Muddy Waters

River Reflections: A Collection of River Writings

Given that a serious reader might read a book a week, a rough calculation leads to the troubling reality that most of us will have time in our busy lives to conquer about 3,000 books. Publishers churn out tens of thousands of titles every year, and even though very few are worth the dust they collect, difficult decisions persist nonetheless. What to ignore? What’s a must-read? What to put out on the nightstand in the hope of getting to one day? What to re-gift to your brother-in-law? Such questions plague the serious reader daily. While it’s certainly worth a bit more than the dust it collects, River Reflections does an inadvertent favor for the discriminating reader. Not only is it a book that can be ignored without major consequence, but it also highlights the structural problem with an entire genre of books that can, for the most part, safely be put out of mind—the edited volume.

More a vehicle of convenience than a genuine literary form, the edited volume combines the disparate work of a multitude into a marketable whole. Beyond the blurbs and the savvy packaging, though, they almost by definition lack the coherence to earn a place on any selective reading list. Authors in these volumes, many of whom write without knowing that their work will later be collated, paint their stroke ignorant of what the larger image will look like. The editor’s job, of course, is to combine the various expressions into a discrete work of art. But this thankless task more often than not demands that the editor abstract from the specifics to such an extent that obligatory introductory remarks read like a desperate attempt to obscure the incoherent mess that too often follows. River Reflections, as an embodiment of these problems, is pretty much a mess of a book.

Muddy water bayou

Edited by Verne Huser (identified on the back cover as, simply, a man with “a passion for rivers”), the book certainly hits some inspiring moments. Mark Twain, Wallace Stegner, William Faulkner, John Graves, Edward Abbey, and Wendell Berry wrote about rivers without sappy sentiment or overwrought angst. Appropriately, Huser has included them in his collection, allowing the proper bits of their prose to stretch out and breath. Typical of most edited volumes, though, these excerpted masters appear sporadically across almost 300 pages. Neither editorial comment nor any effort to ferret out important themes accompanies their contributions. One might counter that great writing should stand on its own. But complicating the matter further is Huser’s decision to embed these exemplary writers in a swamp of amateurish writing whose purplish tint evokes, like the book’s saccharine cover, a Hallmark card. Whatever greatness a handful of excerpts offers is eventually drowned out in all too occasional outbursts of riverine piffle.

A few examples should convey the kind of blandness I’m talking about. An essay by Michael Frome, an environmental writer, indulges in virgin wilderness fetishization by remarking how “only a little more than one hundred miles remain of the native river, untamed, unspoiled, approaching the natural conditions in which man found it.” A character in a Sigurd F. Olson story explains that he went on a river trip “to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.” In an extended metaphor run amok, John W. Malo, whose major qualification is having written a canoeing guide, rhapsodizes that “one makes love best by moonlight … even to a river,” a comment that evokes a rather strange image of Malo communing with the rivers he so loves. In “Canyon Solitude,” Patricia McCairen notes how “morning touches the earth lightly,” as she watches “the sun grace the far side of the river,” while drinking coffee that is, naturally, “brewed to perfection,” and everything is just hunky dory in the most clichéd sort of river-loving way. This kind of cornball stuff goes over well in AP English class, but in the company of Graves, Faulkner, Stegner, and Twain, it’s misplaced—badly so in a river anthology that fails to include a couple of other Micks: McPhee and McMurtry.

Which raises the question of Huser’s criteria for inclusion. A preface (to the third edition) and an introduction shed little light on the matter other than to convey the author’s emotional attachment to the raging rivers that course through the American West. “My love affair with river literature has grown more arduous,” he writes, leaving one to wonder whether this arduousness is good or bad, or if the author possibly misused the adjective. “In Jackson Hole I discovered the magic of water,” he continues, before noting, “this is a very personal book.” In his brief blurbs before each entry, this personal relationship with the rivers and their writers is indeed confirmed. Olaus J. Murie’s “The Falcon” is “one of my favorite pieces of river writing.” Raymond M. Patterson’s “Dangerous River” is “one of my favorites.” Joel Vance’s “The River” is simply “one of my favorites.” Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It,” is, alas, “one of my favorite pieces of river writing.” Ann Zwinger made the cut because “she is one of my favorite writers.” As for the inclusion question, the most discernible defining factor is, I guess, an idiosyncratic kind of favoritism.

Huser’s choppy prefaces would have been better served providing the ex-cerpts that followed with some grounding. Too often the reader is dumped into a scene with no idea of the basic context, no clue about “who, where, when, how, and why.” A. B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky” begins with a vivid description of the Missouri River, but all the editor tells us by way of orientation is that Guthrie was writing during a time called “the mountain men era” of American history, whatever that is, and was influenced by the journals of Lewis and Clark. Huser notes that “The Big Sky” became a movie but never says when. Only when I flipped back to the unalphabetized “permissions and acknowledgments” page did I find that “The Big Sky” was published in 1947. Further confusing the matter is the introduction of the character Jourdonnais. And then Lisa. Then Janette. And then Summers. Who in God’s name are these people? I have no idea—and that’s just what I mean. There is no effort to prep the reader for even the most basic elements of the excerpted narrative.

The reason for this confusion is that, quite bluntly, these pieces were not edited to fit into a coherent volume. They were just excerpted, and probably not even re-read. That’s a strong charge, I know, but how else to account for this sentence, left in Sigurd F. Olson’s “The Lonely Land”? “The quotations preceding each chapter and interspersed throughout are taken mostly from diaries of a number of men who traveled the route between 1770 and 1780.” You see, the reference is to the rest of Olson’s book, the book from which this piece was excerpted. It has no relevance whatsoever to River Reflections. It was left in because River Reflections, quite simply, was thrown together in a rush.

There are so many more signs of sloppiness that it’s hard to know where to begin, and a full catalog of them would be misanthropic. But just a couple of parting shots. There’s a strong sign of editorial intervention in Tom Brokaw’s rather chilling essay called “The River Swallows People” when Huser pulls a “sic” out of his pocket: “For the raft Spaulding hired Ken Smith, a 26-year-old Marine veteran of Vietnam who was home from [sic] (for) the summer from his studies at San Jose State.” But the correction seems gratuitous when so many others are overlooked, that is, when someone “has another think coming,” or even when Huser himself refers to a writer as “the unquestionable historian of Idaho River.” Part One, “The Classics” is interrupted 17 pages into the book by another section called “River Crossings” in which, in many cases, no river crossings occur, and by Page 24 we are done with “crossings” and reach “The Big Sky” with no guidance as to what section this and the stories that follow fall under. In a word, confusing, which is especially too bad in a book that features writers like John Graves writing sober sentences like, “When someone official dreams up a dam, it generally goes in.” Indeed, if there is a productive single theme in this volume it is the environmental consequences of damming. But these reflections are too obstructed, too cluttered, too desiccated to flow toward any kind of productive conclusions.

James E. McWilliams crosses the San Marcos River, a little gem, when he goes to work at Texas State University.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST