Cultures give us guardrails for behavior, beyond which we can only pass with difficulty. They also give us what to say in a difficult situation, a script that helps us to get the words out, even gives us a template for how to behave. Sometimes these guardrails shift, and the scripts and templates are rewritten.
In her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity, from the Jamestown Colony to the Jonestown Flood, Cynthia Kierner describes the ways in which people (particularly in North America) gradually began to speak of disaster in the way that we do now. From the “starving time” at Jamestown in 1609, to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, Kierner chronicles not the disasters themselves so much as the response to the disaster. The results might surprise you. “Although how we interpret and respond to disasters has changed in some ways since the nineteenth century, Kierner demonstrates that, for better or worse, the intellectual, economic, and political environments of earlier eras forged our own twenty-first-century approach to disaster, shaping the stories we tell, the precautions we ponder, and the remedies we prescribe for disaster-ravaged communities.”
Cynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University, and author of many books including Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello.