Dean Klinkenberg, the Mississippi Valley Traveler

Dean Klinkenberg is a St. Louis-based writer who gave up the world of academic psychology to write about life along the Mississippi River. He has published seven guidebooks for the Mississippi Valley and two mysteries (Rock Island Lines and Double-Dealing in Dubuque) set in places along the river. He is currently working on a book about the extent to which we’ve engineered the Mississippi River and what it has cost us to do so. His writing has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,, and Big River Magazine.

Klinkenberg has presented at conferences, libraries, historical societies, and on the American Queen steamboat. In the past few years, he has presented for:

  • The Wisconsin Library Association
  • Great River Writes
  • National Eagle Center; Wabasha, MN
  • Burlington (IA) Public Library
  • Des Moines Public Library
  • Mississippi River Conference; Moline, IL
  • Dubuque (IA) Public Library
  • La Crosse County Historical Society
  • Clinton County (IA) Historical Society
  • Beltrami County (MN) Historical Society
  • Winona County (MN) History Center
  • Grand Rapids (MN) Public Library
  • Alton (IL) Public Library

Klinkenberg’s presentation was a big hit. He is funny, informative, and knowledgeable. His informal style had the audience engaged even before the program officially started.

—Jane Easterly, Galesburg Public Library, Galesburg, Illinois

Klinkenberg can present on one of the topics described below, but he may also develop custom talks on request. To find our more or to schedule a talk, contact him by email: Dean[at]TravelPassages[dot]com.

Talks About Writing

From Fact to Fiction: Using Archival Research to Inspire Travel Writing and Textured Mysteries

Rock Island Lines is a mystery that plays with the idea of genealogy as destiny. The plot centers around a long-dead gangster, John Looney, and his legacy of violence and corruption. Klinkenberg spent hours researching Looney’s life, the era, and his conspirators and enemies. He came to the story, though, long before he was thinking about fiction—he was researching a travel guide for the Quad Cities. Learn about his approach to writing fiction and nonfiction, how they are inextricably linked and how it is all made possible by the local archives where he spends much of his research time. What stories are hiding in your archives?

Length: 45 minutes
Equipment needs: Projector and screen

Talks About the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River in Song: What the River Means to Us

“My ma and pa got drowned, Mississippi you to blame
Mississippi River I can’t stand to hear your name.”
–from Homeless Blues; Bessie Smith

“Take a chance, leave behind all the troubles that are on your mind
Cause all I want to be is at the Mississippi River.”
–from The Mississippi River; Firehead Jerry

To some people, the Mississippi River is a beast to be feared and hated, while it’s a carefree playground for others. The Mississippi River means something different to each of us. Most of us experience the river through a microscopic lens. We only see the river in front of us. We don’t see what others see, so we miss the complexities in our relationship with the river. The words of songwriters can help us see the river more broadly.

There are hundreds of songs that are directly or indirectly about the river; they cover a wide range of themes. These compositions offer a rich source for exploring the different ways we experience the Mississippi. Dozens of songs, for example, tackle the devastation wrought by a swollen Mississippi River. Other songs cover themes like levees, African American experiences along the river, gambling, river rats, pollution, pretty sunsets, and falling in love on the river.

Many of the songs are from well-known musicians like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, but many more were recorded by talented artists who might only be known to their mothers and best friends. While everyone won’t necessarily love every song, most people will leave humming at least one tune. And everyone will see the Mississippi River in a new way. Ultimately, knowing what the river has meant to us in the past will help us define what we want the river to be in the future.

A standard 60-minute talk would include three of the six themes listed below. You select which three themes you’d like covered::

  • River towns: snapshots of communities from the Headwaters to the Gulf
  • Rivers rats of yesterday and today
  • Floods
  • Monsters, real and imagined
  • Boats: flatboats to showboats and shanty boats, and
  • Steamboats

Length: 45-90 minutes
Equipment needs: Projector, screen, speakers, podium

Mississippi, Missouri, or Big Muddy: What’s in a Name?

Why do we call the river in the middle of the country “Mississippi”? Shouldn’t the name Missouri really carry forward to the Gulf, at least until it meets the Ohio River? This talk goes deep into how we named (and have tried to rename) our rivers and why it matters. He’ll also answer the question about what name should be used for the river that flows through St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.

Length: 45 minutes
Equipment needs: Projector and screen

Dean gave an enjoyable and interesting talk at the Big Muddy Speaker Series on the naming of the Mississippi River. Being a history reader and a river conservationist I thought I knew a lot about this subject, but Dean’s informative talk refreshed my memory of what I knew and informed me many more facts on our river heritage. We will be asking Dean to speak at the Big Muddy Speaker Series again.

—Greg Poleski; Greenway Network

His deep dive into the many historical, geographic and geological factors that go into the naming of the river turned into a fascinating cross section of river history and culture. Dean’s deep sense of rich river history and intelligent sense of humor made his talk one of the most memorable of the 2018 season.

—Steve Schnarr; Missouri River Relief

The Joys of Travel Along the Mississippi River

Klinkenberg explores the essence of communities through the lens of a traveler. He has been to over 35 countries around the world but has learned that he doesn’t need to travel far to satisfy his desire for local foods, rich culture, historic sites, outstanding architecture, and fun people. He finds plenty of that along the Mississippi River, from the expected (like pretty views) to the unusual (a tug of war across the Mississippi) to the special (Andrew Clemens’ sand art). The talk is richly illustrated with photographs and stories about the people and places along the Mississippi River.

Length: One hour
Equipment needs: Projector and screen

The members from our Writers’ Workshop and those who attended Dean’s presentation enjoyed hearing Dean share his enthusiasm and knowledge from his adventures along the Mississippi. He was an entertaining and informative speaker.

—Laura Walth, Librarian, Des Moines (Iowa) Public Library

Dean Klinkenberg’s presentation to the Des Moines Public Library’s writer’s group was a very informative, highly entertaining experience for me.  He has a great sense of humor and his “tell it like it is” style was obviously appreciated by our group.  I was surprised that as a native Iowan I did not know about many of the interesting sites he covered. Thanks to him I am making a better effort to know my home state.

—Terry Crane, Retired Educator; Ankeny, Iowa

The River Ends Like It Begins

The Mississippi River begins and ends in a marsh, but the similarities don’t end there. At each end of the river, residents have a strong connection to the natural world and Indian nations are reconnecting to their cultural and language traditions. There are also on-going battles over balancing conservation with economic development and looming threats from climate change that could bring major changes to each landscape. Even though the Headwaters and the Delta are separated by 2,000 river miles, they enjoy many of the same advantages today and face similar challenges for the future.

Length: 45 minutes
Equipment needs: Projector and screen

James B. Eads: The Man and the Mississippi

It’s unlikely that any person past or present knew the Mississippi River as intimately as James Eads. He nearly drowned in the river as a child, then spent much of his adult life working to alter the river for the economic benefit of the country. A self-taught engineer whose work was often derided by his peers, Eads usually won in the end. Some of his projects, like the graceful bridge at St. Louis and the jetties at the mouth of the river, continue to shape the river today.

Length: 45 minutes
Equipment needs: Projector and screen

Here are a few clips from a previous presentation. (“In Search of Great Places” is now called “The Joys of Travel Along the Mississippi River.”)