This brief and rather charming history of the Mississippi River has a curious background. Marquis Childs began writing it a half-century ago, when he was 29 years old--a native of an Iowa river town for whom "the lore of the Mississippi, the feel of it, was in my bones." He seems to have had in mind a book that would contrast the river's "legendary past" with its gloomy, neglected condition in the early 1930s.

But the manuscript went uncompleted; Childs "turned to journalism in the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch," from which location he went on to a most distinguished career as a reporter and political columnist. Now, in retirement, Childs has turned back to his labor of youthful love, adding a concluding chapter to it--but not, for whatever reason, bothering to bring the bulk of the book up to date, with the somewhat unsettling result that most of it, though published in 1982 as a "new" book, reads as though it were written for readers of 1932 to whom the controversies of the day were breaking news.

That, however, is a small objection; what matters most is that "Mighty Mississippi" is a handsomely written story that serves as a compact but ample introduction to the river's rich, lusty and tempestuous history. It begins with the great wave of settlers who moved across and along the river in the late 18th century and ends with the fight in Congress two years ago over user fees for river barges; in between, Childs provides quick, perceptive and often witty glimpses of a history that, in less selective hands, could go on for volume upon volume.

For those who first settled around the river, and for those who followed them, the Mississippi was a Promised Land: " . . . the idea of the New World, its great river, the sea that should lead to China, the persistent cities of gold." They came to the river in a "remarkable migration of a free people . . . something new in the world, this tide of humanity floating down the rivers of an unpeopled continent." They sought the fulfillment of dreams that have always beckoned to Americans, but what they mostly found was a demanding existence:

"It was a hard, ruthless, rushing kind of life, full of uncertainties and dangers, agues, aches, hunger and intolerable loneliness. The settlers partook in common of these trials and they shared, too, a sanguine, easy hopefulness, the promise of a reward that was as inevitable as the flow of the river."

For a time, with the invention of the steamboat, the river's prospects seemed limitless. Because the steamboat could travel upstream, against the river's fierce current, as well as down, the Mississippi became for a while in the 19th century the young nation's great North-South highway. Its heroes were the brave pilots who steered the steamboats "through the treacherous river with the strength of their own arms." Its villains were the pirates and con men and outlaws and drifters whom Mark Twain immortalized, not without affection, in "Huckleberry Finn" and "Life on the Mississippi." Its ordinary citizens were the people who inhabited the river towns, struggling to make a living off the Mississippi's precarious commerce.

The trouble with that commerce, as Childs sees it, was that it depended upon "economic provincialism and absenteeism, the fatal concentration of wealth in one center." That center was the industrial East and its overlords were the notorious captains of finance. When they decided that the future lay with the railroads, the Mississippi was finished as a great thoroughfare of commerce:

"With the end of the Civil War they began a campaign as ruthless as it was unrelenting. New lines were everywhere projected to parallel water routes . . . In a period of less than 20 years the river was all but swept bare. By 1887 there was only one regular steamboat line between Cincinnati and New Orleans. No boats ran from New Orleans to the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, and there was no regular Louisville boat."

In the years that followed, the great timber forests of the north Mississippi were plundered, in a systematic pillage that Childs describes with quiet anger. Many of the river towns that had flourished in the middle of the 19th century were dead, or dying, by the coming of the 20th. New Orleans, once envisioned as a capital of commerce and industry, became a quaint provincial city. And the river's past became instant legend--"romanticized, sentimentalized, out of all semblance to what it had actually been."

But there is no sentimentalizing in "Mighty Mississippi." It is a forthright, clear-eyed story that, though a few more anecdotes would be welcome, manages to do what its author wishes: "It reflects the vigor, the passion, the love of life, of that mighty stream."