The Water Is Rising   Leave a comment

Today, the newspaper reminds me, the water is rising. “Forecasts of record-setting flooding worry residents along the Mississippi River.” Joe Harrison, who has lived in Hickman, Kentucky for 78 years, has “never seen it this bad.” Water levels, according to emergency officials, could well surpass those of the great floods of 1927 & 1937. In “By the River,” I write about Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside,” a short story based on those earlier floods & published in his collection Uncle Tom’s Children.

Later editions of the book begin with an autobiographical sketch, followed by five stories, each of which revolves around a black protagonist reacting against brutalization by whites.  “Down by the Riverside,” one of the longest of the stories, depicts the struggles of “Brother Mann” as he faces catastrophic conditions: massive flooding, life-threatening complications affecting his wife Lulu’s late-term pregnancy, and an alternating series of escapes and rescues that terminate with his murder by white soldiers.  Throughout the chaotic events, Mann repeatedly finds himself on the verge of surrendering to situations totally beyond his control, but he somehow manages to push on determinedly until dying by the river.  His perseverance, despite overwhelming odds and the utter absence of justice, varies radically from the course of action outlined in the spiritual from which the story’s title is taken and which is sung by the family of Mann in the first part of the story: “Ahm gonna lay down mah sword n shiel / Down by the riverside / Down by the riverside / Down by the riverside / Ahm gonna lay down mah sword n shiel / Down by the riverside / Ah ain gonnna study war no mo….”

The verse included in Wright’s third-person narration is followed by the chorus: six repetitions of “Ah ain gonnna study war no mo.”  Yet again and again in the story, Mann finds himself having to “study war” and practice it in a futile attempt at self-preservation.  The riverside of the song suggests baptism in holy waters of the New Testament and also evokes the Old Testament crossing of the River Jordan into the Promised Land, “the fulfillment of the covenant” and the promise of rebirth.  To go down by the riverside is to take the first step from this world toward the next, in order to be with God.  In Wright’s story, however, the river is far from any sign of God.  The enormous, shapeless, unnamed waters, ugly and lacking in either natural or supernatural qualities, have been fed by days and days of rain; the river seems to be “everywhere,” a destructive, impersonal force “producing a situation in which everything is ‘down by the riverside.’”  Mann’s world is a “waste of desolate and tumbling waters,” and what little land remains unflooded freakishly rocks and tilts as the water continually rises.

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Posted May 5, 2011 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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