By BARBARA BRYANT
"The natural rhythm moving the pioneer life of America forward was the rhythm of flowing water. It is as the story of American rivers that the folk sagas will be told." With these words, Constance Lindsay Skinner discussed her plan in 1935 to commission a series of books for Farrar & Rinehart that would trace the history and folkways of the United States through its great rivers.
A Canadian-born author, historian and poet, Skinner (1877-1939) was one of the first women to hold a top job in the U.S. trade-book publishing industry. She hoped to see the publication not only of simple travelogues, but also literary works written by novelists and poets and illustrated by artists, all of whom felt a close connection to the geographical areas they covered.
Her ambitious plan to produce a 24-book series grew to more than double that number. Over 37 years, the "Rivers of America" series grew to 65 titles, beginning with Kennebec: Cradle of Americans (1937) by Robert P. Tristram Coffin and ending with The American: River of El Dorado by Margaret Sanborn, published in 1974. Skinner died in 1939, after seeing only the first five titles published and while editing the sixth, Carl Carmer's The Hudson.
The series she initiated lives on. Approximately one-third of the titles are still in print and all of them are sought by book collectors. On April 9-10, a dozen authors, illustrators and editors of the "Rivers of America" series gathered at the Library of Congress to celebrate the series's 60th anniversary in a conference sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book in cooperation with the American Folklife Center.
"This remarkable series emphasized good writing, regional and local history, and an intense and admirable concern for place and community," said Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole, who organized the event.
Carol Fitzgerald, a dedicated series collector and its bibliographer, helped the Center for the Book organize the conference. Ms. Fitzgerald said she had begun collecting "Rivers of America" books in 1986 and now owns more than 300 volumes. "As I searched, it didn't take me long to realize that there was no bibliography or history of the series," she said. "In 1991 I began writing to any series author, illustrator or editor I could find." So far, her project includes a bibliographical description of more than 350 editions and printings of "Rivers" books, a publishing history of the series and biographical sketches of its 60 authors, 55 illustrators, three map-makers and about a dozen editors and publishers.
The "Rivers of America" book series was published by Farrar & Rinehart and its corporate successors: Rinehart & Co. (1946-1960) and Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1960-1974). The April 9-10 celebration was supported in part by a contribution to the Center for the Book from Henry Holt & Co., made "in memory of the major role played by Henry Holt in the genesis of the original series."
During the symposium, Walt Reed, co-author of the book The Illustrator in America 1900-1960 (1987), characterized the series as "an ambitious and rather brave project to undertake during the waning years of the Depression. It was different from other series in that, whenever possible, editors sought to match authors and illustrators to the rivers they knew. The pay was low but most of the illustrators were well-known. Many were artists, and the publishers were gambling that they could adapt their skills to the task required of them." He added that the results were mixed, praising Andrew Wyeth for his illustrations for The Brandywine (1941), while suggesting that painter John Steuart Curry's apparent lack of interest in illustrating The Wisconsin (1942) led to a product that was, at best, "uneven."
After a celebratory dinner on the evening of April 9, panel discussions on April 10 stirred reminiscences. William D. Ellis, author of The Cuyahoga (1966), recalled a brief set of instructions he received from editor Carl Carmer before he began his research while traveling "his" river. "Carl sent a three-sentence message which read, 'Stay close to the river. Do well by the cities -- that's where the book stores are. And make it a literary book.'"
Richard Matthews admitted that he approached the editors of The Yukon (1968) because he saw the assignment as a way to pay for his first trip to Alaska. "They wanted a local writer to cover it so I became local. I wound up living in the state for more than 15 years," Mr. Matthews said.
Margaret Sanborn, author of The American: River of El Dorado, was originally asked to write about the Snake River but said she decided to look closer to home in her native California. "I started doing some research and found out that the American River was an influential feature in the discovery of gold in the West of 1848-49," she said, adding, "It was one of the seminal events in U.S. history. Outside of the Crusades, the Gold Rush was the greatest voluntary migration in the world."
James Taylor Dunn, author of The St. Croix (1965), quietly wrote a book on the river he had visited each summer while growing up, abruptly presenting a complete manuscript to his editor eight years after casually suggesting that one should be written. One of his editors, Jean Crawford, spotted some inaccuracies in the text. "She realized the dimensions I used to describe it would have fit it in my living room," he said, adding that she also criticized his limited coverage of life on the river's banks. "'You know, the river has two sides'," she told me, suggesting that I cover not only the Minnesota side but the Wisconsin side as well."
Wilma Dykeman, author of The French Broad (1955) said her proposal met with raised eyebrows from her New York publisher. "I didn't realize that they were so provincial at Farrar Rinehart that they didn't know I was referring to a river in Tennessee," she said. The company turned down her proposal at first, calling the river too small to be included. "But they left a crack in the door," she added, "writing me that, if the story behind it was interesting enough, they'd consider a book about a river no wider than a man's hand. I responded, 'Well, as I recall, a man wrote a book about a pond once that did pretty well."
Ms. Dykeman's sample chapter about a long, adventure-filled hog drive led the editors to respond, "This is wonderful. Where's the rest of it?" "Among 'the rest of it' I included in my outline [was] a chapter about the pollution of the river," she continued. "I'd learned that one of the tributaries leading into the river was so fouled, nothing could live in it. They thought readers in 1955 would find the chapter dull. I was determined to keep it in and offered to call the chapter 'Who Killed the French Broad' and make it sound like a murder mystery."
In the end, Ms. Dykeman's fascination with the topic was vindicated. "That chapter got more attention than any other in the book by reviewers from South Carolina to San Francisco," she said. "The editors were glad we included it."
Thomas D. Clark, author of The Kentucky (1942), described the hardscrabble existence of river dwellers and workers. One day he followed a local police officer in search of "Turtleneck Eversoll" a longtime river resident whom the local police described as a "constant customer" at the jail due to his habit of being arrested for public drunkenness. "He'd just gotten out of jail that morning and we spotted a forlorn figure riding on a log raft to his houseboat on the river," said Mr. Clark. "When the policeman called out to him, he turned around and said, 'What did I do now?' He told me remarkable stories about his life as an oarsmen on rafts, bringing timber downstream from the Appalachians."
Mr. Clark called the Kentucky a "heartland river, despite its location in a single state. It runs with blood from the blood feuds fought in the hills and the timber floating down it tell the tale of mountaineers selling off their birthright for almost a mess of pottage."
Illustrators of four books in the series reminisced about their experiences as well.
George Loh had worked in advertising for many years and was able to apply his experience illustrating a book on Yankee loggers for a paper company in illustrating The Allagash (1968).
Harry Heim, illustrator of The Minnesota (1962), gained much of his experience drawing for the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He worked at a printing plant while stationed in Germany. Its employees had worked on a newsletter Adolf Hitler published during World War II.
Gerald Hazzard, illustrator of The St. Croix was stationed in Great Britain during the war. "Most of the other illustrators submitted pen-and-ink drawings but mine were different," he noted. "I did them in charcoal pencil for a 'softer' approach." Mr. Hazzard's negotiations with the book's publishers differed from those arranged by his colleagues: He retained ownership of the drawings, which later sold for more money than he had received on their publication in the book. "I got more accolades for that project than any that had come before," he said.
Aaron Kessler, illustrator of The Merrimack (1958), had previously worked with such authors as Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov, for whom he designed the cover for the first edition of Lolita. Like most authors and illustrators, he did field work, visiting sites along the river. "I spent two weeks traveling from Massachusetts to New Hampshire," he recalled. "Many of the sights I saw -- small towns, mill workers' housing -- didn't exist 10 years afterward."
Several authors had stories to tell about the illustrators they collaborated with on their books. Ms. Dykeman recalled that the first illustration presented by Douglas Gorsline for the cover of The French Broad featured a voluptuous "Daisy Mae"-like character, causing much consternation. But then Mr. Gorsline casually mentioned that he'd drawn an alternative version and, to the relief of everyone, presented a more appropriate design that was actually used as the book's cover.
At lunchtime, Pace Barnes, managing editor of the series from 1967 to 1974, paid tribute to associate editor Jean Crawford, who was "the direct link" between the authors and Holt, Rinehart & Winston. "The publication of the series was a miracle, and it's a miracle we're all here today," she said.
In the afternoon, "Rivers of America" collector Alexander C. McLeod offered a statistical analysis. He pointed out that the series covered 104 rivers and that Ernest Clegg's map produced for the series in 1942 named 169 rivers and traced many more unnamed ones.
Before closing the conference, Mr. Cole asked the audience to suggest strategies to enhance the series' quality and dissemination. Mr. Cole added that, in addition to sponsoring this conference, the Center for the Book will serve as a clearinghouse of information about future projects.
Ms. Bryant is a writer-editor in the Development Office.