It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the idea embodied in the book Shantyboat: A River Way of Life. A couple in the prime of life construct their own shantyboat from salvaged materials in 1946. After fitting out the boat and provisioning it, they set themselves adrift on the Ohio River in the vicinity of Cincinnati and float down that river onto the Mississippi and then to New Orleans. They tie up on the riverbank here and there along the way for extended periods, making the acquaintance of charismatic river people, and finally complete their odyssey in 1950.
Harlan and Anna Hubbard were artists–the book is illustrated with Harlan’s own woodcuts, classical musicians, avid readers of great books, Renaissance people. Yet what was the real secret behind their mere ability to do what they did? That secret is something not directly addressed at all in the book itself. This empowering secret, however, revealed itself to me. Lean in close now. I will whisper this secret into your ear. Harlan and Anna Hubbard did not have any children at the time.
Freedom. A thing so often extolled yet so seldom truly experienced. Undoubtedly, the reason this book survives and continues in print since its first publication in 1953 is that it provides delightful detail for the daydreams of a certain narrow swath of people caught in the vapid grind of the existence endured by the much ballyhooed American Middle Class. It is the stuff that dreams are made of.
For me, however, the dream it amplified is different since I have already, after my own fashion, extricated myself from all of that. Harlan Hubbard spruced up my own daydream with detail, too, that of having a wife and partner of the strength and character, of the caliber of Anna Hubbard–not that I am in the midst of any great search at this stage of my game, mind you. What an extraordinary woman Anna Hubbard must have been! What an extraordinary woman she obviously was. Nowhere in the book, however, does Harlan Hubbard ever launch into a paean to his wife. He conveys this to us only by telling us what she said, what she did.
I commend to you the five-page Foreward to the University Press of Kentucky’s edition of this book by Wendell Berry, a writer of the southern ilk of whom I have become quite fond in other contexts recently. If you were to encounter this book in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, you could sit down with it and digest this Foreward quickly to determine whether Harlan Hubbard’s account of their adventure might be a thing for you. Unfortunately, that Foreward is inexplicably truncated when you “look inside” the book on line at amazon.com.
While I have no wish to regurgitate Wendell Berry here, two of his points bear additional consideration. That this book is intimately related to Thoreau’s Walden and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is something that would have occurred to me without Mr. Berry’s help. Mr. Berry might also have named Moby Dick for that matter. Ponds, rivers, oceans. This book is right there in that flow of American literature. Mr. Berry does, however, make an ever so perceptive observation about the nature of that relationship, although he is careful to make clear that he is not contending that Harlan’s writing is superior to that of Henry David’s or Mark’s, né Samuel. This book completes those other books in a real way.
As for Harlan Hubbard’s style, here again I could not agree more with Mr. Berry. Obviously, the concept of two people adrift on a river is rife with metaphorical possibilities. Indeed, the temptation to metaphor is almost overwhelming. Harlan Hubbard, to his credit, successfully resists this temptation for the most part. On those rare occasions when he submits to the temptation á la Oscar Wilde, he does so in anything but a Wildean, reckless way. He deploys his rare metaphors light-handedly.
But upriver was as irretrievable to us drifters as time past.
Once they had drifted through a stretch of river on a boat with no power of its own, there was no going back to revisit that stretch. The fact of being adrift and their being only partly able to control the direction of that drift is central in the book. Yet, that quoted sentence is the only time that Harlan Hubbard inflates this simple fact into a metaphor, and he does it with such easy grace.
In contrast to Thoreau’s work, which by its nature is polemical, Harlan Hubbard was at no great pains to beat his readers over the head with the superiority of the lifestyle he and Anna chose over that of his readers, whatever that may be. Rather, he was a reporter, and an excellent one at that. While his prose may not be in the same league as that of Thoreau or Twain, as Mr. Berry notes, from my point of view it is a prose perfectly suited to its purpose. What more can one ask?
Harlan Hubbard’s reportage is full of interesting surprises. For example, during their voyage Harlan and Anna tied up during the summers and drifted during the winters. I would have expected the reverse. What one finds, however, is that by tying up during the summers, Harlan and Anna were able to garden on the banks of the river as well as gather wild vegetables, nuts, and fruit, then can and otherwise preserve this food against their travel in the winter.
As for what polemic there is in the book, again it is easily offered and easily accepted:
Surely refinement of living does not consist in gadgets and machinery, but in such elements as leisure, contentment, lack of confusion, small niceties . . . .
I do not mean that our way was better, and do not recommend it. To most, it would mean deprivation. To us it had an honorable simplicity and independence. We were living as we desired, and put out less than most, to get what we wanted.
It was precisely there, as a matter of fact, that Harlan Hubbard endeared himself to me now and forever. He did that with his choice of the word “contentment” over the word “happiness.” It is my theory that to discern the difference between contentment and happiness and then to act upon that discernment is the path to a rewarding existence. When I say that I am only 68.3% sure of the thing that I am most sure of–as I am often wont to say–that is the thing that I am most sure of. This couple, Harlan and Anna Hubbard, are now among my first ten exhibits offered in support of this proposition.