I had a parish in a small town in southern Illinois, not far from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, where the Missouri shows brown and the Mississippi foams yellow, and the two make a big river the color of cream soda. The farms in my parish rested on the American Bottom at the southernmost tip of the great Illinois prairie. The land was flattened by a prehistoric ocean several millennia ago, then smoothed by a glacier, and finally turned black as onyx by the rivers.
The Chippewas called it Mechesebe, the Great River, and it is great. But before you romanticize it, you have to see and smell its twenty-three miles of huge interceptor sewers that, along with a network of smaller pump stations, retrieve the raw waste pumped into the river. Twenty-nine locks on the Upper Mississippi convert the mighty waterway that once offered freedom to Jim and Huck into a carefully regulated series of steps for barges bearing the names of great oil and chemical companies. Near St. Louis, monstrous levees attempt to channel the river's capricious power away from the city and its suburbs. You have to squint like an Impressionist or frame the scene with your hands in order to block out the ugliness of the river. Gazing on the Mechesebe these days makes you want to feel sorry for the river, the way you do a circus elephant or a caged gorilla.
I myself grew up only a few miles from the Missouri, just west of where it joins the Mississippi, but I never saw the river as anything but an odd and somewhat ominous extension of the suburban sprawl to which my parents and I, like millions of other city dwellers, had migrated in the early 1950s. The backwaters of the Missouri were explored by boys far more adventurous than I. On the rare occasions when I went along to go crawdadding, I did not know what to make of the crayfish. I knew positively that I would not eat them. Swimming in the Missouri always seemed dangerous to me, and I did it reluctantly out of peer pressure. Many of the boys brought firecrackers to set off on nearby Pelican Island, and a few brought guns, which was one of those details from which a humane only child shields his parents.
The land around the rivers is incredibly fertile, and there have always been farmers to work it. The Mississippian peoples settled the land about a thousand years before the coming of the Teuton Lutherans. They grew many of the same crops our farmers planted: corn, squash, tobacco, and beans, though by the size and complexity of their cities they did it more successfully than we. They organized a culture more sophisticated than any that has since appeared on this land. Their plazas and temples would have put our shopping malls to shame. The explorer DeSoto claimed they worshiped the sun, but archaeologists have found numerous masks and earrings commemorating a mysterious, mutating being known as the Long Nose God. The Mississippians apparently used their god for progressive purposes as a ritual symbol of unity between the tribes that lived and farmed together.
At some point in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, the Mississippians were swallowed whole by history. They all disappeared, every last one of them, probably due to a European virus to which they had no immunity. By the time Marquette and Joliet arrived in 1673 all that remained of the Mississippian culture were two hundred mounds used for sacrifice and burial.
My parish lay above "Egypt," which is the name later settlers gave to the region where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers make a delta, like the Nile, and head toward the Gulf. Like so much of the American South, our Egypt beheld itself in the mirror of the great civilizations of the ancient world. Many of its cities like Goshen, Thebes, and Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro, to rhyme with Pha-raoh) were named after cities well known in antiquity. Its burial mounds, though not so splendid or famous, were no less mysterious than the pyramids of Egypt.
The entire region is still densely Southern in character with cypress swamps and water moccasins in the Cache River valley and wild orchids everywhere. The backwater glades are filled with ferns and moss and sumac. Canadian geese winter in our Egypt every year. Only a century and a half ago the woods were noisy with green-, red-, and yellow-striped parakeets.
North of Egypt lay the tenements and deserted packinghouses of East St. Louis, a community shadowed by its history of racial insurrection and poverty. A 630-foot stainless steel arch on the west bank of the Mississippi adds gratuitous insult to the misery of East St. Louisians. Then come the steel mills of Granite City, the refineries and stench of Wood River, and finally the quintessential river town of Alton, which tumbles down the bluffs into a heap of slag and soot in the flats along the Mississippi.
The first time I saw my church was across a field of glistening Mississippi mud and corn stubble. I had been looking for it all afternoon. Like one of Joshua's spies, I had come to reconnoiter the town and the church to which denominational officials had assigned me. New Cana was the town, and Cana Lutheran Church was the congregation, but to the locals I learned it was all one: Cana or the Cana church. I could not find the town on any map of Illinois, but I knew it was "just out of Alton."
I drove my brand-new yellow Pinto across the Mississippi north of St. Louis through the immense floodplain between the rivers, past the year-round fireworks stands, past a few catfish joints and windowless nightclubs made of painted block, built low to the ground like bunkers. Then into Lower Alton and the flats along the river.
In the flats, wooden taverns were sandwiched between volcanic mills, glassworks, waterworks, ironworks, sheet metal shops, tool and dye operations, junkyards. The shops were dwarfed by a twelve-story grain elevator with an enormous American flag painted on it.
I drove up the steep hills of the business district into Upper Alton with its genteel homes and college buildings. A life-sized, nine-foot statue of a smiling, doomed young man named Robert Wadlow seemed to wave from a park. He was the tallest person in the history of the world and was affectionately known as the Alton Giant.
Alton is saddled with more history than any city its size should have to bear. If Chicago is the city of big shoulders, Alton is hunched and worried like a man looking for work. The city watches over the river but does not commune with it or enjoy it the way New Orleans, St. Louis, or even Dubuque enjoy the Mississippi. But it was not always so. In the 1830s it was Alton, not St. Louis, that was destined to be the great city on the river. But one hundred thirty years later, when all the newspapers and media people were looking for a pithy phrase with which to describe James Earl Ray's hometown of Alton, they settled on "decaying river town."
In 1831 a young newspaperman named Elijah Lovejoy was converted in the First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis by an antislavery evangelist. Upon his conversion, Lovejoy promptly enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and within a year and a half returned to St. Louis to publish a religious newspaper.
Missouri was a slave state, and soon Lovejoy's defiant abolitionism made it necessary for him to relocate his newspaper across the river in Alton, where he resumed his editorial work and pastored the Upper Alton Presbyterian Church. Illinois was a free state, but in the small towns of southern Illinois hatred for Negroes was no less intense and violent than in the slaveholding states. Planters in southern Illinois envied the free labor enjoyed by their Missouri competitors and in the 1830s petitioned unsuccessfully for the reintroduction of slavery. Twenty years later southern Illinois supported the states' rights candidate over the unionist Abraham Lincoln.
Lovejoy's presses were repeatedly destroyed and dumped into the river while the Alton police stood by. Newspapers in St. Louis fueled the hysteria by advocating violence and declaring open season on Elijah Lovejoy. His opponents accused him of being an "amalgamist," a person who favors the blending of the races through marriage. Lovejoy's readers gnashed their teeth when he reminded them of the true source of amalgamation: the white man's abuse and rape of black women. No one had ever dared print such a thing.
On the evening of November 7, 1837, with Presbyterian church bells sounding a frantic alarm throughout the city, a proslavery mob attempted to burn a warehouse that held Lovejoy's new printing press. The young editor stood by the press to defend it and was shot and killed. When his body was brought out on a horse cart the next day, a mob danced about it in celebration.
His murder made him the first American martyr to freedom of the press, and it made Alton a byword for racism and violence across the nation. A newspaper in Massachusetts editorialized, "Who but a savage or cold-hearted murderer would now go to Alton? Meanness, infamy, and guilt are attached to the very name. Hereafter, when a criminal is considered too bad for any known punishment, it will be said of him: 'He ought to be banished to Alton.' "
The city went into a precipitous decline. It quickly fell out of consideration to be the state's capital. Its reputation for lawlessness made it unattractive to new commercial ventures. River traffic favored St. Louis and other towns. For its part, Alton's civic leaders and newspapers refused to acknowledge the crime that had shocked the nation. The city grew paranoid and resentful, as if its sins had been blown out of proportion. When a monument was finally dedicated to Lovejoy sixty years later in the city cemetery, its base was simply inscribed, "Alton Slew Him." It might as well have read, "He slew Alton."
Twenty-one years after Lovejoy's murder, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln arrived in Alton aboard the steamboat City of Louisiana. They held their seventh and final debate in an outdoor setting not far from the warehouse where Lovejoy was killed. Only Douglas mentioned Lovejoy, and that only to reproach Lincoln for harboring the same fanatic notion of the Negro's equality with whites. Lincoln responded courageously by attacking Douglas's position "as having a tendency to dehumanize the Negro, to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man," but he had too much political sense to invoke Lovejoy's name in Alton.
Alton is far from Egypt. Egypt is prehistory and the faded splendor of ancient civilizations. Alton represents our history of slavery, debate, riots, and murder, and now farm foreclosures, rusting steel, resentment, and welfare. Egypt is dying slowly; its life is measured out in geologic and mythical time. Alton flamed out one day in our time when the steamboats disappeared and the railroads chose other cities.
My parish was a speck on this map of myth and history. Its days of heroic struggle with the land belonged to the mythology of Egypt. We, and other churches like ours, were more like medics who stay behind the lines to tend the wounded. My parishioners lived near a port once destined for greatness. They farmed the blackest and richest earth in the country. The city had squandered its destiny in violence, and my farmers couldn't make a decent living no matter how hard they worked. By the time I arrived, most of them had either lost their home places or were moonlighting at the steel mill or the glassworks in Alton. You couldn't go to Alton to work or shop without tasting an ash or two of defeat. I didn't know that on my first drive through, but I soon learned.
Out of Upper Alton you pick up a state road, or "the hard road" as it was called, and move through geometrical patterns of corn and soybeans. At this time of year, however, there was no corn or soybeans, but only their remains, and the wheat had not been seeded. The road had no curves or bends, only ninety-degree lefts and rights. In twenty miles or so I turned east on the New Cana Road, though no sign called it that, and headed toward a community of about two hundred fifty people.
New Cana reminded me of nothing I had ever seen or imagined. It lacked the traditional accessories that make a town picturesque--no courthouse, town square, or ivy-covered cottages. The few white picket fences I saw were in disrepair and were obviously placed to keep the chickens in the yard. New Cana's appearance did not resonate with any longings I could remember or any needs I had repressed. Nothing was awakened in me when I saw the place for the first time. No Grovers Corners in Our Town or folksy Mayberry beckoned to me. My first look at the town reminded me that I was from a city and probably belonged in a city. New Cana had several blocks of white framed houses, a semidetached post office and grocery, a prefabricated town hall, a Texaco station, and a tractor store. That was it. I didn't even slow down. Outside the town, the paved road turned to oil covered with dirt.
Heading east again and then sharply north, I passed several clapboard farmhouses nestled in shelters of leafless oak and walnut trees. Each farmhouse was enveloped in a campus of faded barns and outbuildings, ribbed gray silos, and spidery machines in various stages of disassembly like grasshoppers with their legs off. Beside every home place stood a modern brick rancher, looking to the outsider like a tract home plucked from the suburbs and plopped into a rural setting where it didn't belong. A day in the country--this was not a novel experience for me but an alien world. I might as well have been touring Nepal as motoring through the dead cornfields of Illinois.
The entire landscape of fields and farms had faded badly in the late November sun. Its bleached stillness reminded me of a scene from an Ingmar Bergman movie: Swedish winterlight exposing rot and depression in rural Lutherans. It worried me that I thought of a Bergman film as I beheld my parish for the first time.
From above, Bergman's camera would have revealed a landscape the color of unglazed pottery disturbed by a single, moving bead of yellow. The car came to a T, turned left on the Cana Church Road, though no sign called it that, and idled before a country church and parsonage. From the camera's point of view, Cana and its parsonage would have appeared to teeter at the very edge of a flat planet. In front of the church, the alternating pattern of disked-over corn and soybean fields repeated itself from one farm to the next as far as the eye could see.
Excerpted from Open Secrets by Richard Lischer. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Lischer. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.