Cynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Inventing Disaster?
CK: Oddly, the event that inspired the book was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help)—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—what I call a culture of disaster.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing Disaster?
CK: Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over nearly three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. In the book, I argue that this new response to calamity grew out of three developments that scholars associate with the Enlightenment: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; the belief in human agency and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility.
JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Disaster?
CK: What’s not to like about hurricanes, plagues, and exploding steamboats? Seriously, although the book includes engaging disaster stories and vivid contemporary illustrations, I believe that understanding the historical and cultural roots of our own culture of calamity is a prerequisite for assessing how we approach prevention, relief, and recovery efforts in these disaster-ridden times.
For instance, our approach to disaster today, as I said, is rooted in an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in humanity’s ability to conquer and control nature. Is that confidence sustainable now—was it ever? Should disaster prevention be a matter for government mandates, or for community voluntarism? Should disaster relief be a social priority, and, if so, which people or entities should provide aid to disaster victims and how should it be funded? Is disaster relief first and foremost an expression of sympathy, or an effort to maintain social order? How do disaster stories, in the media and elsewhere, shape our often-conflicted understandings of why disasters happen and how we should plan for them and react in times of crisis? These questions, which were first pondered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to drive the debates we have about disasters in twenty-first-century America.
For those less interested in current events, the book also offers a different perspective on topics ranging from the changing role of the state (in the British Empire and later in the American Republic) to the evolution of print and visual culture in post-revolutionary America.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CK: I decided to be a historian when I was in college. I entered university expecting to go to law school. But then I met some law students, saw what they were reading (and writing), and decided that history would be much more fun. I was torn between doing British and American history. Being an early Americanist seemed like the perfect compromise.
JF: What is your next project?
CK: I have several. First, I am coediting a collection of essays on American disasters. I also have two smaller-scale early American projects: a cultural history of the earliest U.S. censuses and an article-length study of a remarkably interesting and outspoken woman in revolutionary North Carolina. My next book-length project, however, will likely be a biography of Joan Whitney Payson, art collector, patron of the arts, horse enthusiast, and founding owner of the New York Mets.
JF: Thanks, Cynthia!