Monday, December 2, 2019

Cynthia A. Kierner's "Inventing Disaster"

Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the first page of the fourth of six chapters of Inventing Disaster. Titled "Benevolent Empire," this chapter examines how colonial Americans increasingly expected disaster relief from Britain after 1755, when the king and Parliament sent the impressive sum of £100,000 in aid to Portugal after a massive earthquake annihilated Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. The first page of this chapter reads as follows:
The Lisbon earthquake was more a turning point than a starting point in the history of British benevolence. In addition to local philanthropy to aid the poor and the sick at home, eighteenth-century Britons sometimes sent charitable gifts to the king’s American subjects. The most impressive case of British aid to colonists came in response to the Charleston fire of 1740, when the relief efforts of colonial governors, London merchants, and others were supplemented by a sizable contribution from the king and Parliament. Government relief for Charleston, which was not widely publicized, was an act of statecraft designed primarily to preserve order in a valuable colony that seemed vulnerable to slave insurrections and also to Spanish attacks from nearby Florida. In 1755, by contrast, disaster relief for Lisbon, whatever its other purposes, was presented and perceived as state-sponsored humanitarianism first and foremost.

Despite the outpouring of support for Charleston in 1740, colonists’ routine and explicit expectation of relief from Britain in the aftermath of disasters was a post-Lisbon development. The king’s gift to Portugal was a grand gesture that resonated profoundly among subjects who cherished the ideal of a benevolent monarch. Fortified by the lessons of Lisbon, colonists sought help from the mother country in the wake of calamity. More often than not, Britons assisted colonial disaster victims but—like the £20,000 dispatched to Charleston, a city that had suffered some £250,000 in fire-related losses—the sums provided were less a practical remedy for a dire situation than a performance of benevolence…
In some ways, the Page 99 Test works for Inventing Disaster, but in others it does not. On the one hand, this page points readers to several important issues at the heart of my story, most notably the increasingly dependable spread of information about disasters across the Atlantic world, the clamor of affected populations for post-disaster assistance from both government officials and private charities, and the idea that humanitarian aid could be deployed both to relief suffering and to maintain order. (Spoiler alert: disaster survivors were less apt to expect, and even less likely to get, relief in post-revolutionary America.) On the other hand, because the material on page 99 is overwhelmingly argument and analysis, it is not really representative of the entire book, which is full of graphic and heart-wrenching disaster stories and also some terrific illustrations.

Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of the idea and culture of disaster over nearly three centuries. I argue that a new modern response to calamity grew out of three Enlightenment-inspired developments: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; belief in science, human agency, and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility. Page 99 stands more or less midway between the beginning and end of my story. In the Jamestown colony (1607) famines, diseases, and other deadly things routinely happened, but few people knew about them and no one really sought to relieve the suffering or even to prevent it in the future. By the time we get to the Johnstown flood (1889), disaster relief and prevention, as well as the popular culture of calamity, looked in most respects much like it does in twenty-first-century America.
Learn more about Inventing Disaster at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue