The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History

Princeton University Press
Free sample

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which covered nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states, was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. Due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, this was the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. As it moved from north to south down an environmentally and technologically altered valley, inundating plantations and displacing more than half a million people, the flood provoked an intense and lasting cultural response. The Flood Year 1927 draws from newspapers, radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction to show how this event took on public meanings.

Americans at first seemed united in what Herbert Hoover called a "great relief machine," but deep rifts soon arose. Southerners, pointing to faulty federal levee design, decried the attack of Yankee water. The condition of African American evacuees in “concentration camps” prompted pundits like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells to warn of the return of slavery to Dixie. And environmentalists like Gifford Pinchot called the flood “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.” Susan Scott Parrish examines how these and other key figures—from entertainers Will Rogers, Miller & Lyles, and Bessie Smith to authors Sterling Brown, William Faulkner, and Richard Wright—shaped public awareness and collective memory of the event.

The crises of this period that usually dominate historical accounts are war and financial collapse, but The Flood Year 1927 enables us to assess how mediated environmental disasters became central to modern consciousness.

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About the author

Susan Scott Parrish is 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.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Dec 26, 2016
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Pages
416
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ISBN
9781400884261
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Americas (North, Central, South, West Indies)
History / General
History / Modern / 20th Century
History / Social History
History / United States / 20th Century
History / United States / State & Local / South (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV)
Literary Criticism / General
Literary Criticism / Subjects & Themes / Historical Events
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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In the early days of 1937, the Ohio River, swollen by heavy winter rains, began rising. And rising. And rising. By the time the waters crested, the Ohio and Mississippi had climbed to record heights. Nearly four hundred people had died, while a million more had run from their homes. The deluge caused more than half a billion dollars of damage at a time when the Great Depression still battered the nation.

Timed to coincide with the flood's seventy-fifth anniversary, The Thousand-Year Flood is the first comprehensive history of one of the most destructive disasters in American history. David Welky first shows how decades of settlement put Ohio valley farms and towns at risk and how politicians and planners repeatedly ignored the dangers. Then he tells the gripping story of the river's inexorable rise: residents fled to refugee camps and higher ground, towns imposed martial law, prisoners rioted, Red Cross nurses endured terrifying conditions, and FDR dispatched thousands of relief workers. In a landscape fraught with dangers—from unmoored gas tanks that became floating bombs to powerful currents of filthy floodwaters that swept away whole towns—people hastily raised sandbag barricades, piled into overloaded rowboats, and marveled at water that stretched as far as the eye could see. In the flood's aftermath, Welky explains, New Deal reformers, utopian dreamers, and hard-pressed locals restructured not only the flood-stricken valleys, but also the nation's relationship with its waterways, changes that continue to affect life along the rivers to this day.

A striking narrative of danger and adventure—and the mix of heroism and generosity, greed and pettiness that always accompany disaster—The Thousand-Year Flood breathes new life into a fascinating yet little-remembered American story.
"There is no such thing as a 'natural' disaster," writes Romain Huret in his introduction to this multidisciplinary study of the events surrounding and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Though nature produced Katrina's rising waters and destructive winds, a vast array of manmade factors shaped the scope of the storm's impact as well as the local and national response to it. In Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective, American and European scholars approach this infamous storm and its aftermath through a variety of disciplines, from music to geography to anthropology, creating a nuanced understanding of how society reacts to and later remembers times of disaster.

Richard Campanella and Romain Huret examine the particular geographical and political mix that set the stage for Katrina's devastation, especially among the poorest populations of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Jean Kempf, James Boyden, Andrew Diamond, and Thomas Jessen Adams address the ideological biases and racial stereotypes that infused local and national commentary in the days and weeks after the storm. Finally, Bruce Raeburn, Sara Le Menestrel, Anne M. Lovell, and Randy J. Sparks explore the impact of this powerful tropical event on the city's institutions and cultural organizations.

Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective offers a profound and innovative collection of insights on one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in U.S. history, forcing us to examine the cultural actors that transformed a natural disaster into a humanitarian crisis.

Colonial America presented a new world of natural curiosities for settlers as well as the London-based scientific community. In American Curiosity, Susan Scott Parrish examines how various peoples in the British colonies understood and represented the natural world around them from the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth. Parrish shows how scientific knowledge about America, rather than flowing strictly from metropole to colony, emerged from a horizontal exchange of information across the Atlantic.

Delving into an understudied archive of letters, Parrish uncovers early descriptions of American natural phenomena as well as clues to how people in the colonies construed their own identities through the natural world. Although hierarchies of gender, class, institutional learning, place of birth or residence, and race persisted within the natural history community, the contributions of any participant were considered valuable as long as they supplied novel data or specimens from the American side of the Atlantic. Thus Anglo-American nonelites, women, Indians, and enslaved Africans all played crucial roles in gathering and relaying new information to Europe.

Recognizing a significant tradition of nature writing and representation in North America well before the Transcendentalists, American Curiosity also enlarges our notions of the scientific Enlightenment by looking beyond European centers to find a socially inclusive American base to a true transatlantic expansion of knowledge.

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009

The New Historicism of the 1980s and early 1990s was preoccupied with the fashioning of early modern subjects. But, Jonathan Gil Harris notes, the pronounced tendency now is to engage with objects. From textiles to stage beards to furniture, objects are read by literary critics as closely as literature used to be. For a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespeare scholars, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing. Curiously, the current wave of "thing studies" has largely avoided posing questions of time. How do we understand time through a thing? What is the time of a thing?

In Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, Harris challenges the way in which we conventionally understand physical objects and their relation to history. Turning to Renaissance theories of matter, Harris considers the profound untimeliness of things, focusing particularly on Shakespeare's stage materials. He reveals that many "Renaissance" objects were actually survivals from an older time—the medieval monastic properties that, post-Reformation, were recycled as stage props in the public playhouses, or the old Roman walls of London, still visible in Shakespeare's time. Then, as now, old objects were inherited, recycled, repurposed; they were polytemporal or palimpsested.

By treating matter as dynamic and temporally hybrid, Harris addresses objects in their futurity, not just in their encapsulation of the past. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare is a bold study that puts the matériel—the explosive, world-changing potential—back into a "material culture" that has been too often understood as inert stuff.
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