Englishman Jonathan Raban Discovers America by Floating Down Ol' Man River
11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Growing up in a house haunted by ancestral portraits of "minor gentry—the scum of the genteel English," as he calls them, young Jonathan Raban was terribly lonely. His stern father, an Anglican parson, had forbidden his son to play with the "common" children of their village in Norfolk, England. Instead, Jonathan had books for companions, especially American books. Sometimes he would lie on the bank of the "piddling little river" near his home and dream of Huck Finn floating down the mighty Mississippi. It was a vision of romance and freedom that he never forgot. "I have loved America ever since I could read its literature," he explains. "I'm obsessed with it."
Being a writer, he turned that obsession into a book. In Old Glory: An American Voyage (Simon and Schuster, $16.95), Raban, 39, recounts a 120-day odyssey he took down the Mississippi in the fall of 1979. Traveling alone from Minneapolis to New Orleans in a borrowed 16-foot powerboat, Raban was fishing for people and impressions. A book reviewer for the Sunday Times of London and author of several works of nonfiction (including the highly acclaimed travelogue Arabia), he hoped this time to write an autobiographical book "with a beginning, an end and a plot." The Mississippi was a natural vehicle. "I could think of nothing more powerful than a river current," he explains. "The notion of a voyage itself is the most basic narrative. The Odyssey was the first classic."
Closer to Mark Twain than to Homer, Raban cocked his ear to the idiosyncratic conversations of locals whom he met on stops along the river. Wearing a necktie and lodging in hotels, he was not mistaken for Huck Finn, but in perceiving the Mississippi as "a kind of moving Main Street in an enormous U.S. city," he experienced America in Huck's jaundiced manner. He draws less than flattering portraits of drunks at riverside country clubs, a taxidermist whose home was a "dead zoo" and a sad, fat couple whose major means of communication was a CB radio. To protect his subjects, he often amalgamated them into composites or changed their hometowns. "If one meddles with the details," he explains, "one is only doing what the landscape painter does." Still, he is worried that some of his acquaintances may recognize themselves. With a shudder he confesses, "I wholeheartedly wish the book to be absolutely unknown in all the towns it touches."
One of the few characters Raban dared revisit on a recent book-promotion tour is Jim Curdue, a retired fisherman in Wabasha, Minn. who took him bass fishing at the outset of his voyage. "Hey, Lori," Curdue shouted to his wife when his former buddy reappeared, "it's that crazy Brit!" Curdue was incredulous when he first learned that Raban's idea of work was, as he put it, "to just kind of lollygag around all the way to New Orleans." When Raban explained that "it's the writing afterward that is the hard part," an unimpressed Curdue replied: "It don't sound too bad a sort of life to me."
Still, the writing was done in a decidedly drab setting: his dark basement flat in London. (Raban divorced in 1965 after a one-year marriage.) "The day I finished I popped a bottle of champagne with a girlfriend and bought a new place—light and airy," he says.
After his life on the Mississippi, he thought he had kicked the boat habit. He was wrong. "Three weeks later I felt as if I had gone through one of those awful divorces," he says. He realized then that everywhere he had ever lived—vicarages, schools and the University of Hull—had been located alongside a navigable body of water. A new book idea was launched: He bought a 35-foot mahogany-and-teak ketch, which is now being refitted for an extensive tour of the British Isles. "I plan to revisit the scenes of my childhood by sea," he says. "I want to see England as a foreign country."