The Devil You Say   Leave a comment

It was late Friday afternoon, above the clouds on a small jet out of CLE. On my way to a symposium at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), I graded papers, did a crossword, watched the flight attendant make her way down the narrow defile with the drinks cart.  The soothing authoritative voice of the pilot assured a smooth ride.

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The SLAM symposium celebrated several exhibitions of 19th century American paintings, all loosely related to rivers: a grand show of George Caleb Bingham’s work formed the centerpiece, along with works from the Hudson River school and Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life. My lecture — on the river, the steamboat, & literature — had gone to the devil.

Research had turned up a striking number of references to satanic aspects of early steamboat travel. The vessel itself was sometimes sketched with horns & a tail, a “huge demon in the wilderness, bearing fire in her bosom, and canopying the eternal forest with the smoke of her nostrils.” Boatmen often gave infernal names to rock formations & other phenomena along the way: the devil’s tea table, the devil’s backbone, the devil’s oven, the devil’s grand tower, Devil’s Island, the “Chenal du Diable.” The humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe remembered a woodyard situated at “a place so infested with ‘snags’” that it had been “christened … the ‘Devil’s Promenade.’” (The Devil’s Promenade, we are told, in case we want to look for it, “lies at the mouth of ‘Dead Man’s Bend,’ just at the foot of ‘Gouge-your-eye-out Island.’”)

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Steamboats, in various fashions, threatened the edenic peace of the river. Sometimes writers cited the unfortunate frequency with which the boats “generally blow up every season,” tossing their “parboiled passengers to an inconvenient altitude in the atmosphere” (Thomas Hamilton). Others noted in the behavior of their fellow passengers the “incontrovertible evidences of a fallen nature”: drinking, gambling, lechery, the “infernal vociferation of curses” (G. W. Feathersonhaugh), swindling, and slave-trading. While the steamboat marked a technological advance for American culture, carrying us forward into a promising future, it also carried us away.

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When the drinks cart arrived, I asked for a bourbon. The flight attendant smilingly gave me a small bottle of Devil’s Cut, from the Jim Beam family, & as she did, a sudden & considerable JOLT shook the jet. The flight attendant staggered, the cart cut a caper, passengers worriedly & in vain sought explanation out the windows. As I recovered & poured the Devil’s Cut over rocks, the pilot explained we’d been hit by “wing turbulence” from a passing plane. We flew on, high above the earth, & so far below heaven.

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Posted February 28, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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