THE FLOOD YEAR 1927 by Susan Scott Parrish


A Cultural History
Email this review


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.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-691-16883-8
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2016


NonfictionTHIS CHANGES EVERYTHING by Naomi Klein
by Naomi Klein
NonfictionSUPERSTORM by Kathryn Miles
by Kathryn Miles
NonfictionBREACH OF FAITH by Jed Horne
by Jed Horne
NonfictionKATRINA by Gary Rivlin
by Gary Rivlin