- “They’re Trying to Wash Us Away”: Revisiting Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem [The Wild Palms] and Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” After the Flood
- Mississippi Quarterly
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 63, Numbers 3-4, Summer-Fall 2010
- pp. 537-554
- View Citation
- Additional Information
ANTHONY DYER HOEFER George Mason University “They’re Trying to Wash Us Away”: Revisiting Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem [The Wild Palms] and Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” After the Flood IN THE SUMMER OF 2006, JANET MASLIN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES identified two floods born of Hurricane Katrina: “the one that hit the city and the one now hitting bookstores” (E8). Michael Eric Dyson’s ComeHellorHighWaterand Douglas Brinkley’s TheGreatDeluge both came fast out of the gate and serve, to paraphrase Brinkley, as the opening efforts in Katrina scholarship (xix), a new field that will incorporate the works of journalists, historians, sociologists, engineers and planners, and, of course, climatologists, among others. The vast possibilities and permutations of artistic response to Katrina were evident by the fall of 2007: Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint collaborated on the album The River in Reverse, and Bruce Springsteen eviscerated the Bush Administration’s failures in a scathing update of Blind Alfred Reed’s Depression era tune, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times as These and Live?” HBO aired Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, in August of 2006; John Biguenet’s play Rising Water premiered at New Orleans’s Southern Rep Theatre in March 2007. On television, Post-Katrina New Orleans provided the setting for the Fox network’s short-lived 2007 cop-drama K-Ville, and, more recently, the HBO drama series Treme. At least two Louisiana writers have set their works in the recovering city: James Lee Burke’s The Tin-Roof Blowdown takes place after the storm, while the flood and its consequences are the focus of Tom Piazza’s novel City of Refuge. Dave Eggers’s nonfiction narrative Zeitoun explores the convergence of the flood and the War on Terror through an account of one New Orleanians experience, and in A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, the comics writer and artist Josh Neufeld deploys the graphic novel form to relate the story of six different New Orleanians. Katrina even spawned its own 538 Anthony Dyer Hoefer folk medium: refrigerator art, the phenomenon of messages and graffiti art on the discarded refrigerators of New Orleans, collected in the slim, self-published volume, Spoiled, by New Orleans designer Tom Varisco. Neither the preponderance nor the rapidity of Katrina-related texts should surprise us: sufficient outrage, unanswered questions and an indeterminate future, and massive political spin from every angle1 have created the perfect storm, if you’ll pardon the pun, of publishing. Confusion, uncertainty, and anger are hardly limited to New Orleanians and other residents of the Gulf Coast; writers and publishers have a ready-made audience of people thirsting for something, anything., that will help them make sense of what happened. In the immediate aftermath of the storm and flood, of course, such works were unavailable and we had to reach back to find narrative sustenance. Almost immediately, but perhaps too briefly, the refrain of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”—“They’re trying to wash us away”—seemed to take on new, haunting significance in the public consciousness, or at least the consciousness of the storm’s aftermath presented on television through a variety of benefit performances. Newman’s song correctly reminds us that the attempt to understand the consequences of Hurricane Katrina requires us to look into our past. If we think about the potential field of Katrina studies or, perhaps more importantly for the secondary and post-secondary teachers of the Gulf South, when we consider how to teach the flood we will need to look beyond the “New Releases” shelves; Dyson, Brinkley and others may have fired the first salvo into the field of Katrina studies, but the field’s canon begins much earlier, with books like John M. Barry’s monumental Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Likewise, in these first post-storm years, we must revisit the artistic and literary representations of the 1927 flood and begin to construct a new provisional canon around works like Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” and the “Old Man” narrative from Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem [The Wild Palms]. Neither...