- Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Ice—Oh My!
Disasters became the focus of sustained scholarly inquiry in the United States only in the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. government funded research to assess the impact of natural disasters on civilian populations as part of a more general effort to plan for possible nuclear attacks. The idea that studying so-called natural disasters could help Americans prepare for a human-made debacle was unwittingly prescient. Most scholars today, in fact, question the time-honored binary between “natural” and human-made disasters, arguing that nearly all are to some degree the result of human agency.
Humanities scholars were relative latecomers to disaster studies, and most notable early work from historians came from outside the discipline’s academic mainstream. Charles E. Rosenberg, author of the classic The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (1962), is, strictly speaking, a historian of science and medicine. Popular historian David McCullough was an editor and journalist when he wrote The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating ‘Natural’ Disasters America Has Ever Known (1968).
A growing number of historians now believe that studying disasters is both intrinsically important and revelatory in a broader sense. Some examine past disasters to historicize—and to critique—current disaster-related attitudes and policies. In Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America (2000), Ted Steinberg concluded that government officials and corporate leaders, past and present, routinely evade responsibility for negligence or bad policy choices by characterizing disasters as unavoidable acts of God or Nature. In The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (2007), Kevin Rozario explained how Americans came to accept vulnerability and risk [End Page 627] in exchange for profit and comfort, and to embrace the paralyzing delusion that casts disasters (and the rebuilding in their wake) as agents of progress. Analyses of specific disasters can also be insightful. Special issues of the Journal of American History have examined the defining U.S. disasters of the new millennium—the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Katrina—from various perspectives, situating these recent horrors in their broader historical contexts.1
Historians have also gravitated toward disasters as a result of intellectual trends within the discipline. Studying hurricanes, droughts, and earthquakes makes sense for environmental historians, who are interested in how the natural environment shapes human societies and cultures and how, in turn, human activity alters the natural world. Fires, floods, and famines produce discourses that afford cultural historians insight into religion, science, identity, memory, and other issues. Certain types of disasters—such as epidemics and climate change—are also appealing topics in Atlantic or global history. Microbes and climatic conditions, like ideas and people, readily transcend national boundaries.
While neither Conevery Bolton Valencius nor Gillen D’Arcy Wood situates their work explicitly in the field of disaster studies, their recent books clearly contribute to this historiography, and together they exemplify the varied approaches of scholars who do disaster history. Valencius is a cultural historian who recovers the history of the three New Madrid earthquakes, which convulsed what is now southwest Missouri in 1811–12, to discern their transformative impact on “the social, political, religious, and territorial upheavals of the moment” (p. 9). Her overarching objective, however, is to show how knowledge of the quakes was made and spread—by travelers, officials, Native Americans, and the general public—and to understand how and why the New Madrid story was later forgotten and even suppressed. Wood is a literary scholar who situates the 1815 eruption of the volcano Tambora in a global context, contending that it initiated a three-year cycle of climate change, floods, droughts, and famines worldwide, with dire and enduring consequences. Wood finds evidence of the cultural impact of...