Scott Martelle: Floods, Literature, and History





It was a different time and a different place, but Zora Neale Hurston touched on the present when she wrote "Their Eyes Were Watching God," about black life in South Florida, where even the miseries of the Great Depression were overwhelmed by the agonies unleashed by nature.

A hurricane had come, Hurston wrote in 1937, and the levees that contained the Everglades' Lake Okeechobee couldn't stand up to the storm. The "beast had left its bed.... He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the [cabins]; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors." A 10-foot wall of water chased the near-dead across the lowlands, "rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses.... The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel."

Hurston might have been writing about real events. A 1928 hurricane forced Lake Okeechobee over its banks, killing more than 1,800 people, and she lived through a hurricane while visiting the Bahamas a year later. But untethered from reportage, the primal scene touches deep-seated fears that have made cataclysmic storms and floods recurring themes in the human story, such as ancient creation myths and Noah's famous struggle in the Bible, movies such as"Key Largo," Delta blues, George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess," and Junichiro Tanizaki's novel "The Makioka Sisters."

Real floods, be they spawned by hurricanes or deluges, hold similar fascination. Popular historian David McCullough's first book, "The Johnstown Flood," which is still in print, was a surprise bestseller in 1968. And in 2000, Erik Larson hit international bestseller lists with "Isaac's Storm," about the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, killing more than 8,000 people.

And the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina will soon be documented in at least one quick-turnaround book. New Orleans writer Douglas Brinkley is shooting for an early 2006 release of a book that will provide "analysis and narrative" of the disaster, according to Publishers Weekly.
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"Rather than couching floods in terms of punishment and redemption, blues renditions see floods as just another deliverer of pain," said Evans, a University of Memphis professor whose essay on the 1927 flood and the blues will be included in the upcoming "Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History," edited by Robert Springer.

"There were already so many religious songs about the biblical flood, and they tended to be revived when floods hit," Evans said, adding that blues songs generally "are accounts of personal suffering or personal experience."

But literature is where our stories get archived and our lessons preserved. Russell Dynes, cofounder of the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center, believes the commonness of floods is what gives them a universal application.

Early civilizations arose on navigable rivers and other waterfronts, places that gave life but also took it away in unpredictable fashion. Most cultures have their own flood myths or creation myths that involve a great flood.

The theme is so pervasive that some scholars believe there might have been a cataclysmic event in early history that affected a wide range of cultures. Others believe that water and our relationship with it is a universal experience, open to flexible interpretation.

"It's a familiar hazard around the world, and people can visualize it and its consequences much better than a hurricane or earthquakes or things like that," Dynes said. "It does lend itself to, if you are looking for it, a creation myth more so than any other hazard. It creates a blank slate on which people can write. And they can be interpreted in a lot of ways -- as punishment in certain ways, and as a point of creation in others."

[Editor's Note: This is a long excerpt from a much longer piece available at the LA Times' website.]

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