Turn on the news and it looks as if we live in a time and place unusually consumed by the specter of disaster. The events of 9/11 and the promise of future attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans, and the inevitable consequences of environmental devastation all contribute to an atmosphere of imminent doom. But reading an account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, with its vivid evocation of buildings “crumbling as one might crush a biscuit,” we see that calamities—whether natural or man-made—have long had an impact on the American consciousness.
Uncovering the history of Americans’ responses to disaster from their colonial past up to the present, Kevin Rozario reveals the vital role that calamity—and our abiding fascination with it—has played in the development of this nation. Beginning with the Puritan view of disaster as God’s instrument of correction, Rozario explores how catastrophic events frequently inspired positive reactions. He argues that they have shaped American life by providing an opportunity to take stock of our values and social institutions. Destruction leads naturally to rebuilding, and here we learn that disasters have been a boon to capitalism, and, paradoxically, indispensable to the construction of dominant American ideas of progress.
As Rozario turns to the present, he finds that the impulse to respond creatively to disasters is mitigated by a mania for security. Terror alerts and duct tape represent the cynical politician’s attitude about 9/11, but Rozario focuses on how the attacks registered in the popular imagination—how responses to genuine calamity weremediated by the hyperreal thrills of movies; how apocalyptic literature, like the best-selling Left Behind series, recycles Puritan religious outlooks while adopting Hollywood’s style; and how the convergence of these two ways of imagining disaster points to a new postmodern culture of calamity. The Culture of Calamity will stand as the definitive diagnosis of the peculiarly American addiction to the spectacle of destruction.
Rozario (American studies, Smith Coll.) presents a historical analysis of American perceptions of natural and human-made disasters and their effect on our society. Puritan clergy such as Increase and Cotton Mather regarded calamities as God's instrument for both punishing and correcting humanity, a demonstration of the transient nature of the material world, and a means of increasing participation in religious revival. Natural disasters had consequences that were both positive and negative. New Madrid, MO, never recovered from the massive 1812 earthquake, while San Francisco quickly rebuilt after the one in 1906. Rozario also sites such writers as Williams James about the thrill many survivors felt in experiencing the latter disaster, which he saw as an example of civilized people desiring dangerous but life-validating events. The author goes on to point out how such disasters have expanded the role of local, state, and federal government by means of building codes, establishment of first responders, and laws codifying disaster relief. He examines 9/11, drawing comparisons between the fall of the towers and images in the mass media, and closes with the issues of race and class made evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This interesting, complex examination on how catastrophes have shaped the development of this country is recommended for all libraries.