Walter Isaacson recalls the summer he spent working and reading on the Mississippi River


(Amy King/The Washington Post)

The first time I spent a summer reading for pleasure was right after I graduated from high school and was thereby liberated from those required summer books such as “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” that our angst-ridden teachers mistakenly thought we’d relate to. I had a summer job working for T. Smith & Sons Stevedores on a derrick barge unloading freighters on the Mississippi River wharves of my hometown of New Orleans. I took the job partly with the romantic view that a working-class gig would be good for me. It also paid a lot; the port was thriving, and there were days I could make not only time-and-a-half but even double-time if I worked overtime on weekends. But mainly I took the job because I wanted to write a novel about the river, a hazard of being a wannabe writer in the South.

I remember most the brutal heat. The black metal deck of our derrick barge got so hot that you had to wear thick-soled boots so your feet wouldn’t burn. I also remember the coffee. It was dark roast with chicory made in a big percolator, and every time the electricity went off and on, it repercolated until, by midday, it had the consistency of (and no doubt tasted a bit like) the creosote we used to tar the deck. The saving grace was that my stint on the river came soon after the advent of container ships, so there were many hours when our barge’s crane did its work with little need of help from our six-man crew. In whatever shade I could find, I caught time to read. And every now and then, we needed to move upriver to Baton Rouge or back, which took a few hours, and I could read in the corner of the air-conditioned wheelhouse of the push boat.

I chose books that I thought would inspire and inform the novel I was planning to write. There was “Huckleberry Finn,” of course. But after the chapter in which Huck decides not to send Jim back, the remainder of the novel seemed a bit lame. I preferred Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” especially his scenes of young blacks flirting in New Orleans. I also read Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” and Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” At a treasure-filled bookstore that was (and still is) located in William Faulkner’s old house in Pirate’s Alley, I discovered old issues of the Double Dealer Journal, which published Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson when they lived in New Orleans.

In particular, I immersed myself in books exploring the intricacies of race in New Orleans, a complex topic in a city populated by an assortment of blacks, whites, gens de couleur and Creoles of many heritages. It was then, as it is now, the only city I’ve lived in with diverse and integrated uptown neighborhoods. But subtle lines existed. There were blocks in my old neighborhood that had two bars, one with a Dixie Beer sign where whites hung out and the other with a Jax Beer sign patronized mainly by blacks. There were two longshoremen’s union locals, one for whites and the other for blacks, but they worked in unison under the Dock and Cotton Council with the rule that any crew had to be half from each local, with blacks and whites getting equal hours and pay. So our six-person crew was a memorable taste of racial solidarity.

The richest novel I read that summer about race in New Orleans was George Washington Cable’s “The Grandissimes,” the tale of a white Creole named Honoré Grandissime and his quadroon half-brother, also named Honoré. But above all, that summer was marked by reading and wrestling with the greatest American novel, Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!

"Life on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain. (Blackstone Audio/Blackstone Audio)

At the end of the summer, I began writing my novel about the river. I still have it tucked away in a drawer, and every few years I pull it out, if only to remind myself how bad it was. The opening sentence reads, “ ‘The President passes Napoleon at 2:20,’ Merlin says, “you can set your watch by it.’ ” The President was a paddlewheel tourist boat, Merlin was the senior black member of our crew, and Napoleon was a wharf upriver from Canal Street. The novel went downhill from there, but as with the river as it flows past New Orleans, there was not much further downhill it could go.

I never finished writing the novel, and American literature is none the worse for it. But I still relish my taste that summer of George Washington Cable, I still pride myself on being the only person I know who’s read Sherwood Anderson’s “Dark Laughter,” and I still puzzle about the stain in “Absalom, Absalom!” that Henry Sutpen saw in Charles Bon and about whether Quentin did hate the South.

Walter Isaacson is the chief executive of the Aspen Institute and has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. His next book, to be published in October, is “The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”

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