In terms of scale and scope of destruction, the series of floods that struck the Mississippi River system in the spring of 1927 (now known simply as “the great flood of 1927”) is regarded as one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters. More than 16 million acres of land were inundated, with human and economic devastation so massive as to be scarcely imaginable. According to cultural historian David Evans, “over 162,000 homes were flooded, 41,000 buildings destroyed, between 600,000 and a million people made homeless, between 250 and 1,000 people drowned, and up to a billion dollars in economic losses incurred.” That’s in 1927 dollars, of course, at a time when the entire federal budget hovered around $3 billion. In today’s dollars, the destruction would amount to about $13 billion. The long-term social and political impact of the flood was also enormous, a point Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly make in their authors’ note to The Tilted World, their new novel set during the time of the flood. The great flood, they write, “permanently altered race relations and American politics, causing hundreds of thousands of African Americans to migrate north, ushering Herbert Hoover into the White House, and cementing the belief that the federal government—which had done nothing to help the flood victims—should create an agency to prevent emergencies and assist recoveries.”
Despite its tremendous impact locally and nationally, the flood of 1927, as Franklin and Fennelly further note, remains today a buried cultural memory which they hope their novel will help recover. A similar claim could also be made for another recent novel, Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, which appeared shortly before The Tilted World. If the floodgates haven’t exactly opened, the publication of two novels about a largely forgotten era seems significant, and indeed both novels have generated a good deal of discussion, though often focused on the writers themselves rather than on the depictions of the flood and its aftermath.
This author-directed focus is particularly true in discussions of Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, a novel that follows the disruptions to the lives of several African Americans during the flood and then their struggles to reground themselves over the next fifteen years or so. Aside from some nods to the quality of the writing, a great deal of the media and critical attention given to Southern Cross the Dog has centered on the fact that Cheng is an Asian American from New York City (Queens) who, before his book tour for the novel, had never set foot in the South. Virtually every review and interview calls attention to the great divide between the world of Cheng the man and the world that Cheng the author created. Considerations of that divide have been both Cheng’s blessing and his curse, initially generating a lot of buzz (and no doubt helping him land a gig for Bon Appétit to report on the food he sampled on his book tour through the South) and yet eventually shoving aside any serious consideration of the novel itself. Not surprisingly, Cheng’s patience of late has at times worn perilously thin when the same questions and comments keep coming up. I’m afraid that Cheng has found himself stuck on a tar baby.
Cheng’s defense of his capability to write about African Americans in the segregated South is forthright: The human experiences that are the subject of his novel—fear, love, hated, loss—are universal, not race-determined. “I would posit that the experience of being black or white or Asian or Hispanic or whatever else are the same as any human being,” Cheng comments in a lively conversation with Christine Lee Zilka, an Asian-American writer not entirely comfortable with Cheng’s positions. “We have the same sense of pain and love; we have the same sense of fair play; we equally fall victim to our own anger and pride; we are capable of the same insights, want the same things out of our lives.” When writing about specific situations far from his own, Cheng has repeatedly said, he does what all writers do: extrapolate (a seemingly favorite word of his) from the basic experiences that all humans share. “I can extrapolate, you know, details and memories of pain,” Cheng said in response to National Public Radio’s Kelly McEvers’s question on how he could conjure up the feelings of a black man being whipped at a work camp. “I can extrapolate details and memories of fear.”
What Cheng doesn’t say here, but does elsewhere, is that in writing the novel he was not only extrapolating from his own experiences but also from those expressed in the blues music to which he is so devoted. Indeed, it is Cheng’s fascination with the blues that compelled him to write the novel, and it is to a long list of late blues musicians—including, among many others, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, and Mississippi John Hurt—that he dedicates the novel. “There were whole landscapes that came out of the music—” Cheng says in an interview, “a way of feeling and being that I thought needed to be explored in a book.” That way of feeling is the fatalism embraced by those who feel that the universe is always lined up against them; and it is this fatalism which is felt so deeply by Robert Chatham, Southern Cross the Dog’s protagonist, a young black man whose wandering quest to find a home is set in motion with the onset of the flood.
The “whole landscapes” Cheng mentions apparently have little to do with literal landscapes; what the blues, as well as Cheng’s novel, most forcefully express is a geography of emotion rather than a geography of place. While one expects the downplaying of place in blues songs, such a strategy is more problematic for the novelist, particularly the novelist writing a realistic novel about a specific place during a specific time. This is not to say that Cheng eschews description altogether—of course he doesn’t—but his descriptions of the Mississippi landscape are often uneven in detail and at times untrustworthy. Where Cheng excels is in his descriptions of vistas not specifically Southern—such as the morning sky—or of momentous situations that call for wide-angle viewing, such as the flood breaking through a levee. This, for instance, is a strikingly effective line: “Come dawn a wound of light bellied through the clouds.” And so too are these lines, describing the impact of the surge of floodwater: “Houses rose up, bobbed, then smashed together like eggshells. Homes bled out their insides—bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones—before folding into themselves.”
When it comes to describing specific details about the Mississippi Delta landscape, however, Cheng’s descriptions don’t always ring true. There’s no need to work through all the particulars, but I will mention two disturbing examples. In his powerful description of the flood surge, Cheng writes that the water rushed through the land “snapping boulders through the air.” A powerful image, except that one would be hard-pressed to find any boulders in the Delta, let alone lots of them. More troublesome, for a number of reasons, is his description of a character examining one of the chiggers swarming over him: “He pinched one free, held it between his fingers. Its tiny jaws clamped the air.” If only one could pluck off a chigger and hold it! Anyone who has ever suffered from chigger bites knows that chiggers are so small as to be invisible, the tiniest of specks; they cannot be held between one’s fingers, let alone viewed in any detail, except under a powerful lens or microscope.
Am I quibbling here? No doubt some will think so, but on this issue I side with Eudora Welty, who believed that the writer’s descriptions of place had to be utterly convincing for the reader to respond to the deeper, richer depths of the writer’s imaginative vision. “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress,” Welty observes, adding elsewhere: “The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.” One of the most important lessons Welty says she learned about writing came early in her career when a critic pointed out that one of her stories had the moon rising in the wrong quadrant. “He said valuable words to me about my new profession,” Welty writes. “ ‘Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.’ ” It’s a lesson Cheng might take to heart.
As Cheng makes clear in his interviews, he spent countless hours researching the Mississippi Delta and its history—digging around in libraries, reading memoirs, studying maps, listening to music, looking at photographs, watching documentaries. Or, as he puts it in an interview, “Everything short of boarding a plane, I did.” But getting on the plane to explore the Mississippi countryside himself is probably exactly what he should have done, a point that becomes clear in his Bon Appétit articles, which show Cheng closely observing the land and its folkways, struggling to understand what stretches out before him. In a revealing comment made before he left on his tour, Cheng said that he hoped to swing by the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (where one section of his novel is set) in order to “see how much of that I got right, how much I got wrong.” Shouldn’t an author be worrying about such questions before the manuscript goes to press rather than after? Shouldn’t an author be concerned about getting anything wrong?
When Cheng was twelve, he has said, he and two of his buddies wrote adventure stories in a “fantastical Tolkien-esque world.” In a sense, that’s what we have in Southern Cross the Dog, a compelling tale of a young man cut off from his family and now on a dangerous quest, facing many dangers in a mythical world called Mississippi, a world where the fantastical and the real mix, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. As do many of the blues songs that inspired him, Cheng at his best captures in broad strokes both the beauty and the terror of the African-American experience in the twentieth-century South—even if he gets some details wrong and conjures up some wildly improbable situations (one of which has a group of black men somehow getting a stolen piano past the armed guards of one of the tightly monitored work camps set up during the flood to restrict free movement by blacks).
The problem of authenticity is not an issue in Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s Tilted World, even ifa few plot turns do push toward the implausible. It’s not merely that Franklin and Fennelly live in Mississippi (though in Oxford, not the Delta, and certainly Oxford is anything but your typical Mississippi town), but that Franklin, in his previous novels and stories (Poachers, Hell at the Breech, Smonk, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) has grounded himself thoroughly in the rural and small-town South, precisely where most of The Tilted World takes place. (Fennelly’s contributions to The Tilted World are substantial, but there is no question that the backcountry world of the novel is more connected to Franklin’s background than hers.) He knows the land, knows the folk, knows the language, and he’s comfortable with writing about the marginalized white people of the South, those who have been called by one historian “Dixie’s forgotten people”—forgotten, that is, unless they are being skewered as poor white trash, pinheads, peckerwoods, and worse.
The Tilted World began as a story Franklin and Fennelly cowrote several years ago, “What His Hands Were Waiting For.” Franklin’s agent suggested that he and Fennelly continue their collaboration to make the story into a novel—a suggestion that, Fennelly later said, “sounded crazy, and crazily irresistible.” During the process of their research they came under the spell of John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, a wide-ranging study into the complicated political and cultural history of the flood—including, among other things, the forces at work behind the construction of the levee system, the institution of relief efforts, the enslavement of black populations into levee camps, and the deliberate decision to flood St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes in order to protect New Orleans. In their acknowledgments, Franklin and Fennelly praise Rising Tide as “an amazing work of research and journalism, to which our novel is indebted,” and in the novel itself they at times find ways to insert commentary, not always all that smoothly, that appears to come straight out of Barry. At one point, for instance, two characters have an extended conversation about the flood with Herbert Hoover (whom Calvin Coolidge had appointed as director of relief operations), a conversation that reveals the self-interest driving many of the decisions affecting people and property during the crisis. At another point, the omniscient narrator looks forward years into the future, laying out in detail the historical significance of the flood that one of the characters will eventually learn.
But for all the interest in the larger politics and history of the flood, The Tilted World is first and foremost a love story between Ted Ingersoll, a Federal revenue agent, and Dixie Clay Holliver, a moonshiner. The chaotic times leading up to the flood yoke this unlikely couple together, and then the flood itself washes away all the constraints and difficulties that might drive them apart. Along the way, there are myriad problems to be solved and dangers to be overcome, problems and dangers brought about by both unruly nature and deceitful men, particularly Holliver’s husband. Franklin and Fennelly weave the two storylines together seamlessly.
Seamless, too, is their prose. When I first picked up The Tilted World, I didn’t know what to expect, since I knew Franklin as a novelist and Fennelly as a poet (A Different Kind of Hunger, Unmentionables, Open House, and Tender Hooks). Was this, then, to be a Franklin novel interspersed with Fennelly poems, some sort of hybrid, experimental work similar to Jean Toomer’s Cane? Or was it a more straightforward collaboration? And if so, how did they collaborate? By writing alternating chapters? Or did they literally write the novel together, sentence by sentence? As Fennelly revealed in an interview upon the novel’s publication, they wrote in yet another way. When first starting out, she and Franklin divided up the duties, he working on Ingersoll’s story, she on Holliver’s. But eventually they changed tactics: They talked out a scene they needed and then set off separately to write it. Later they would share what they had done. “Sometimes we’d take all of one person’s, sometimes we’d combine some, or do something different entirely from an idea one of us had gotten from the writing,” Fennelly said, adding: “When we started doing that, the writing became more fun and surprising things were happening.” Fennelly said she felt the process was similar to the way musicians onstage often play off each other, pushed, pulled, and inspired by their partners’ performances.
There’s something of that delight and fun in the very prose itself, though there’s no way I could prove that by pointing to a particular sentence or passage. But you can feel it, just as you can feel how the profound goodness of Ingersoll and Holliver draws their lives together—a goodness, expressed in love, commitment, and sacrifice, that from the very beginning one knows will win out in the end, come hell or high water (and of course both do). This is a decidedly sunnier take on human affairs than one finds in Franklin’s previous novels and stories, which are markedly grimmer and grittier, frequently pushing into the dark territory of early Cormac McCarthy. Certainly the collaboration with Fennelly has much to do with this shift in tone and vision; and indeed, it is perhaps in this move away from the tragic mode that one most notices the hand of Fennelly, whose deeply personal and generous poetry often explores the dynamics of family and parenthood (see particularly Tender Hooks, as well as her collection of letters, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother). Not insignificantly, it seems to be Fennelly’s voice that closes the novel. Holliver is thinking about the story she will eventually tell her infant son, Willy, about the great flood, and what she imagines is the stuff of fairy tale—and poetry: “This story is a story with murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, dynamite and deluge. A ruthless husband, a troubled uncle, a dangerous flapper, a loyal partner. A woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little every day. A man who felt invisible. But most of all, this is a love story. This is the story of how we became a family.”
Where Holliver, Ingersoll, and Willy are headed at the end of the novel—westward toward a new life—is also the stuff of fairy tale, a national fairy tale that from the days of first settlement has fired the American imagination, telling us that when things go bad we can just pack up and head west into the future, leaving the burdens and responsibilities of history behind. “There was the before world, and the after,” Holliver thinks about their journey. “It was a kind of freedom. Starting from scratch, she was. As was Ingersoll. Freed even of the silver weight of his occupation, freed even of the bronze weight of his valor. They could be anyone now.” Were these lines written by William Faulkner, or some other Southern writer haunted by legacy and history, doom and destruction would be lying in wait just around the corner, ready to punish the hopeful dreamer with the knowledge that we never start over with a clean slate, that we can never walk away from the burdens of the past, our own and our culture’s. Perhaps the most haunting line in all of Faulkner, because of the punishing turn of events it presages, is the simple declaration, “I’m free.”
In returning to Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, one can see that it is this Faulknerian knowledge that underlies the novel, expressed so powerfully in Chatham’s fear that he is being pursued, relentlessly and inescapably, by a mysterious black dog. Given Cheng’s fascination with blues music, which largely shares this distrustful vision of human possibility in a forbidding world, finding this perspective structuring his novel is not at all surprising. There’s little of this distrustful vision in The Tilted World, not only because Franklin and Fennelly are not writing about those victimized by segregation, but also because contemporary writers from the South, compared to previous generations, are much more forceful in their tearing off the blinders of traditionalism and their exploring alternative ways of seeing and understanding.
I said at the beginning of this essay that grasping the scope of the great flood’s destruction was scarcely imaginable, but certainly these two novels give us a way to begin. Bringing into the picture earlier literary representations—among others, Faulkner’s Old Man, Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside,” William Alexander Percy’s chapter on the flood in Lanterns on the Levee—along with the historical work of Barry and others, brings us even closer to a fuller canvas. But I don’t think the picture is yet complete—which is another way of saying that the great novel of the great flood of 1927 is still to be written.