tennessee River, the Old River and the New River, by the poet Donald Davidson, published in the late 1940s. I have reproduced above one of the two-page illustrations -- the river just below Chattanooga, where I grew up, with Williams Island in the foreground and Lookout Mountain looming behind.

The Tennessee Valley is rich in history, not always edifying. Here were committed white atrocities against native Americans, including the expulsion of the Cherokees across The Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Here were the bloody slaughters of Shiloh and Chickamauga. Here too was one of the great social experiments of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which lifted a benighted region out of poverty but had many local detractors. Tragedy and triumph, disharmony and poetry, history gathering force as it flows, eroding, depositing, collecting into itself a thousand rivulets and streams.

It is hard to imagine any such series succeeding today, but the Rivers of America stands as one of the great publishing achievements of the 20th century. The books are to American history as the circulatory and nervous systems are to the human body. They came to mind as I looked at the new mapping of the rivers of the world in the current National Geographic -- human history as flowing water.

Constance Lindsay Skinner died at her desk in 1939 while editing the sixth volume of the series, The Hudson. The illustration above is by Theresa Sherrer Davidson (click to enlarge).