A scholar’s cross-disciplinary look back at the little-remembered greatest natural disaster in American history.
Even as Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic solo crossing of the Atlantic, a triumph of modernity, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to manage disaster relief, ordered the evacuation of 35,000 people from a Louisiana town, one small piece of the devastation wrought by the Mississippi superflood of 1927. Although Parrish (English/Univ. of Michigan.; American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, 2006, etc.) sketches out the scope of this catastrophe, she’s less interested in a granular account of the slow-moving, long-lasting flood than in exploring how such a disaster acquires meaning. Through multiple lenses—sociological, ecological, cultural, and aesthetic—she focuses on the dark side of modernity, the ominous portents of the future accompanying the deluge: the man-made contributions—clear-cutting, industrial farming, faulty levee design—to the flood’s magnitude; the harsh economics and the even more severe prejudice that left African-Americans most vulnerable to the flood’s depredations and least helped by the federal “relief machine”; the unprecedented communications apparatus—the newly nationalized radio medium, the pervasive white and black press—reporting the unfolding crisis, making it a collective rather than merely private experience; and the contemporaneous representations and interpretations of the disaster by popular entertainers. Too often hobbled by academic locutions and a specialist’s vocabulary, Parrish’s ambitious, dense, deeply researched narrative nevertheless rewards dedicated general readers. It requires no doctorate to appreciate her rendering of the remarkable back story to Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”; her insightful discussion of the trauma’s conversion into enduring works of literary fiction by William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston; her analysis of the persistent North/South hostility that complicated relief efforts; and her survey of 1927’s vaudeville scene, from the subversive African-American stars Miller and Lyles to the high-profile, widely influential, and, in the author’s telling, somewhat problematic Will Rogers.
As a cubist might, Parrish paints a multifaceted portrait of catastrophe: sometimes puzzling, often surprising, and wholly original.