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The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi (Hardcover)

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Instant Bestseller



A sweeping history of the Mississippi River—and the centuries of human meddling that have transformed both it and America.


The Mississippi River lies at the heart of America, an undeniable life force that is intertwined with the nation’s culture and history. Its watershed spans almost half the country, Mark Twain’s travels on the river inspired our first national literature, and jazz and blues were born in its floodplains and carried upstream.


In this landmark work of natural history, Boyce Upholt tells the epic story of this wild and unruly river, and the centuries of efforts to control it. Over thousands of years, the Mississippi watershed was home to millions of Indigenous people who regarded “the great river” with awe and respect, adorning its banks with astonishing spiritual earthworks. The river was ever-changing, and Indigenous tribes embraced and even depended on its regular flooding. But the expanse of the watershed and the rich soils of its floodplain lured European settlers and American pioneers, who had a different vision: the river was a foe to conquer.


Centuries of human attempts to own, contain, and rework the Mississippi River, from Thomas Jefferson’s expansionist land hunger through today’s era of environmental concern, have now transformed its landscape. Upholt reveals how an ambitious and sometimes contentious program of engineering—government-built levees, jetties, dikes, and dams—has not only damaged once-vibrant ecosystems but may not work much longer. Carrying readers along the river’s last remaining backchannels, he explores how scientists are now hoping to restore what has been lost.


Rich and powerful, The Great River delivers a startling account of what happens when we try to fight against nature instead of acknowledging and embracing its power—a lesson that is all too relevant in our rapidly changing world.



About the Author


Boyce Upholt is a journalist and essayist whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, National Geographic, the Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among other publications. He is the winner of a James Beard Award for investigative journalism, and he lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Praise For…


Gives readers a direct sensory encounter with the beauty and boldness of the river….[T]ells an eloquent story of the ways the Mississippi River is a separate world, hidden in plain sight.
— W. Ralph Eubanks - Washington Post

Examines the Mississippi’s tortuous history, from its geological origins to the present day, with particular attention on our long struggle to mold the river for our own purposes.
— Gerard Helferich - Wall Street Journal

An experienced paddler who has rowed from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, Upholt takes a deep dive into the Mississippi’s past, present, and future, interspersing research and reporting with stories from his own travels.
— Alex Heard - Outside Magazine

[A] sweeping ecological history of the Mississippi River….[F]ascinating and troubling….Upholt deftly weaves the river’s story with deep historical research, as well as reporting from canoes and atop levees.
— Meera Subramanian - Scientific American

In his deeply researched book The Great River, Boyce Upholt makes clear that a true accounting of the mighty river has all of the elements of a frontier novel: violence, death, greed, resilience and big dreams.

— Bob Timmons - Star Tribune

Sweeping…An ode to the river and a serious, expansive piece of scholarly research about its history….[Upholt] enriches the history by interweaving geography and geology, hydrology, ecology and travelogue—both historic and lyrically personal, and salts it with villains and heroes and colorful tales and lore.
— Mary Ann Sternberg - New Orleans Times-Picayune

Fascinating….Ranging across thousands of miles, [Upholt] demonstrates how the United States has deformed and manipulated one of the world’s largest watersheds in the short-sighted service of economic development, often with catastrophic, unintended consequences.
— Jake Bittle - Grist

[An] expansive exploration of the river's past and future….[D]eep and thoughtful.
— Julia Holmes - FERN

In his new chronicle of the South’s iconic waterway, the New Orleans journalist Boyce Upholt slides fascinating lore alongside jolting conservation truths.
— CJ Lotz Diego - Garden & Gun

A majestic history of the Mississippi River….[A]n exceptional natural history that never loses sight of the human players involved.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A lively survey of Old Man River, born of extensive research and travel….A fluent addition to the literature of America’s rivers.
— Kirkus Reviews

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative.
— Bookpage

The Great River is easily one of the best books ever written about the Mississippi. It brings depth of scholarship to everything from geology to history to current politics, all of it elegantly written.

— John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

With tributaries of history, geography, engineering, and environmental science, Boyce Upholt’s The Great River brings clarity and cohesion to a topic that intermixes complex stories across, quite literally, a million square miles. Using elements of travelogue and including fine maps, this compelling book takes readers through the making and unmaking of the Mississippi River, and leaves them with a hunch that, in the end, the river will remake itself.

— Richard Campanella, Associate Dean for Research, Tulane University School of Architecture and author of Draining New Orleans

From mound-builders to levee-makers, Boyce Upholt gives us a Mississippi both wild and engineered, life-giving and furious—a river as full of contradictions as the country that has tried and failed to tame it. Impossible to stop reading, The Great River is a deeply felt meditation on the ways people have lived with nature's changes, and how we might live differently in the future.

— Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

With masterful research and reporting, Boyce Upholt makes a compelling case that, despite our centuries-long efforts to control its unpredictable pulses with concrete, steel, and earthen berms, the Mississippi River in many ways remains wild as ever. And he shows us why that is good.
— Dan Egan, author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Few books have ever chronicled a landform as beautifully as The Great River, a thorough and wise meditation on the United States’s mightiest watershed. Like a savvy riverboat captain, Boyce Upholt expertly pilots his narrative across shoals of history and through oxbows of science; like the Mississippi itself, his book braids and bends, carrying its readers from deep time to the Anthropocene on a swift current of reportage.

— Ben Goldfarb, author of Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet

An epic alluvial chronicle. On his travels through the geological, hydrological, archeological, and historical records, Boyce Upholt unearths the stories and meanings, injustices and mysteries and fugitive beauties to be found among the relict meanders and chemical refineries of the flood plains. As the best environmental journalism does, by bringing the past to bear upon the present, The Great River complicates our understanding of both.

— Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Sea

Product Details
ISBN: 9780393867879
ISBN-10: 0393867870
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: June 11th, 2024
Pages: 352
Language: English