The Author’s Corner with Cynthia Kierner

inventing disasterCynthia 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!

Remembering Ethan Schmidt

Yesterday I published a post on Ethan Schmidt, the Delta State University early American historian who was shot in his office yesterday. While surfing the net today, I found a moving tribute to Schmidt from one of his mentors in the Ph.D program at the University Kansas.


Here is a taste of Jonathan Earle’s remembrance at Talking Points Memo:

I also fondly remember his stack of recommendations from teachers and mentors at his undergraduate institution, Emporia State University, where he also earned his master’s degree. What these letters promised – and Dr. Schmidt delivered, in spades – was a deeply thoughtful and unabashedly enthusiastic student of history. As he said in an interview on the American Historical Association site, history was, to him, at “the very core of what it is that makes us human.”

What is also interesting, at least to me, is that Dr. Schmidt became an accomplished historian of how, in his words, the “use of force [came to] seem unquestioned” as a Euro-American right in pursuit of property in 17th-century Virginia. Central to his dissertation (which he revised into his first book), was an attempt by a settler named Nathaniel Bacon and an army made up of servants, slaves, and poor Virginians to “ruine and extirpate all Indians in Generall.” The ensuing months of warfare that became known as Bacon’s Rebellion remained a particularly terrifying and potent memory for colonists well into the era of the American Revolution. That someone who so well understood American violence in one century became a victim of it in ours is both ironic and deeply sad.

Sad because not only have we lost a particularly good man – and teacher, and colleague, and scholar – but also someone who had in his short time on the planet already thought deeply about history, and discovery, and what makes Americans tick. Here’s how he put it in that AHA interview: “I value the fact that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is honored in the profession. We never accept the conventional wisdom or current paradigm as an acceptable answer. To be a historian (and a practitioner in any other humanities field for that matter) is to grapple with the very core of what it is that makes us human. Our triumphs, our tragedies, our flaws, and our strengths are all laid bare by the scholarly study of history and without this kind of inquiry there is little hope for mankind I think.”

It would be hard to improve on that.

Pray for the Family of Ethan Schmidt

This strikes way to close to home. 


As many of you already know, Ethan Schmidt, an early American history professor at Delta State University in Mississippi, was killed today in his office. I did not know Ethan, but he was recently featured at the blog of the American Historical Association.  Here is a taste of that interview

When did you first develop an interest in history? I grew up in a family that valued history. 

My parents were both involved in historic preservation. My father is a collector of Civil War and other 19th-century Kansas memorabilia. Both he and my mother have always exhibited considerable interest in 19th-century America, so I came of age with parents and extended family members who were as often as not engaged in some kind of discussion in which history played either a primary or tangential role. When I went to college at Emporia State University, I was originally a political science major (I wanted to be an attorney). I took US history to 1877 from Christopher Phillips (now with the University of Cincinnati) and loved it and him. I made history my minor, but continued to take every class with Chris that I could. Finally, one day I was leaving class my junior year I saw a flyer which listed the requirements to major in history and I realized I was only about six hours short. I was questioning my desire to go to law school at that point as well, so I went straight to the History Department office and declared a dual major in political science and history. Not long after that, Ronald McCoy (now at Oklahoma State University) introduced me to ethnohistory and I was hooked! 

What projects are you working on currently? My first monograph, The Divided Dominion: Social Conflict and Indian Hatred in Early Virginia, is currently in production with the University of Colorado Press and should be published sometime in 2014. My second project, a synthesis of the Native American experience in the American Revolution tentatively titled The Greatest Blow That Could Have Been Dealt Us: Native Americans and the American Revolution, is under contract with ABC-CLIO. 

I understand that Ethan was a real family man.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this tragedy.

Studying *Breaking Bad*

I have never seen an episode of the television series Breaking Bad, but I hear a lot about it from Jim LaGrand, my friend and fellow professor in the Messiah College History Department.  When you mention the show to Jim, he gets a big smile on his face and proceeds with a small speech about the tragic dimension of life in this world.

Last year Jim and Messiah College librarian Jonathan Lauer taught a course devoted entirely to the show. This year Jim is at it again. The interdisciplinary course is titled  “The Wages of Sin is Death: Breaking Bad as the New American Tragedy.” It even has a website!

Over the course of the semester students in this course watch the entire Breaking Bad series and read:

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Here is part of course description:

A number of serialized TV dramas over the past decade or so have led many critics to call this period “the golden age of television.”  No show better epitomizes this label than Breaking Bad.  Its thrilling plots and cliff-hangers have won it millions of viewers.  But it’s more than a pop culture phenomenon.  Creator Vince Gilligan’s show stands out for its novelistic structure and sensitive examination of characters’ inner lives.  Even more remarkable for a television program, Breaking Bad provides a relentlessly honest picture of the human condition–both its vices and virtues.  The show’s depictions of the seven “deadly sins” or “capital vices”–especially pride, envy, greed, and wrath–have led many viewers to recall Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.  Acclaimed not only by the public but also by television and literature critics, Breaking Bad is uniquely well-suited among television shows for study and reflection in a classroom context.

You can see the syllabus here.  

Check out Jim’s essay “Breaking Bad for Christians: A Morally Ordered Show.”

Tal Howard on Newtown and the Massacre of the Innocents

I have been meaning to do a post on Tal’s Anxious Bench piece every since I read it over the Christmas holiday.  It is a powerful reflection on the relationship (or lack thereof) between theology and politics in the wake of tragedy.  Here is a taste:

Depictions of the massacre vary in content and style, but a common motif shows Herod, ensconced in the arrogance of political power, on one side of the painting, separated from a throng of powerless, weeping women on the other.  Between them, one sees a jumbled scene of dead and dying babies and their obedient executioners. 

Neither the liturgy of the Holy Innocents nor artistic depictions of the theme attempt to “solve” the raw experience of tragedy–even as it is certainly to be understood as taking place within the larger Salvation Story.  Arguably, both liturgy and art intensify the feeling of anguish. They call a spade a spade: “Look hard,” they say, “at the dead children; this is unimaginable, gut-wrenching sorrow.”  But in doing so, they make us realize that there are regions of human experience that transcend the political, the practical—regions that cannot be fixed, and only beckon, plaintively and even angrily, for a theological response.  They escort us from the op-ed realm of the remediable to the numinous realm of the why. 

Remedies and political solutions of all sorts, of course, should be sought out after events like the Newtown shooting.  As seekers of Shalom, Christians should be at the very forefront in proposing them.  But we should also remember that our humanity is compromised when we ignore or subsume the theological into the political alone.  The Feast of Holy Innocents and artistic renderings of the theme provide a supra-political “space” for us to ponder—simply ponder—unspeakable sorrow and our most vexing questions.  They do so most compellingly when they are faithful to the biblical text, as when the Gospel of Matthew reaches back to the book of Jeremiah, and offers us only these sparse, disconsolate words:

A voice was heard in Ramah

Wailing and loud lamentation

Rachel weeping for her children;

She refused to be consoled,

Because they were no more.

Springsteen and Van Zandt Play Oslo Memorial Concert

From Backstreets:

Musicians, authors, and other notables gathered today to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utøya with a memorial concert in Oslo, in the harbor area just outside the Town Hall. Interspersed between performances by major local musicians were short spoken-word segments by authors, survivors of the attack, and a speech by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The 90-minute performance was broadcast nationwide and free and open to the public. An estimated crowd of 50,000 was in attendance, defying gray and rainy skies.

The Norwegian press had been making much of the coincidence of Springsteen’s Norwegian shows taking place around the same time as the troubling anniversary, and over several months, wishful thinking turned to rumors, to counter-rumors, and back to strong rumors that Bruce might make an appearance. Wary of overshadowing the nature of the event, concert arrangers made a point to neither confirm nor firmly deny his involvement, but towards the end of the concert, a couple of highly anticipated international performers were announced. 

Springsteen emerged with Little Steven, Bruce with his harmonica and both men carrying acoustic guitars. “Steve and I are honored to be included here tonight, and for all of us who love democracy and tolerance, it was an international tragedy,” Bruce told the assembled crowd in Oslo. “I want to send this out as prayer for a peaceful future for Norway, and dedicate it to the families who have lost their loved ones.” A touching and powerful “We Shall Overcome” followed, as an appreciative crowd gently waved roses above their heads. It was an excellent, understated selection for an event dedicated to the virtues of peace and tolerance; it was an also appropriate nod to the country that, more than any other, embraced Bruce’s We Shall Overcome album.