Rinker Buck on Making 'Participatory History'

(photo: Dan Corjulo)

Rinker Buck is the author of several bestselling and award-winning books, including The Oregon Trail, Flight of Passage and First Job. His journalism career has included tenures at the Berkshire Eagle and the Hartford Courant, and his writing has appeared in Vanity Fair and Time, among other publications. He has traveled the United States by motorcycle, airplane, covered wagon and, now, flatboat. In Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure (Avid Reader Press, August 9, 2022), Buck combines memoir and history, using his 2,000-mile voyage on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to reexamine the American frontier.

Your book places a simple and unassuming technology, the wooden flatboat, and the river networks on which it traveled, at the center of the frontier experience in the nascent United States. Why has it taken so long for the flatboat to get its due?

The writing of history about America's formative years has tended to focus on the theoretical consequences of the founders' original sin: the legalization of slavery. Thus, most of the attention has been paid to moments like the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Compromise of 1850. These congressional battles tended to focus on midwestern and western states on the plains--Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska--and thus the focus was always on the covered wagons crossing those spaces, and not the flatboats of an earlier era.

We haven't been very well served by the American historical establishment. History is not simply political battles in Washington or diplomatic quarrels conducted across the Atlantic. It is also the lives, inventions and economic ingenuity of the common man, which Ivy League scholars, who have dominated the field and set the tone for teaching in the schools, have no interest in.

The role of the Hollywood movie in creating popular culture was also a big factor. Movies aren't really movies. They are repetitive genres--the myth of the west, the myth of romantic love, the myth of Mafia dons as lovable rogues and murderers. For reasons that I can't explain, the covered wagon and the cowboy became a more enduring motif than a river migrant on a wooden boat. Perhaps it's because the man on the horse is more romantic, but surely the Hollywood western dominated popular thought about the frontier. 

Throughout your book, you refer often to the memoirs and travelogues produced by the flatboat adventurers of the 19th century. What speaks to you about these narratives, and why was it important to incorporate them so prominently into your own story?

The best history that you can write is not summation, but the words and the textuality delivered by the people who actually lived it. Original source material makes the narrative. It's a lot of work. I had to scour through local history rooms and search the web sites of historical societies all around the country to deliver these tangible histories. But there is a vividness and tangibility to the (sometimes barely grammatical) accounts of the flatboaters themselves. Who wants to read a bland summation about the number of Bible salesmen out there on the rivers? Or a bland summation of the impact of thunderstorms on the river? But when I take you along on the 1819 trip along the Mississippi when the Flints bury their infant daughter after being ravaged by a thunderstorm, the reader is engaged in storytelling, compelling narrative, and not just stale history. I try to achieve that effect in all my books. It's about the storytelling and the quality of the prose.

This book is the product of conventional research as well as a more experiential, hands-on approach. Is one aspect of this hybrid method more essential in grasping your subject?

They are inextricable. I do all the research and play it back for the reader as artfully as I can, because that's what readers deserve to receive from a writer: hard, serious, detailed fact and analysis. But this is made more attractive by the writer's own adventures in the same historic space. My experiential, hands-on descriptions of my own journey provide the narrative structure for the telling of the history. Will the author make it? How does he get around the barges the next time? My editor calls this kind of book "participatory history." The author actually occupying the same space and experiencing the arduousness of the original journey adds the drama that makes the book a compelling narrative.

The riverscapes you encounter on your journey are a far cry from the idyllic, picturesque scenes one might expect; they're largely commercial spaces, profoundly transformed by two centuries of industry and waste. Yet you seem no less enchanted by them. Was the tension between a mythic American past and the realities of the rivers today something you wrestled with?

I didn't wrestle with this as a tension. I confronted it as a reality, a felicitous contradiction to write about. History is a continuum. Everything that is present today is a reprise of factors that existed years ago. So it's all one long chain of time. But why should we consider the industrial blight of today as somehow less inspiring than the exquisite state of nature a century or two ago? Of course you can take this to extremes and not fight for environmental protection and conservation. But there is beauty there in the Rust Belt, too. I describe this early in the book when I talk about the beauty of the flatboat Patience swaying on its lines that first night after we dropped her into the Monongahela River above Pittsburgh. There is a black, woodblock, Ashcan School beauty to the industrial grimness of the American Ruhr, especially at night. The next day, as we sailed the Monongahela, I write about the "American rhapsody" of rail yards clanging, the din of highway traffic and iron foundries echoing with drop-hammer bangs that is beautiful and even exotic to the ear.

What about traveling by river changes how you see the country--its landscapes or its history?

There is something about being on the river that leads you to a sense of wonder about the countryside you're passing. The mountains hide the Rust Belt. So much of American development was along the rivers, the Ohio especially--this is less true of the Mississippi, but in some sections it's true. The Ohio, for almost 700 of the 1,000 miles it runs, is separated on both sides by the Appalachians. Initially, industry was located along the riverbanks to take advantage of water power. The interstate is beyond the Appalachian peaks. The interstate highway system, ironically, robbed us of the river views. We've been separated from the rivers. And for that reason, I don't think the American public really appreciates what happened during deindustrialization--because they can't see it.

Do you hope that readers of this book will build their own flatboats and float down the nearest river? And if not that, what do you hope the book inspires in its readers?

No. I don't hope for this, and I don't expect it either. Writers take these experiences for you so that you can sit in the relative safety of your living room or porch and experience it all without having to take to risk yourself. I spend huge amounts (bankruptcy amounts) making these trips so I can contribute to readers' understanding of history and adventure. It's tough but I have been doing it for years and I am inured to the hazards. Don't try this at home, friends. --Theo Henderson

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