Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.