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British Tourists

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One of the more unusual voyages down the Mississippi River was undertaken by the British explorer and world traveler, Jonathan Raban, who journeyed solo from Minneapolis to New Orleans in an open sixteen-foot boat. Contrary to expectations that he would not find any civilized life along the Mississippi, he came across towns, villages, and even cities.

Raban should not have been surprised: he made his voyage in the fall and winter of 1979, some three hundred years after Marquette and Joliet.

Nor should we be surprised that Raban, being British, refused to accept the notion that the citizens of Dubuque, Davenport, or Muscatine, and all the rest were civilized. Why, he met people in small towns along the river who did not even dress for dinner. And some even called it "supper."  Even when, again and again, they invited him in to eat and spend the night, he could not get over the turkey centerpieces made out of pinecones.

Raban wrote his explorations up in a book called Old Glory: an American Dream in which he chronicles our cultureless culture.

He found us Rock Islanders particularly quaint. The cities around the island, he wrote, had "leaked and dribbled into each other and finally congealed." They straggled lumpishly along the riverfront, he said, "like a line of children's sandcastles on a seashore."

The citizens of Davenport he met were equally lumpish: a waitress at the Dock Restaurant who talked as if she were in a puppet show, a crowd of blue collar workers striking the Oscar Mayer Packing plant, several of whom had dreams of working their way up to becoming professional chiropractors by taking night classes, and especially the uncouth political crowd at Ross Frick’s Tavern, leftovers from Tammany Hall. Ross Frick took him back of the tavern to show him a garden he had made for his wife, with a bubbling fountain lit with electric lights. A pathetic attempt at Eden, Raban concluded.

Somehow, Jonathan Raban held his British nose and completed his voyage to New Orleans. His report is well worth reading, especially if you want to know just how far we river dwellers are from being genuine.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.