The following review appeared 1 August 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
This review begins at 30,000 feet on a flight somewhere between Philadelphia and St. Louis. I gaze anxiously out the window in hopes of seeing any familiar landmarks. Blue blotches go by, as well as occasional oxbows and S-curves of anonymous tributaries glimpsed through the thickening clouds. The cloud cover is complete as we land in St. Louis. I haven't seen much of the Mississippi River since moving away from the area, and because of the weather we would not able to get reacquainted today.
At St. Louis we change planes. Seated somewhere behind us on the puddle-jumper are two Cajuns chatting away. None of us mean to eavesdrop, but it is hard to ignore their animated banter. I hear references to "West Bank," "Atchafalaya Basin," and what sounds like "red clay," all accompanied with much chortling.
Theirs is a world I know little about, although I was once a "neighbor" upriver in Hannibal, Missouri. Our departure from Hannibal coincided with the height of the "Great Flood of '93." Not far from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, I recall there was a sign on a post, near where the Delta Queen and her sisters dock, showing the height of the water at that spot during the previous big flood, in 1973. The 1973 flood was thought unsurpassable enough that someone had invested in a sign. Likely, that sign is now somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
For obvious reasons, then, I was anticipating the arrival of a certain book. Thoughts of it filled my mind during our flight to the Midwest. On its way at that moment from the publisher to my mailbox back home was Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry.
With flooding such a part of life on earth, what was it, I wondered in advance of receiving the book, that the author of Rising Tide found so significant about the 1927 flood? How had it "changed America" any more than any other flood? When the book arrived, I found this explanation in Barry's introduction: "Their struggle . . . began as one of man against nature. It became one of man against man. For the flood brought with it also a human storm. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America." A succinct description of the tumult that would follow.
The Great Flood of 1927 occurred years after Mark Twain's death, but the issues raised in Rising Tide--and indeed some of the very people involved--would be familiar to him. Rising Tide is a book he would have read with great interest. It is full of history, political wrangling, statistics, engineering, poetry, thousands of claimants, and even a man in a white suit. Rising Tide is the story of a confederacy of mostly self-serving dunces; it is a tale of two cities (Greenville, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana); and even more appropriately, it is The Gilded Age with a river running through it. In any case, the river serves merely as a backdrop against which the best and worst of humanity played itself out in 1927.
Mark Twain knew a lot about the river, having spent several years as a steamboat pilot on the Lower Mississippi. His piloting career started and ended in New Orleans, and during that time he developed a passing acquaintance with Greenville. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described Greenville as "full of life and activity, and making a considerable flourish in the Valley . . ." (ch. 33). A footnote in Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1: 1853-1866 (University of California Press, 1987) states that "On Clemens's first trip, the Arago did not reach St. Louis in time for its regularly scheduled departure . . . , having spent about two days lightening off the City of Memphis, which had grounded on a sandbar near Greenville, Mississippi." While delayed there, if young Samuel Clemens could have looked forward in time to 1927, he would have seen thousands of black citizens lining the flood-encompassed levees, living in makeshift tents and trying to survive.
The Mississippi River started rising in August 1926. "On New Year's Day, 1927, the Mississippi River reached flood stage at Cairo, the earliest for any year on record." That was only the beginning. "On every gauge from Cairo to New Orleans, the Mississippi itself reached flood stage early, often the earliest on record; it would remain in flood for as long as 153 consecutive days." Levees forced the flood waters higher. Tributaries that had been sealed off, in the name of flood control, only made the situation worse. With nowhere else to go, the river piled on top of itself, adding further stress to the levees.
These levees had allowed property values in several Delta counties to triple. A member of the Mississippi River Commission stated that "levees, by allowing the mining of the river's wealth, also allowed 'the negro to better his condition . . . Nowhere else in the South are as favorable opportunities offered to the black man as in the reclaimed Mississippi lowlands, and nowhere else is he doing as much for his own up-lifting.'" But as the waters rose, everything was at stake.
Without warning, the break everyone feared happened; and of all things, it happened on the seventeenth anniversary of Mark Twain's death. "At 12:30 P.M., Thursday, April 21, Lee wired General Edgar Jadwin, head of the Corps of Engineers, 'Levee broke at ferry landing Mounds Mississippi eight A.M. Crevasse will overflow entire Mississippi Delta." One down. How many more to go? That was the question, and the constant worry. "In the first hours of the flood, black and white had risked their lives to save each other. There had been a feeling of humanity, not race. Now the disparity between life for black and white seemed greater than in normal life. Blacks, who had believed Greenville to be a special place, felt betrayed."
Shelley Fisher Fishkin noted in Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices (Oxford University Press, 1993), "As Reconstruction collapsed, the hypothetical fear Frederick Douglass had expressed in 1862 actually came to pass: black people had been emancipated from the relation of 'slavery to individuals, only to become slaves of the community at large.'" That was certainly the case in 1927, as blacks were held captive on the levees thanks to policy bungling intended to keep the Delta's labor force intact. Barry writes, "The blacks were no longer free. The National Guard patrolled the perimeter of the levee camp with rifles and fixed bayonets. To enter or leave, one needed a pass. They were imprisoned."
Meanwhile, downriver in New Orleans, those with the political power--the bankers, lawyers, and businessmen--were trying to protect their interests. They used every tool available, including a propaganda campaign in the newspapers. To relieve the pressure along the New Orleans earthworks, they proposed making an intentional levee break below the city. A plan was drawn up and presented to Louisiana Governor Oramel H. Simpson for signature. "How much of this, [Simpson] perhaps wondered, was over interest rates on city bonds, and how much over real concern for the city." The crevasse was made, but would prove to have been unnecessary as flood protections continued to crumble elsewhere.
During the flooding and the aftermath, the federal government joined in the fray. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, not only became involved, but would prove to be a key player. Hoover had previous experience using the press to serve his own ends. "[H]e subsequently told the Saturday Evening Post 'the world lives by phrases.'" In other words, sound bites. Hoover also "talked of 'the club of public opinion.'" Mark Twain once said of public opinion that, "Some think it the Voice of God." Positioning and spin were everything. "For Hoover black support or opposition was particularly important. Publicity over his handling of the flood had virtually created his candidacy, but it could evaporate in a moment if the seeming triumph exploded in scandal."
Ultimately, New Orleans choked to death in the grip of its political insiders, only the port remaining vital. Out of the same crucible, however, emerged a flood control plan that "would be the most ambitious and expensive single piece of legislation Congress had ever passed." Mark Twain would have snorted at the fact that ". . . the law declared that the federal government took full responsibility for the Mississippi River. In so doing, even in the narrowest sense, the law set a precedent of direct, comprehensive, and vastly expanded federal involvement in local affairs."
Barry is well qualified to paint the political panorama of 1927 in Rising Tide. He is an author and editor who has covered national politics. He lives, appropriately enough, in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Because Rising Tide is written by an "inside-the-beltway type," the political history is nitty-gritty, up close, and personal. This can create some problems, however. The scrutiny of the Delta's prominent Percy family, for instance, gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Also, some passages in the book have nothing to do with the flood or the aftermath. Then, there is Barry's innocuous but needless repetition of certain phrases or facts.
The chronology of the book can also be confusing, with frequent shifts in the swirling action. As one reads Rising Tide, there are many crests in the narrative. The overarching point of Rising Tide seems to be how the 1927 flood launched Herbert Hoover to nationwide prominence and advanced the expansion of the federal government. However, the other crests are worth noting. A sampling: "The explosive growth of engineering changed America"; "The river itself left a legacy"; "What [Will Percy] did would have an impact far beyond the Delta, on the nation at large"; "What they did would define their society"; "In [Percy's] humiliation, he began to humiliate the black men and women at his mercy on the levee. There would be national repercussions"; "Greenville had started all this, and, like a festering infection, Greenville was still leaking poison into the whole;" and, of course, "[Hoover's] nomination was another legacy of the flood." Many personalities. Many legacies.
Rising Tide covers a lot of ground, just as the 1927 flood deluged an area almost as large as New England. In addition to looking at local and national politics, the book also addresses the advent of the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations, the growth of the advertising industry, and much about the role of the Delta's blacks in society and government. "Everything in the Delta always came back to the blacks."
Exciting as this all may seem, unless one is a political junkie or a scholar of the South, I would advise the reader to have on hand a tall glass of water. For those interested in politics, the book is a watering place. For those not so inclined, the levee is often dry. However, the casual reader will still learn something of the history of engineering and "the infrastructure of society, power, money, and character."
The first part of the book offers some historical background on the early engineers who sought to shape and control the river: James Buchanan Eads, Andrew Alexander Humphreys, and Charles Ellet, Jr. Mark Twain had much in common with Eads, having grown up as part of an itinerant family, knowing the horror of a steamboat boiler explosion, dropping out of school and working to support his family, spending time around the docks, and heeding the call of the river. "[Eads] would center the rest of his life on St. Louis and the Mississippi River. He was determined, whatever the price, to succeed. The man who gave him his first adult job as 'mud clerk,' the lowest officer on a steamboat, would remember Eads' 'towering ambition.' He was sixteen years old."
Mark Twain was interested in the latest technology, but he also knew first hand the sometimes-futility of it. He could have told these engineers that the river would not be tamed so easily. Even the esteemed Atlantic Monthly--where Mark Twain's friends William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich each served as editor--chimed in regarding the engineering field. "In 1913, the Atlantic Monthly--ironically, just as the certainty of engineering was yielding to the uncertainty of Einstein and Freud--proclaimed 'machinery is our new art form,' and praised 'the engineers whose poetry is too deep to look poetic' and who 'have swung their souls free . . . like gods.'"
Other names familiar to Twain buffs appear in Rising Tide, such as Ulysses S. Grant (the object of some unseemly editorializing), Booker T. Washington, and Chauncey Depew.
Those familiar with Mark Twain's works will also hear a strain of familiar music in this interlude amidst the chaos in Rising Tide: "How it must have felt to stand on the bank of the Mississippi in the middle of the nineteenth century, to push one's way through a wild and thick jungle of cane, vines, and willow, to hear the animal sounds mixed with the rush of water, to see water a mile wide, boiling, dark, and angry, two hundred and more feet deep, to watch it thunder and roll south at a speed so great a boat with six men at oars could not move upstream. How godlike it must have felt to a man who intended to find a way to command it."
Mark Twain, observing some flooding below Memphis, saw "signs, all about, of men's hard work gone to ruin, and all to be done over again, with straitened means and a weakened courage" (Life on the Mississippi, ch. 30). We lash at the river, and the river lashes back. Barry writes, "Below New Orleans the river resembles a 100-mile-long arm crooked at the elbow, narrowing gradually, to Head of Passes. There, the river divides into three main channels . . . each extending like a long thin finger . . . out into the Gulf." In the final analysis, the river's retaliatory gesture is that of Mark Twain's "Petrified Man."