Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

Univ. of North Carolina. Nov. 2019. 304p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781469652511. $34.95; ebk. ISBN 9781469652528. SOC SCI
This latest by Kierner (history, George Mason Univ.; Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello) focuses on how a ritualized and predictable American culture of calamity has evolved for all types of disasters. This standardized reaction encompasses actions such as the counting of losses in both property and life, a search for causes and/or blame, a surge of human-interest stories after disasters, and a variety of relief efforts. Kierner argues that this culture stems from actions taken starting in the late 1600s with the calamities affecting the Jamestown colony and reach the modern equivalent with the Johnstown, PA, flood in the late 1880s. In between those bookending events, other incidents served to solidify America’s modern disaster culture. Kierner surveys a number of these, from shipwrecks and theater fires to floods and steamboat explosions, in order to show how all contributed to the realization of a standardized cultural response to disastrous episodes in history.
VERDICT Using an array of resources from primary sources such as local newspapers and secondary sources written both then and now, Kierner presents an in-depth, well-researched and persuasive thesis for the beginning and eventual continuation of a cultural mind-set that has remained fairly intact since the 19th-century. Even with its academic presentation, this should be enjoyed by readers who appreciate disaster histories.

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