Down the Wide Missouri with "an old S. O. B."

Thomas Hart Benton

One day on the rive is very much like any other day. It starts with the sun's rays peeping over the high bluffs, the wind rustling in the cottonwoods. Tom rustling out of his sleeping bag with a pro forma resolution to definitely henceforth cut out drinking after the evening meal.

There is the usual clutter of camp life: spitting tooth-paste into the bushes, sizzling bacon, pulling of tent stakes. And then down to the gluey mud of the riverbank to load our little flotilla, and under the immensely empty Montana sky we are off drifting down the great brown Mississippi, past snags and sandbars, cliffs and coulees, honking geese, Tom comfortably bulwarked in the bow of his boat with his chewing tobacco and his sketch bad, his sharp old eyes searching the landscape.

Tom is Thomas Hart Benton of Kansas City, Missouri, the Grand Old Man (or some would say the Vile Old Man; or at rate the Outspoken Old Man) of American art, who, at the age of 76, fearing neither man nor beast nor art critic, has come to the headwaters of the mightiest of American rivers to record one more facet of the American experience he has been trying to get down to drawing-pad and canvas for half a century. His quick pugnacious eyes reflect all those years of artistic disputes, going back to the days when he was founding his own distinctively American school of painting, and almost singlehandedly reviving the art of mural painting in America.

He is chunky, grizzled, with a piratical red bandana round his neck, profane, loquacious, Harry Truman's favorite painter; a little slowed by age but spry at scrambling up a deer track, a man with a firm grip on the neck of a bottle. Ever ready with his Missouri muleskinner vocabulary to curl the hairy ears of the Corps of Engineers men running the boats.

Benton has loved rivers and riverboating ever since his father took him down Coonskin Creek in the Indian Territory back in the 1890's. In everything from canoe to LST he has floated or paddled or steamed on river and creek and bayou all across the land. But never before on the upper waters of this might mud-choked stream, which another, Tom from Missouri, T. S. Eliot, hailed as a "strong brown god" in his Four Quartets. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, moved by an obscure bureaucratic impulse, has invited him to go along on an informal exploring party down its waters. And here he is.

The original idea of the trip was to cover the whole route of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805 from Omaha to the headwaters of the river at Three Forks, Montana. But the Engineers have build so many dams that most of the river is blue lake water now, and the landmarks of the old exploring and pioneering days have mostly been drowned. Only one long stretch is unchanged: the 150 miles or so downstream from Fort Benton (named for the artist's great-uncle,, the Senator Thomas Hart Benton who was a leading figure in American politics and a great prophet of western expansion before the Civil War) to Slippery Ann Creek (named for a bank robber's mistress who had a mean way with a deck of cards)

This stretch the Engineers have now proposed to drown with a $360 million dam complex, and they apparently thought that if Tom Benton could provide some beautiful pictures of the vanishing landscape it would encourage the U. S. public to support and fund the project. If they had any illusions that Tom would give them any aid and comfort on this score, he is quick to set the record straight. He wants them to leave the river alone. At most he would accept the rival project of the National Park Service, which would close the whole area to all forms of useful endeavor and make it into a National Wilderness Area, open only to certified lovers of the primitive life.

"But Tom, you can't fight progress," says the area engineer. "Sure, this stretch of the river is historic and beautiful. But these dams mean power and industry and navigation."

"What the hell do you want with more irrigation in Montana?" Benton says. "We've 'got surpluses of everything as it is. All you'll be growing is more Goldwater voters, and you've got too many of them as it is. I like this view. Why can't you leave it alone?"

"But Tom, we're only going to raise the level of the river fifty feet. Maybe it would spoil the view from here, but you take that canyon across on the other bank. No one can go up it now, but the dams would flood it and then people could go up in boats, and maybe they'd find that the scenery is spectacular there too."

"No, no, no," roars. Tom. "Let the sons of bitches go up the canyon the hard way." He spits a gobbet of brown tobacco juice into the brown Missouri.

The river below Fort Benton meanders in a narrow flood plain sunk between giant bluffs of glacial fill. At the top of the bluffs are the wheat fields and cattle ranges of the High Plains, but down on the river we are out of sight and sound of humanity. Blue herons strutting on sandbars catch sight of us, squawk and scold, stretch their long looping necks and majestically fly away. A Canada goose flaps and splashes, feigning panic to distract attention from her goslings, too young to fly. Beavers gnaw witlessly away at tree trunks. Deer browse in the tall grass by the riverbanks and trip shyly down to drink. All is just as it was for Lewis and Clark, we keep telling ourselves.

There are of course some differences since1805. The rise and fall of the river is not dictated by melting snow in the Rockies but by the amount of electric current needed by the factories and electric toasters of Montana. We may pass a golden eagle testing its immense wingspread against a cliffside, but there are no grizzlies, no hostile Blackfeet, no heaped and stinking corpses of buffalo driven over cliffs by hungry Indians. Instead of dugouts made form cottonwood trunks, our boatmen have sturdy aluminum craft with outboard motors and chilled beer, and the only serious discomforts are chigger bits and an occasional patch of white water.

Things have changed for artists as well. The last previous professional painter to be brought a great distance to record these scenes was a young Swiss named Karl Bodmer, who was in the entourage of Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied when he came to make scientific observations of the Great Plains of North America in 1835. Bodmer was very much a servant, to be wakened or called at any hour to sketch a buffalo or an Indian dance or a bit of scenery which struck the fancy of his royal patron. Tom Benton, a century and a half later, is his own boss. When he sees a noble cliff or a lush riverside prairie he likes, he gives his word, and the convoy noses in to shore.

"A funny thing about Bodmer," says Tom. "He never did anything else, as far as I know. He made all those fine paintings, but of course to the aesthetes of the time, it was just reporting, it wasn't art."

Aesthetes1 The very word is enough to plunge him back into a lifetime of artistic controversy. Half a century ago, he was an aesthete himself, a school-of-Paris abstractionist immersed in quarrels over chromatic form. Today all abstractionists hate him as a matter of principle. Tom has his principles too. "There has been great art in the past that was purely abstract - Muhammedan art, for instance. But this is the first time in history when art has been made deliberately without meaning. Oh well, some it may survive. I may be wrong too. All art theories are just rationalizations: you paint a certain way, and then you make up theories to justify it.

"Lots of these abstract expressionists' works were made so carelessly they're cracking and falling to pieces already. That's the trouble when you're just interested in expressing yourself, you don't give a damn about what you're doing.

"And if you notice: the careers of abstract artosts so often end in a kind of bitter emptiness. It's the emptiness of a person looking into himself all the time. But the objective world is always rich. There is always something around the next bend of the river."

Around the bend in the afternoon of the second day we come upon the celebrated White Rocks, the "seens of visionary enchantment" which so delighted Meriwether Lewis in 1905. Here the bluffs are soft white sandstone, eroded into what Lewis saw as "elegant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary: collumns...pyramids...nitches and alcoves." This is what Tom has been waiting for, and he spends hours hopping and clambering and cursing himself for having smoke d a cigarette last night ("It only take on to kill my mind") till he finds the ideal landscape, the one he will use in his next major historical painting.

While he sketches, the other members of the party keep busy in their various recondite ways. The boatmen turn up old rifle shells, even an arrowhead. The historian from the National Park Service is on the lookout for traces of old fur traders and Blackfeet scalping parties. The area engineer computes the area that will be flooded by his dams. The engineers' recreation director lectures the tenderfeet from The Saturday Evening Post about the problems of the outdoor life: "Now that staff sticking into your legs is your needle-and-thread grass. Note now Mother Nature has provided it with a corkscrew construction so that it can go on digging into you."

We camp that night under giant cottonwoods which we like to think might have been saplings when Lewis and Clark's crews, their bare feet cut by the sharp stones, dragged their pirogues up the icy stream 160 years ago.

Round the campfire in the evening, while the steaks sizzle and mourning doves moan, the bottle is pulled out and broached, and Tom is ready to beat his way again through the storms of the past. Thirty years ago, as chief of the so-called Regionalist School, he was enthroned, with his friends Grant Wood and John Curry, at the summit of the American art world. He is back in fashion today, but there was a stretch of years in between when he was derided, forgotten, when he sold barley enough to keep his family in decent comfort. The bottom dropped out of the market for Regionalism after the Second World War, and American art took a violent turn in directions Benton had spurned years before. Curry and Wood both died in despair. Benton remembers going to see Grant Wood in his last illness, dying in the hospital of cancer of the liver, and Wood told him that he was going to start a new life under a new name as soon as he got better.

Tom Benton went on painting precisely as he had before, holding the same opinion, spouting them when they were called for and spouting them when they weren't. Through all that bitter time, the grand master of the reigning school, his best student, his old friend and baby-sitter, Jackson Pollock. It is a name never far from the Benton conversation. If he sees a particularly pleasing formation of lichen on a rock out there in the Montana wilderness, he will say mischievously, "Just like a Jackson Pollock."

"Jack Pollock," he says, "never learned to draw, though I taught him everything he did know about it. He never could grasp anything that depended on logical connections, like anatomy or perspective. He was the most unintellectual man who ever lived. That doesn't mean he wasn't intelligent. He might have got drunk and made a fool of himself, he often did. I can't say I appreciated it the way he would call me up every time he sold a painting for a couple o hundred thousand dollars and ask me, 'How much are you getting for one of your poor little realist paintings these days?' A drunk and his foolishness are not very often parted.

"But he never would have done anything so damn foolish, so damn fool inappropriate, as Lewis Mumford did that time I got into a fracas with him. To hear people talk about it, you'd think I get into fights all the time. Hell, I don't get mad more than once every ten years. The last time? Well, it was with a man and his wife. The time before that, it was with Burl Ives. He's so much bigger than I am, I had to go for him with a poker.

"The sad thing about the fracas with Lewis is, we used to be friends. Then one day in 1938 I wrote a review of one of his books, and we didn't speak for 25 years. Then we met that time at the American Academy, I said, 'Hello, Lewis,' he said, 'Hello, Tom,' and we were friends again. Then he got up, and gave that damfool speech. He was the president of the American Academy and was in a public place, and he knew it was going to be taken all around the world as an official speech, and here he was calling the U. S. Government a bunch of blackguards about the war in Viet Nam. I wasn't drunk. I'd had a few, but I knew what I was doing. I was mad. Now personally, I despise Lyndon Johnson, I have no more respect for him than I do for the shit-paper I wipe my ass with. But goddamnit he is the President of the United States, and you don't go round talking about him like that in public, and that's when I got up and said I wasn't going to listen to any of that garbage any more, and I got right off that platform. Now I suppose I won't be able to talk to Lewis for another 25 years."

When the bottle is empty, Tom is ready to turn in, In the morning he vows that he will never again take a drink after dinner.

By the third day we have surrendered to the wilderness. In fact we are rather snobbish about it, and outraged to find other human beings encamped by the place where we are to spend the night. There is a ferry nearby, serving a back-country road, and assorted fishermen have come to pitch their poles there, and their wives are gossiping back in their trailers.

Women!" growls Benton. He holds that women are the death of the wideness, with their tidy possessive ways, their passion for moving things around. "Women come out here saying they are dying to get a look at that darling wilderness, and the first thing you know they are demanding flush toilets. The hell with civilization!" he cries with a baleful look at the women up there in their trailers who are depriving him of the right to strip down like Huck Finn when he goes to cool off in the swift muddy waters.

Yet, he says wistfully, in the old days, when he used to hoof it all over America, he would have come up to those people, he would have talked to them, won their confidence, perhaps sketched them as they fished or gossiped. "It's part of growing old," he says. "You have to give up a lot of things when you grow old, but that doesn't me mean you have to give up everything. So many of my friends have given up. They get attached to their comforts, or they get attached to their miseries. I've had to form a whole new circle of friends, people twenty or twenty-five years younger than me. Of course, once you're past sixty or thereabouts, you notice people's attitude toward you changes. Like John Steinbeck, I never knew a man who could walk into a bar-room, say, and an in a few minutes, everybody was talking to him like an old friend, and now look at his last book [Travels witch Charlie], he goes all over the country, and all he has to talk to is a god-damned dog.

Or take that cute little waitress in Fort Benton, twenty years ago I would have jollied her along, but now I know the way she'd look at me: "What is that old s. o. b. up to?"

After the White Rocks, the scenery is less concentrated, less spectacular, but charged with its own desolate grandeur. This is real Benton country. He loves the clean dry western air, the incisive contrasts, every color and contour sharp and clear, the dry hillsides etched by their watercourses like drawings for a book on the anatomy of the earth.

Not many artists draw like that these days. No one lives more in the present than old Tom Benton, but he isn't so sure the old days weren't better in a lot of ways. "Artists were friendlier then, for one thing. You knew when you started that you were going to have to live without any money to speak of for fifteen or twenty years. You went to Paris, you got a girl to take care of you and you took a lot of odd jobs to make a little cash. Anyone who happened onto some money was glad to share it with his friends. It was a good time. That was the last generation of American artists in Paris who made names for themselves -- John Marin, Jake Epstein, all of us. Nowadays you have all the art galleries taking up young kids and pushing them, and getting them involved in squabbles over publicity and in all those silly artistic animosities before they've started shaving.

"It's the art dealers. I've known so many of them. Some of them take your money in a quiet gentlemanly way, and others take it the other war. I knew the gang of them, they specialized in selling pictures to Texas and Oklahoma people, oil millionaires, people with no more aesthete sense than a turnip. There was a poor old lady in Oklahoma, a rich old bag I should say, and they sent her a couple of dozen pieces of trash for a whopping price. Then they suddenly discovered that be mistake one of the pictures they had sent her was by a famous artist. They wrote her at once: Dear Madam, We are grief-stricken to learn that by an oversight we sent you, along with all that wonderful work, a dirty, grimy old picture that slipped in by mistake. We will be glad to exchange it at no cost to yourself for the bright, cheerful, extremely valuable work we are sending you express special delivery, yours very truly. And they got it back too. She thought they were doing her a favor. Oh, I could tell you stories."

He did too. But laws of obscenity and libel prevent any repetition of them in this place.

Tom Benton has an avid interest in the American Past, and can at any time keep up a learned antiquarian discussion with the Park Service historian on such questions as, Did the Mandan villages smell bad? ("Of course they did!") Did Sacajawea live to be 100? ("Hell no, she didn't.") He himself is a kind of bridge from the American past to the American present, and he can shuttle between generations with ease. "One thing about living a long time," he says, "is that you see everything at least twice. Like op art, which is the latest thing in the galleries. It's very interesting, and it was very interesting the first time I saw it, in the books of Wundt and the other German psychologists in the 1890s and 1900s. The had fascinating experiments with linear illusions and effects of color on color."

Or take fold songs. If Tom's memory is correct, he is the man responsible for planting that particular virus in the American bloodstream. It came from some songs he had learned while tramping around the southern highlands in the 1920s. He played them on his harmonica for his friend Charlie Seeger, a musicologist at Juilliard, who went wild over them, and in the fullness of time let loose the river which runs through Charlie's son Pete to the whole flood of guitar-twangers now loose in the land. All because of Tom.

Se we drift along, till on the sixth day the noise of lapping waves is broken by the more familiar noise of automobiles, and we are passing under a highway bridge. A hot shower and a shave at Slippery Ann, and we are ready to civilization again. "To hell with civilization!" repeats Benton, climbing into the station wagon.

We are soon back in the world of strip farming, filling stations, motels. As we get out at the liquor store in Lewiston, Benton is in a benign mood. The area engineer has not sold him on the dams, but they assure each other of their eternal friendship. Tom even has a solicitous thought to spare for his old foes, the abstract painters. "The human figure is coming back into fashion in painting, and what are all those poor sons of bitches going to do now? They never learned how to draw."

©1968 Robert Wernick

Most of this text appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, October 23, 1965