The Mighty Mississip, and Mud Island

Commentator Andrei Codrescu takes a trip to the Mississippi River Museum to Mud Island, on the Mississippi River between Tennessee and Arkansas.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Going past textbooks and lectures to teach American history has been on the mind of commentator Andrei Codrescu lately. It's because he paid a visit to the Mud Island Museum in the Mississippi River. It teaches the dense and complex history of the Mississippi as it flows through the middle of the country and the middle of the story of the United States.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Mud Island just sits in the Mississippi River outside of Memphis, between Tennessee and Arkansas. You get there by a monorail that snails across the wide river. On Mud Island is the Mississippi River Museum, a wonder of curatorial ingenuity.

Running crookedly the length of the island is a model of the Mississippi with accurate geological features, scaled so that each step you take is equivalent to one mile of river. The history of the river is explained concisely at important points. Water flows continuously through this mini-Mississippi, and the cumulative effect of the winding walk and the reading of history is quite overwhelming.

When you raise your eyes from the dense interior of channels, Civil War battles, pirates, exploding steamboats and heroic struggles through the river itself, you realize that you are, in fact, in the middle of the river, the mighty Mississippi itself. You are standing right in the water, and the place where you are standing is also noted in the model at your feet. It's a dizzying moment of post-modern vertigo.

The river was placid on this bright autumn day, and a Bluegrass band had set up near the mini-Gulf of Mexico, where some parents and children were actually paddling boats. The Gulf was so near the actual Mississippi it looked like they might merge any minute.

The museum inside the building prolonged the unsettling illusion of being inside the real world shrunk just enough to be made comprehensible. There was the prehistoric civilization of the Mississippi Valley, followed by a replica of a steamboat with unsteady floors that sat in moving water, the fortified Confederate fort on the bluffs of Vicksburg with real-sized cannons flashing onto an ironclad Union ship, the music world of honky tonks, the movie of river related catastrophes that draws like an epic poem that stops just before Katrina, and a small fishing universe.

I'd always known that the Mississippi River had a dense and complex history that mirrored its constantly shifting course, but I never saw it all at once in a flash, and what I saw was that the geological and human history of the river experiences major events every few years, that the river is alive and vast and that we cannot understand American space and habitation without making the river a part of every decision about the future. Mud Island is a perfect mirror for thinking about all this, and the music provided nearly spiritual background to a story of heartbreak.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu teaches English at Louisiana State University.

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