Just got in to St. Louis. Being in this part of the country is about the Mississippi. The Mississippi rules. Has any natural body borne more symbolic weight, stood for so many different things?

A painting by Henry Lewis hangs in the Saint Louis Art Museum. It’s called, laconically, “Saint Louis in 1846.” The center of the painting shows a bend in the Mississippi River. In the background, the skyline of mid-19th century St. Louis; in the foreground, a family with horse and wagon, presumably on the way to settling some piece of land further out west.

From the standpoint of the painting, it’s the Mississippi river that holds all these contrary forces together, or, you might say, allows both of them to happen. The Mississippi divides the country east to west and therefore divides… More…