Barry, John M. _Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
and How It Changed America_. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Pp. 524. Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/2". Bibliography, index,
illustrations, maps. $27.50. ISBN 0-684-81046-8
This book is available for $19.25 (a 30 percent discount) from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, at the following URL:
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Mary Leah Christmas
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Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1997. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
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, making considerable
flourish in the valley..." A footnote in _Mark Twain's Letters, Volume I,
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
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
frey. 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 which "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, DC.
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
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 KKK 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
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." 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."