Home > 1930, 1960, American Literature, Short Stories, Wright Richard > Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

  1. buriedinprint
    July 1, 2021 at 12:38 am

    What a powerful pairing. I did not know about the 1927 flood; where would we be, without stories to educate us when our school lessons left a gap! I bet that essay was helpful too. (By the way, Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina too.) Those Folio Editions would be terrific introductions–I can see why you’re drawn to them.

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    • July 1, 2021 at 9:19 pm

      Have a look at the Wikipedia page about this flood. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Mississippi_Flood_of_1927
      It’s horrible and the story reflects what happened.

      I really need to read Salvage Bone. I’m curious about what she writes about life after Katrina.

      Like

      • buriedinprint
        July 2, 2021 at 3:11 pm

        Ohhh, right. Thank you. I think I remember hearing about this in a documentary about Katrina (as a missed opportunity to have addressed some issues previously) and also, I believe, in Naomi Klein’s discussion of similar concerns. Not living in the USA (and I’m sure you can relate to this), I often absorb general ideas and occurrences about American events without pinpointing them to a location and only later do the pieces come together. Maybe I should spend just a little more time with an atlas instead of a novel, but… 🙂

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        • July 4, 2021 at 8:45 am

          About American events. I think we shouldn’t feel guilty about not “pinpointing them to a location and only later do the pieces come together” since they wouldn’t know as much about Canadian or French history anyway.

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          • buriedinprint
            July 15, 2021 at 3:58 pm

            That’s likely true! I’m not concerned about failing an impromptu quiz or anything though…I just want to know. And I guess, as the years pass, it’s not just “the American south” anymore…I am seeing places differentiate, in my reading, and am keen to help that along. Just cuz.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. July 1, 2021 at 4:25 am

    A truly remarkable amount of American art came out of that flood. Songs, especially, and paintings and prints, but also so much literature.

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    • July 1, 2021 at 9:26 pm

      Which flood? The 1927 one or the one after Katrina?

      I’ve read the Wikipedia page about the 1927 Flood, and wow. Talk about a traumatic event for the region and a life-changing event for politicians. 70 000 km² under water. It’s mindblowing.
      And only two years later, the Great Depression started.

      Can you give me examples of art created after this flood?

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  3. July 1, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    The 1927 flood. The “Old Man” section of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God are probably the most prominent novels.

    There are so many songs. “When the Levee Breaks,” now most famous in Led Zeppelin’s version. “Back Water Blues” by Bessie Smith. “High Water Everywhere” by Charlie Patton. Maybe 50 known contemporary blues songs about it. Randy Newman’s (much later) “Louisiana 1927” is a personal favorite.

    I’ve seen lots of paintings or prints, too, often created long after the event by artists who remembered it. No name comes to mind, though.

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    • July 4, 2021 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for all the references!

      Like

  4. July 4, 2021 at 2:38 am

    I’ve been wanting to read Richard Wright for some time, but I didn’t know about these. They sound great, particularly the riverside one. (Though perhaps “great” is the wrong way to describe writing about such a topic.)

    Like

    • July 4, 2021 at 8:49 am

      I realised that my Mom bought me Black Boy in a children collection but I’m not sure I read it then. (This collection had classics like My Sweet Orange Tree, Little Lord Fontleroy…)
      Now I want to read it, especially after reading about it in Mabanckou’s Letter to Jimmy.

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