© 2021 WVIK
News, Music, Arts, and Culture
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Community

Charles Dickens

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

First impressions are important. Should you have any doubt, go back to Charles Dickens and read about his first encounter with the Mississippi River.

Dickens was already a celebrated English novelist in 1842 when he decided to take a grand tour of America. An obligatory part of that tour was a trip up the Mighty Mississippi, the Father of Waters.

Unfortunately, Dickens chose a route that took him down the Ohio River to where it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. It was not a good first impression. Cairo was a land scheme gone sour. Even English investors had lost money speculating in this "Golden Hope" as it was called. Instead of a great metropolis, Dickens saw half-built houses rotting away in a swamp, a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulture." And beside it, the fabled Mississippi: "a slimy monster hideous to behold," he wrote in his notes.

The trip upriver to St. Louis was not pleasant. Why, the Mississippi was simply an enormous ditch, running liquid mud six miles an hour, its frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forests of trees, rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair, writhing around and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool like wounded snakes. And then there were the mosquitos and the heat, and the muddy drinking water more opaque than gruel.

Had Charles Dickens come straight across the Illinois prairie to Rock Island rather than coming by Cairo, his attitude toward the Mississippi might have been more positive. A Tale of Two Cities might even have been Minneapolis and St. Paul. As is, Dickens returned to England and began writing Martin Chuzzelwit. The main character of that novel goes off to America as an architect for a fraudulent development company, the Eden Land Corporation, reminiscent of the company that did Cairo in. Chuzzelwit reforms, after losing his money and nearly dying of a fever and returns to England a better man.

There was no sign that the American experience did the same for his creator. "If the Mississippi is the Father of Waters," Dickens wrote, "thank God it didn't have any children."

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