From the Print Journal

The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History. Susan Scott Parrish. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. 416. $35.00 (cloth); $14.99 (eBook).

This book investigates a flood that sprawled across forty percent of the United States (and some of Canada), killing hundreds (and perhaps thousands, since African American deaths were not included in any “official” count), displacing nearly one million people—including 300,000 African Americans who were placed in makeshift camps, which the Red Cross called “concentration camps” and which reproduced a particularly American racial logic—and stimulating an enormous range of intellectual and aesthetic production from the Mississippi Delta blues of Bessie Smith to the Berlin radio broadcasts of Walter Benjamin. The 1927 Mississippi flood, Susan Scott Parrish argues at length, and quite compellingly, should be understood as one of the central events in the history of modernism.

This is a work that situates the disaster alongside others of its era: World War I, the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, fascism and genocide in Europe and the Near East. Parrish aspires to bring “eco-catastrophe into our discussions of modernity, its experiences, and its cultures,” and to explore “how this disaster took on form and meaning as it was nationally and internationally represented across multiple media platforms, both while the flood moved inexorably southward and, subsequently, over the next two decades” (3–4). Consequently, and because it illuminates so well the wide range of cultural forms given shape by the flood, The Flood Year 1927 ought to take a prominent place among other important works in modernist studies devoted to disaster and trauma. It will be of particular interest to scholars of environmental humanities and others seeking models for the integration of ecocritical scholarship with modernist studies, and its focus on the complex historical roots of this most unnatural of “natural” disasters will challenge us to revisit our assumptions about “man-made” disasters such as wars and financial collapses. Indeed, one of Parrish’s signal achievements is the excavation of a set of discursive practices ranging from journalism to blues music to the experimental novels of William Faulkner that articulate an awareness of the inseparability of “man” and “nature” in the modern world. Failure to discern this foundational concept, she suggests, is symptomatic of the political and social history that made the flood possible in the first place, and continues to obscure its important lessons for us in the age of the emphatically man-made Hurricane Katrina and its now-prolific successors.

Parrish’s book will not be confused with other narratives of the flood’s history, usually political histories with a primary focus on the land-use policies that emerged in the flood’s aftermath; the most prominent among these is John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997), which Parrish cites frequently.  Instead, Parrish utilizes a wide range of theoretical texts and devotes her chapters to a series of case studies to demonstrate both the embeddedness of the flood zone in a heavily mediated “contemporaneous global skein” and the imaginative responses to the flood that registered its cultural impact in the midst of the modernist era (11). After an early chapter provides a more general historical account of the flood and its national scale, subsequent chapters address Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues” and other African American musicians’ treatment of the flood; the portrayal of the disaster in vaudeville and minstrel performances, including several highly publicized fundraising benefits sponsored by organizations outside the South; the flood-inspired aesthetics of Faulkner’s early masterpieces The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), and Faulkner’s return to the flood in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939); and the contributions of the flood to Richard Wright’s nascent political thought and creative work. Parrish is also quite attentive to print journalism, combing through the archives of major national newspapers as well as those of the African American press and smaller local newspapers in areas most directly affected by the flood; the flood’s mediation is a vital subject in itself, contributing to Parrish’s sense of how artists made sense of the sprawling (and, as many in the press agreed, anthropogenic) disaster as it unfolded in 1927.

Faulkner’s presence here offers an example of the potential of Parrish’s work for modernist studies. Parrish sees The Sound and the Fury, written in the winter of 1928, as deriving much of its meaning from the flood, though in ways that challenge us to integrate older, largely psychoanalytic readings with what she calls an “eco-historicist reading” of the novel (195). Commenting on the contemporaneity of Faulkner’s novel and Freud’s theory of the uncanny (dating in print to 1919, and discussed widely by Faulkner’s circle in New Orleans in the 1920s), Parrish writes:

Appreciating how Faulkner wanted to map the human psyche back onto that outer world is one way we can perceive how modernism’s interest in the mind does not preclude its interest in that outer material world. Because Freud has been understood as the muse of modernism’s inward turn, it is critical for us to see where, and how, Freud cordoned off the mind from its broad environmental matrix and how Faulkner defined his southern, American version of modernism at variance to such a model. (196)

Parrish goes farther in this context, identifying race as a crucial aspect in Faulkner’s vision. Indeed, she argues, Faulkner’s close awareness of race’s power to situate the individual within the southern geography of the early twentieth century enabled him to perceive, in The Sound and the Fury, “traumatic environmental experience, and its knowledge, to move across the color line” (194). This is a Faulkner whose complex consideration of race seems to occur somewhat earlier than many scholars have acknowledged. Light in August (1932), and especially Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942), are generally seen as the summae of Faulkner’s engagement with race. Parrish’s eco-historicist reading will thus compel Faulknerians to reconsider the influence of the 1927 flood across his career, not least in terms of race.

While Faulkner’s writings represent an important theorization of race in the Jim Crow era, Parrish’s examinations of Bessie Smith’s blues, African American minstrels like Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles who aspired to transcend the “hokum” demanded by white southern audiences and hint at deeper truths connected to race and disaster, and Richard Wright’s flood-related writings (“The Ethics of Jim Crow,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “Silt”) even more valuably situate the flood’s modernist legacy amid African American Studies. Wright, eighteen years old at the time of the flood, incorporated spatial awareness into his thought to such an extent that Parrish envisions him as both an antecedent of the French spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre and a kind of prophetic ancestor to the late twentieth-century Environmental Justice Movement. Parrish also mediates Wright’s well-known, late-1930s rift with Zora Neale Hurston by pointing out that despite their critiques of one another, both writers shared a drive to develop new ways of incorporating black knowledge and experience of environmental trauma into their work.

These are all provocative insights in their own right, but the cumulative power of The Flood Year 1927 lies in the strengthening of each chapter’s material by association with that of the others. Parrish’s depth of research and wide-ranging knowledge of politics, intellectual history, and culture—high, low, and in between—enable her to make a compelling case for the permeation of the flood into the consciousness and aesthetics of an entire generation, no matter how far afield some of its individuals may seem when considered alone. The flood, it seems, created a kind of gravitational field in which Parrish discerns patterns both broad and subtle. This is an extraordinary, highly original piece of scholarship.