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Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America Paperback – April 2, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When Mother Nature rages, the physical results are never subtle. Because we cannot contain the weather, we can only react by tabulating the damage in dollar amounts, estimating the number of people left homeless, and laying the plans for rebuilding. But as John M. Barry expertly details in Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, some calamities transform much more than the landscape.

While tracing the history of the nation's most destructive natural disaster, Barry explains how ineptitude and greed helped cause the flood, and how the policies created to deal with the disaster changed the culture of the Mississippi Delta. Existing racial rifts expanded, helping to launch Herbert Hoover into the White House and shifting the political alliances of many blacks in the process. An absorbing account of a little-known, yet monumental event in American history, Rising Tide reveals how human behavior proved more destructive than the swollen river itself. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In the spring of 1927, America witnessed perhaps its greatest natural disaster: a flood that profoundly changed race relations, government, and society in the Mississippi River valley region. Barry (The Transformed Cell, LJ 9/1/92) presents here a fascinating social history of the effects of the massive flood. More than 30 feet of water stood over land inhabited by nearly one million people. Almost 300,000 African Americans were forced to live in refugee camps for months. Many people, both black and white, left the land and never returned. Using an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, Barry clearly traces and analyzes how the changes produced by the flood in the lower South came into conflict and ultimately destroyed the old planter aristocracy, accelerated black migration to the North, and foreshadowed federal government intervention in the region's social and economic life during the New Deal. His well-written work supplants Pete Daniel's Deep'n as It Come: The 1927 Mississippi Flood (1977) as the standard work on the subject. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
-?Charles C. Hay III, Eastern Kentucky Univ. Libs., Richmond
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st Touchstone Ed edition (April 2, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684840022
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684840024
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (277 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in... Nah, let's not start that far back. Let's just say after dropping out of graduate school in history I became a football coach-- in fact, the first story I ever sold was to a coaching magazine, about a way to change blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage, and I was on the staff of a guy who was named national coach of the year. I quit coaching to write, first as a Washington journalist covering economics and national politics, then I finally began doing what I always intended and wanted to do: write books. Two of those books have in turn led me into active involvement in a couple of policy areas. Anyway, here's the more formal version of my bio:

John M. Barry is a prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author whose books have won several dozen awards. In 2005 the National Academies of Science named The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, a study of the 1918 pandemic, the year's outstanding book on science or medicine. In 1998 Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians for the year's best book of American history. His latest book is Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, which has been named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to be awarded late spring 2013. ( Scroll down for more about this book, including a syndicated op ed based on it.)

His writing has received not only formal awards but less formal recognition as well. In 2004 GQ named Rising Tide one of nine pieces of writing essential to understanding America; that list also included Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." His first book, The Ambition and the Power: A true story of Washington, was cited by The New York Times as one of the eleven best books ever written about Washington and the Congress. His second book The Transformed Cell: Unlocking the Mysteries of Cancer, coauthored with Dr. Steven Rosenberg, was published in twelve languages. And a story about football he wrote was selected for inclusion in an anthology of the best football writing of all time published in 2006 by Sports Illustrated.

He has had considerable influence on both pandemic policy and flood protection. Both the Bush and Obama administrations sought his advice on influenza preparedness and response, and he was a member of the original team which developed plans for non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate a pandemic. The National Academies of Science asked him to give the keynote speech at its first international scientific meeting on pandemic influenza, and he was the only non-scientist on a federal government Infectious Disease Board of Experts.

In the area of water resources, he has been equally active. In 2006 he became the only non-scientist ever to give the National Academies annual Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture, a lecture which focuses on some aspect of water. After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana congressional delegation asked him to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection, and he now serves on the board overseeing levee districts in metropolitan New Orleans and on the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is responsible for the state's hurricane protection. Barry has worked with state, federal, United Nations, and World Health Organization officials on influenza, water-related disasters, and risk communication.

Barry sits on advisory boards at M.I.T's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as well as on the board of the Society of American Historians and American Heritage Rivers.

He has also been keynote speaker at such varied events as a White House Conference on the Mississippi Delta and an International Congress on Respiratory Viruses, and he has given talks in such venues as the National War College, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard Business School, and elsewhere. He is co-originator of Riversphere, a $100 million center being developed by Tulane University; it will be the first facility in the world dedicated to comprehensive river research.

His articles have appeared in such scientific journals as Nature and Journal of Infectious Disease as well as in lay publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, and Esquire. A frequent guest on every broadcast network in the US, he has appeared on such shows as NBC's Meet the Press, ABC's World News, and NPR's All Things Considered, and on such foreign media as the BBC and Al Jazeera. He has also served as a consultant for Sony Pictures and contributed to award-winning television documentaries.

Before becoming a writer, Barry coached football at the high school, small college, and major college levels. Currently Distinguished Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research of Tulane and Xavier Universities, he lives in New Orleans.

Barry's latest book focuses on the development of both the idea of separation of church and state and the first expression of individualism in the modern sense. These two issues-- how we define the relationship between church and state and between the individual and the state-- have opened fault lines which have divided America throughout our history up to today. Here is an op ed syndicated by The Los Angeles Times February 5, 2012 :

A Puritan's `War Against Religion.'

In January, while conservative Christians and GOP presidential candidates were charging that "elites" have launched "a war against religion," a federal court in Rhode Island ordered a public school to remove a prayer mounted on a wall because it imposed a belief on 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist. The ruling seems particularly fitting because it was consistent not only with the 1st Amendment but with the intent of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island expressly to provide religious liberty and who called such forced exposure to prayer "spiritual rape."

As Williams' nearly 400-year-old comment demonstrates, the conflict over the proper relationship between church and state is the oldest in American history. The 1st Amendment now defines this relationship, but understanding the full meaning of the amendment requires understanding its history, for the amendment was a specific response to specific historical events and was written with the recognition that freedom of religion was inextricably linked to freedom itself.

The church-state conflict began when Puritans, envisioning a Christian nation, founded what John Winthrop called "a citty upon a hill" in Massachusetts, and Williams rejected that vision for another: freedom. He insisted that the state refrain from intervening in the relationship between humans and God, stating that even people advocating "the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships" be allowed to pray -- or not pray -- freely, and that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

Yet Williams was no atheist. He was a devout Puritan minister who, like other Massachusetts Puritans, fled religious persecution in England. Upon his arrival in 1631 he was considered so godly that Boston Puritans had asked him to lead their church. He declined -- because he considered their church insufficiently pure.

Reverence for both Scripture and freedom led Williams to his position. His mentor was Edward Coke, the great English jurist who ruled, "The house of every one is as his castle," extending the liberties of great lords -- and an inviolate refuge where one was free -- to the lowest English commoners. Coke pioneered the use of habeas corpus to prevent arbitrary imprisonment. And when Chancellor of England Thomas Egerton said, "Rex est lex loquens; the king is the law speaking," and agreed that the monarch could "suspend any particular law" for "reason of state," Coke decreed instead that the law bound the king. Coke was imprisoned -- without charge -- for his view of liberty, but that same view ran in Williams' veins.

Equally important to Williams was Scripture. Going beyond the "render unto Caesar" verse in the New Testament, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. He even had before him an example of a new translation that served a political purpose. King James had disliked the existing English Bible because in his view it insufficiently taught obedience to authority; the King James Bible would correct that.

Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. Therefore he considered it "monstrous" for one person to impose any religious belief on another. He also realized that any government-sponsored prayer required a public official to pass judgment on something to do with God, a sacrilegious presumption. He also knew that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. So to protect the purity of the church, he demanded -- 150 years before Jefferson -- a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

Massachusetts had no such wall, compelled religious conformity and banished Williams for opposing it. Seeking "soul liberty," he founded Providence Plantations and established an entirely secular government that granted absolute freedom of religion. The governing compact of every other colony in the Americas, whether English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, claimed the colony was being founded to advance Christianity. Providence's governing compact did not mention God. It did not even ask God's blessing.

Williams next linked religious and political freedom. It was then universally believed that governments derived their authority from God. Even Winthrop, after being elected governor in Massachusetts, told voters, "Though chosen by you, our authority comes from God."

Williams disputed this. Considering the state secular, he declared governments mere "agents" deriving their authority from citizens and having "no more power, nor for longer time, than the people ... shall betrust them with." This statement sounds self-evident now. It was revolutionary then.

The U.S. Constitution, like Providence's compact, does not mention God. It does request a blessing, but not from God; it sought "the blessings of liberty," Williams' "soul liberty." As Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "This freedom was first in the Bill of Rights because it was first in the forefathers' minds; it was set forth in absolute terms, and its strength is its rigidity."

Eight years after the Constitution's adoption, the Senate confirmed this view in unanimously approving a treaty. It stated: "[T]he government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Yet the argument continues. Presidential candidates and evangelicals ignore American history and insist on injecting religion into politics. They proclaim their belief in freedom -- even while they violate it.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is basically a story of how men with position, power, and money can mistreat their poorer neighbors, black and white, and walk away with lily-white hands, their aristocratic noses held high. I never thought I'd be rooting for Huey Long to become governor of Louisiana but compared to the power structure he was replacing, he was a knight in shining armor.

The river that weaves through the story is of course, the Mississippi, and the author begins in the mid-1800s up through the great flood of 1927, and a few years beyond. He has some astounding history to tell us:

* The 1920s version of the Ku Klux Klan failed, not because it didn't have grassroots support, but because it had never been visualized as an organization like, say, the Kiwanis. It was basically set up as a pyramid scheme to sell memberships with weird titles like 'kleagle,' 'wizard,' 'exalted cyclop,' and 'hydra of the realm.' Klansmen ended up as elected officials in several states, but squabbled over the membership fees, defrauded members of their contributions, and sank quickly out of sight, although not quick enough for some.

* One of the chief Mississippi Delta plantation owners, LeRoy Percy, kicked the Klan out of his county, calling them 'spies, liars, [and] cowards.' Later, he blocked the transportation of black flood refugees from his county, afraid that once they left they'd never return. So his sharecroppers spent a miserable few months on the levee with inadequate food, shelter, and medical attention, forced into work gangs to repair the levees.

* The engineers who originally surveyed the Mississippi River in order to recommend flood-control measures were flatly opposed to a levees-only policy.
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John Barry's account of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 includes the roles that members of my family played in the flood's aftermath and also in the creation of Delta levees during the 19th century. He got almost everything right - including his depiction of the homosexuality of my cousin, William Alexander Percy , who published a classic memoir of Southern life, Lanterns on the Levee, a bestseller still in print today. When the flood hit, inundating Will's home town of Greenville, Mississippi, the mayor appointed him chief of an emergency relief committee.
All went well until Will's father LeRoy objected to Will's plan to evacuate thousands of black sharecroppers marooned on the levee. LeRoy feared that if the sharecroppers left the Delta they would never return. He insisted they go for a walk together. The only first-hand report we have of what Will and LeRoy discussed is Will's description in Lanterns. I do not think that Will told the full story, but we do know that LeRoy extracted an agreement to consult one last time the members of his emergency committee, and that not long after, the barges waiting on the river to take the refugees were sent down the Mississippi empty.
John Barry does not speculate as I do that LeRoy threatened Will on account of his homosexuality, but he rightly concludes that the frail, literary gay son could not stand up to his domineering father. Rising Tide provides an accurate analysis of their relationship, in the process giving the fullest public account to date of Will's sexual nature. He describes Will's affairs with three of his black chauffeurs--a subject that not even Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of House of Percy, discusses. Barry's book is important for our family pride, though most of my Southern cousins do not agree.

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No one remembers the 1927 flood, or even that it happened; but it was the events surrounding that single event which more than anything else gave us modern America, and John Barry's book is essential to understanding it.
Obviously the book gives a full account of the flood itself, of the history of the river and of the delta, of the people who carved a nation out of wilderness and who lived and died in the catastrophe; without a doubt, Barry does all this, and does it in gripping style: the book is hard to put down.
But Barry does far more. In telling the story, he shows how a heretofore anti-socialist America was forced by unprecedented circumstance to embrace an enormous, Washington-based big-government solution to the greatest natural catastrophe in our history, preparing the way (psychologically and otherwise) for the New Deal. He shows how this was accomplished through the Republican (but left-wing) Herbert Hoover, who would never have become President without the flood. Most importantly, he shows how Hoover's foolish, all-encompassing arrogance single-handedly drove the backbone of the Republican Party -- African Americans -- away from the GOP and into the arms of the segregationist, generally pro-KKK Democrats (a truly amazing feat). It is an amazing tale indeed.
It holds important lessons for the future as well. Hoover's loss of the black community is a lesson virtually unknown to modern readers (who generally assume they just drifted away under the New Deal), and holds important (and perhaps urgent) lessons for modern Democrats and Republicans alike.
But on a more fundamental level, the book teaches us the power of the river, a lesson we've forgotten even in the face of some reasonably large modern floods.
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