Storytelling on the Mississippi
by Curtis Comer
Abraham Lincoln, who worked in his youth on a flatboat on the Mississippi, was said to frequently annoy his generals during battle planning by interrupting them with laughter and the words, “This reminds me of a story I once heard on the Mississippi…” Lincoln was not alone in his passion for river tales. The Mississippi, that ugly and wonderful brown band that runs between green farmland and gray city sprawl, has been the source of a great tradition for generations of storytellers whose narratives of life on the river flow through St. Louis writers today. Is it a mere coincidence that, in metaphysics, the element of water is said to correspond with the subconscious and with emotion, two components so closely linked with the creative process?
Writers like William S. Burroughs, T.S. Eliot, Kate Chopin, Maya Angelou, William Gass, Tennessee Williams and Jonathan Franzen, to name but a handful, all lived at one time in St. Louis. And it is Samuel Longhorn Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, who is arguably the most famous writer connected to the Mississippi. Other writers, too—non St. Louisans, but who spent time on the Mississippi, nonetheless—wrote about their time here. Herman Melville, who journeyed on a Mississippi river boat, stopping in both St. Louis and Cairo, drew from that experience to write his tenth major work, “The Confidence Man: His Masquerade,” in 1857 (Oxford University Press, 2009).
In looking at literary history of the Mississippi River Valley, one can see that there is a rich history of folklore, an oral tradition that predates most of the area’s writers. In the early 1800s tall tales served to pass the time, to entertain and to frighten those new to the river, the “greenhorns,” as they were referred to by the seasoned veterans. One such tale popular on the river was the legend of Mike Fink, a mythical figure who was renowned for his dead aim and brutal disregard for others, even dogs. It was said that that he once boiled puppies to make a stew. Fink was a “man’s man,” and his life was as wild as the river itself. Every voyageur, as travelers on the river were called back then, wanted to be Mike Fink. The trail of the story, the last of many concerning Fink, ends when Fink is killed, which many saw as an allegory for the river itself, being tamed and slowly taken over by fast steamboats, successfully putting an end to the slow pace of life on the river. There was speculation as to whether Mike Fink was a real person, but, whatever the case, when the river folk spoke of him, they spoke in whispers as if he might be standing behind them. While Fink, was on the darker side of legend, Davy Crockett certainly optimized its lighter side.
In the fantastic river folklore that sprung up surrounding the very real Davy Crockett, he accomplished all sorts of superhuman feats, including riding alligators up the Mississippi and single-handedly wiping out whole bands of native tribes. These stories began circulating around 1840 in a series of books spoofing the Farmer’s Almanac. These books made use of a weird “frontier slang,” with words like “satisfakshun,” “Kornill” (for Colonel) and “I war skeered.” (Sandlin, Wicked River: the Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild.)
Crockett’s band of “Super Friends” were also legendary. Ben Harding, was said to possess the ability to “blast away enemies with the smell of his breath.” Davy’s cohort, a female who went by many names such as Florinda Fury or Sally Ann Thunder or Ann Whirlwind, could “raise the roof of the cabin with her sneezes, and “wore a necklace made out of the eyeballs of her rivals.”
Florinda Fury was not the only woman who played a role in the oral traditions of the Mississippi. Annie Christmas was a female character who rivaled the mythical status of even Mike Fink, a “she-male” figure whose strength could match that of any man. The term “she-male” didn’t carry the same connotations that it does today. Rather, the term simply meant that Christmas was an equal to her male counterparts in strength and cunning. In fact, it appears that “Annie Christmas,” was not one woman, but rather a nickname for any female who possessed these qualities. It was said that Annie could “take on more men in a night than any women there,” (Sandlin) although one should probably assume that this bit of story-telling was created by males.
No doubt many of the area’s writers drew inspiration from these tall tales, chief among them being Mark Twain. Both in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain captivated the public with his accounts of life on the river. He accomplished this by telling what he knew, although, as Lee Sandlin points out in his excellent book Wicked River: the Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild (Pantheon Books, New York) , by the time these books were published, Twain hadn’t lived on the river for decades. The Mississippi River that he wrote about was the river of his childhood, long-since tamed with dams, its banks walled in and its bottom dredged. In writing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain was writing from memory and, with great skill, recounting all he had seen and heard on the once-wild river decades earlier. His stories of river pirates and flatboat operators, slaves and freemen, ghost stories and buried treasure all captivated the world and the Mississippi River became something mystical, a “second Nile in the west.”
We writers who call St. Louis home a lot to these early storytellers. Whatever their stories lacked in polished prose they more than made up for with sheer imagination and it was this pioneering spirit and imagination that still captivates readers today. Even with the passage of time, the art of storytelling in St. Louis remains as strong and as constant as the river that runs through it.
Lee Sandlin, “Wicked River: the Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild” (Pantheon Books, 2010)
Herman Melville, “The Confidence Man: His Masquerade” (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Curtis Christopher Comer’s short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Ultimate Gay Erotica, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008; Best Gay Love Stories, 2005, 2006, 2007; Dorm Porn I and II; My First Time, Volume Five; Fast Balls, Cruise Lines, Treasure Trails, and Starf*cker. His novel, Midnight Whispers: the Blake Danzig Chronicles, was released by Bold Strokes Books in 2010 and he just completed work on the sequel, Ghost of a Chance. He co-authored the novel Wonderland, just completed work on the sequel, Desperate Husbands and writes a weekly column for the Vital Voice in his hometown of St. Louis, where he lives with his long-term partner, Tim.
Walrus Publishing is pleased to present his next book (Not Quite) Out to Pasture: My Post-bar Gay Life Coping with Gray Hair, Growing Older and Family which will be available in bookstores this winter.