Wednesday, January 13, 2010



By © Russ Barnes

Years ago I was an executive for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.  We operated paddlewheel steamboat cruises on the Mississippi River system throughout heartland America.  One of my colleagues, Dr. Don Deming of Newport, Kentucky once said to me, “We don’t sail to Paris.  We sail to Caruthersville, Missouri."

So this post is going to be a "looking back" travel story.

Days on the Mississippi conjure up the presence of Mark Twain.  Of Huck and Jim floating down the river on a raft.  Huckleberry Finn is one of the monumental pieces in the world of travel literature -- in the class of such greats as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.

One morning recently I woke up and read an astounding article in the New York Times by David Brooks and what he calls “the White Messiah fable” -- a provocative review of James Cameron's film, Avatar.

Brooks’ makes the point that there is a hackneyed plot in American film and fiction in which the white hero, as he ventures into the wilderness in search of fame and futune, encounters the poor, but spiritually superior, pure, and attractive, “natives."  He finds himself enamored of these people, and begins to disparage his own corrupt technological society. He soon emerges as "the white messiah" -- leading the native peoples, as Brooks points out, "on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization."

Aspects of this fable: The top dog must be white.  The simple, natural man must be admired.  Fictionally.  But the superior one rules in reality.  And it is a tricky superiority based on sentimentality and a false, flawed concern for the simple, indigenous native.

I understand this complex situation in several ways.  One time is when I was in first grade in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  I was a member of a Cub Scout pack. Catherine, our pack leader, said we were going to go out and help the poor.  We arrived with cans of food at shacks out in the country.  One was made of cardboard.  Among the numerous children in one shack we visited, shockingly to me, was my one of my classmates in the first grade.  We gave the food like nice little boys.

A few days later, back at school, we were lining up at the water fountain.  There was my classmate -- the one to whose family we cubs had given food.  I offered to let him take my place in line in front of me.  I will never forget the look on his face as he declined the privilege.  He refused to be seen as a victim.  I’ll never forget his rebuke to me and his unforgettable dignity.

Civil War times.  Abolitionists in the North rally to stamp out slavery in the South.

Along comes Mark Twain from Missouri -- living and socializing in New England.  And so you get a book, Huckleberry Finn.  The two protagonists, Jim and Huck, travel.  Down river toward Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, the gateway, in those days, to freedom.

This is not a transcendental type of story.  It's down and dirty.

There, you find, in the story, you have an Afro-American man, Jim.  He is not idealized.  He is as real as any of us.  No matter where we come from, from wherever we started out.  Jim is superstitious, sometimes wrongheaded, and often in error.  Like all of us.  But he is also human and warm as Huck finds out.  Like all of us.

Huck is the white orphan son of an alcoholic father and a mother long-gone.  He is no crusader.  He feels guilty about helping a “nigger” come from slavery and find his freedom.  But his honestly warm and real human feeling for the man, Jim -- a feeling Huck gets back by a considerable amount -- earned for Mark Twain the title, in one critic’s famous phrase, “the Lincoln of our literature.”

No condescension either way.  Huck’s heart response to Jim was to no victim, but to a real human being.  Like Huck "to his own self." 

-- David Brooks, "The Messiah Complex," New York Times, January 10, 2010;
-- Nori Muster, for information on steamboats and the Mississippi;
-- Quick outline of Huckleberry Finn characters at,pageNum-459.html.

1 comment:

Nori said...

It is sad to live in a society of such beautiful diversity, yet lack the words or the context for an intelligent discussion about it. Russ knows my connection with the Delta Queen, and anybody who has traveled in the Deep South on this majestic vessel can relate to a feeling of oneness between the crew, the passengers, and the boat itself, regardless of race, creed, politics, or religious persuasion. My father was involved with the management of the boat in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. He made sure the boat had black officers and he taught people to respect everyone equally. God save our riverboat heritage and our country before it splits apart at the seams with confusion and inarticulate dialogue over race. One of my websites is, which has a large section about the Delta Queen. Good to hear from you Russ!