"Without Jefferson's vision, we wouldn't be a nation of 'sea to shining sea,'" said Brinkley.
The Big Muddy
But the book covers far more than just the Louisiana Purchase. At its core it is a paean to the Mississippi, "America's lifebloodthe vital economic engine and mythic symbol that flows through our history, our continent, our music, our literature, our lives."
The river starts at Lake Itasca in Minnesota as a trickle, a narrow stream of crystal-clean water that can be stepped across, and winds its way 2,353 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, into which it spews 600,000 to 700,000 cubic feet of water per second.
Along the way it widens to become several miles across in places, and is known as the "Big Muddy." Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous of authors to immortalize the river, writes "every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution."
The horrors of slavery, Civil War battles, and the Underground Railroad are an inherent part of the river's history, as are the natural disasters that have befallen the region. The Great Flood of 1927 at one point covered 26,000 square miles in water ten feet deep. A series of earthquakes that rolled through the region from December 1811 through February 1812 were so strong that land liquefied, the course of the river changed, and Thomas Jefferson was awakened from his sleepin Virginia.
But the people populating the book are what give it its page-turning quality.
The book details the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark, who famously explored and mapped the people, plants, and animals of the new territory; the extraordinary engineering feats of James B. Eads who proved that deepening the channel from the Gulf of Mexico could make New Orleans a viable port city; and the adventures of Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike, whom Jefferson dispatched to find the headwaters of the Mississippi in 1805.
It tells the stories of the artists, musicians, and authors whose roots are bound to the Mississippi. Famous musicians like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, artist and bird-lover John James Audubon, and authors as diverse as Richard Wright and T.S. Elliot are portrayed.
Also included is the story of Abe Hawkins, a man born into slavery who became one of the most famous jockeys in American horse racing from the mid-1800s to 1867.
Among the not-so-famous people profiled are men like Jacob Burkle, a staunch supporter of the Underground Railroad, and Jane Muckle Robinson, who kept navigation lanterns on the banks of the Mississippi near St. Paul, Minnesota, glowing from 1885 to 1921.
And weaving its way through the entire book is the Mississippi, a river Garrison Keillor is quoted as calling the "artery of a continent, lifeblood of a country."
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