Costanzo on Kierner, 'Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood [x-posted from H-Early America]

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Cross-posted from  H-Early America

Cynthia A. Kierner
Adam Costanzo

Costanzo on Kierner, 'Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood'

Cynthia A. Kierner. Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 304 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5251-1.

Reviewed by Adam Costanzo (Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) Published on H-Early-America (February, 2021) Commissioned by Patrick Luck

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In her preface to Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, Cynthia A. Kierner explains that present-day disasters, in particular Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, inspired her to begin investigating early American disasters and how they might help locate “the historical roots of our contemporary culture of disaster” (p. xiii) so that we might be better able to “make decisions about how we handle and think about disasters” (p. 2). Reading her work along the Gulf Coast, where my city narrowly missed the brunt of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and has since felt glancing blows from smaller storms, and during a year in which the slower-motion calamities of global climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have so dominated our lives, I found myself appreciating the value of Kierner's undertaking. 

Throughout Inventing Disaster, Kierner deftly weaves together micro-histories of individual disasters and calamities with a macro-level discussion of the changing ways society in the British Atlantic world understood and responded to such events. As she puts it, the book is “less a descriptive narrative of specific incidents than a cultural history of the idea of disaster and of responses to calamities” (p. 2). 

Beginning with the deadly first decades of life in the Jamestown colony, Kierner makes her way across the next three centuries exploring shipwrecks, storms, plagues, earthquakes, fires, floods, and steamboat explosions as well as the public responses to them. Tracing change across these three centuries in the main text and pointing at some additional developments in the twentieth century in her introduction and epilogue, Kierner broadly succeeds at her stated goal of understanding how we developed our modern culture of disaster. Along the way, she unearths the Enlightenment roots of the modern understanding of disaster and identifies some of the ways that the cultures of calamity that developed in Great Britain and in the new United States diverged in the aftermath of the American Revolution. 

Inventing Disaster divides neatly into three connected pairs of chapters, each marking a step in the development of the cultures of disaster in the British Atlantic. The first chapter, about the trials and tribulations of the colony at Jamestown “emphasizes the premodern orientation” of the discussion of and the responses to the starvation, disease, Native conflict, and financial losses that defined life in the colony up through the 1620s (p. 14). Few English people learned of the desperate state of the colonists in Virginia because the events occurred prior to the development of a robust English print culture and because the Virginia Company’s agents and investors were not keen to publicize their failures. Kierner analyzes the works of those who did publish about the colony, including Captain John Smith, as well as those who wrote about the dangers of early colonization such as William Shakespeare, whose play The Tempest is based loosely on a ship called the Sea Venture which had wrecked on its way to Virginia. She concludes that the events in Virginia “did not add up to ‘disaster’ in early seventeenth-century English discourse” (p. 19). Instead, the English viewed these tragedies as “the consequences of human failure or as the bitter fruit of divine providence” (p. 15). 

The second chapter examines the ways that, across the seventeenth century, shipwrecks marked the transition away from this premodern viewpoint and “became the archetype for an emerging culture of disaster in the Atlantic world” (p. 38). As colonization and trade expanded, ever more ships set out from the English shores. At the same time, a vibrant print culture began to grow in the British Atlantic world. Through her analysis of the many reports about shipwrecks in newspapers around the British Atlantic, Kierner shows how the premodern providential focus was giving way to a more modern understanding of these disasters, one steeped both in science and in sentiment. She identifies this modern approach as rooted in three changes brought by the Enlightenment: the increased spread of information, “belief in human agency and progress,” and “a new appreciation for humans’ capacity to respond to the suffering of others with genuine fellow feeling, a quality known as sensibility” (p. 4). In shipwreck stories printed in newspapers as well as in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which was published in 1722 and described a 1665 plague in London that killed as many as one hundred thousand people, Kierner identifies a set of three approaches to writing about disaster that endures as a key feature of the modern culture of disaster: quantitative and empirical observation of the event, efforts to induce sympathy or other emotions through description of human loss or suffering, and “a real or rhetorical commitment to relieving suffering and preventing future tragedies” (p. 61). 

The third and fourth chapters explore the public and governmental understanding of disasters in the context of British imperialism and colonization. Looking first at the British response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1775 and then at five disasters that struck in the British Atlantic colonies between 1760 and 1780, Kierner identifies a shift in the role played by the British Empire in response to disasters. Resulting in the loss of as many as forty thousand lives, the Lisbon earthquake became a cultural touchstone in the British Atlantic, spurring accounts, prints, poems, and sermons. Kierner notes that these materials also reflected the transition away from the prior understanding of earthquakes as representative of divine wrath and toward the modern approach of scientific understanding of the quake and emotional connection with the victims. In addition, she asserts that King George II’s decision to provide one hundred thousand pounds sterling in funds and provisions to the ailing Portuguese nation represents a new focus “on disaster relief and benevolence toward sufferers in times of crisis, which some were coming to see as a defining characteristic of British national identity” (p. 79). Identifying Lisbon as a starting point for this type of benevolence, Kierner tests for its presence in London’s response to fires in Boston, Montreal, and Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1760, 1765, and 1766 respectively, as well as flooding in Virginia in 1771 and hurricanes that struck the Leeward Islands in 1772 and Jamaica and Barbados in 1780. However, she finds that assistance was not intended solely for the relief of suffering. Instead, the “performance of benevolence was also a tool of statecraft, a political tactic deployed to mitigate colonial discontent, strengthen the imperial bond, and solidify a shared sense of British national identity” (p. 100).

In the fifth and sixth chapters of Inventing Disaster, Kierner turns her attention to the understandings of and approaches to disaster in the early American republic. Here a stark contrast emerges. Without the need to maintain either a far-flung empire or a monarch’s public image, the new American government had little use for performative benevolence. Through analysis of the public responses to famous events like the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and the Richmond Theater fire of 1811 along with less well-known disasters, Kierner finds that disaster relief was viewed as “the voluntary function of virtuous and enlightened citizens who shared a social bond rather than a power or responsibility of a distant government” (p. 142) and that Americans’ distrust of government meant that their responses to disasters “were mostly voluntary, ephemeral, and local” (p. 134). 

While a hands-off federal attitude toward relief remained in place throughout the early republic and antebellum periods, the US government did become deeply involved in the effort to prevent one type of disaster in the early nineteenth century—steamboat explosions. In her final chapter, Kierner shows how these tragedies “came to dominate what was fast becoming an expansive, diverse, and increasingly visual American popular culture of disaster” (p. 178). Spurred by the frequency of these disasters and their cultural prominence, Congress passed bills in 1838 and in 1852 designed to reform the steamboat industry. Passed after steamboatrelated deaths had risen to about two hundred per year, the later of these laws created the first federal regulatory agency and established design, construction, and crew training standards for the industry, all of which represented a substantial administrative response from the relatively small federal government. 

In her epilogue, Kierner addresses some changes in the American response to disaster that followed in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In particular, she focuses on the 1889 flooding of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of a dam break on the Little Conemaugh River that killed at least 2,209 people. Thanks to the telegraph and the railroads, descriptions and images of the devastation in Johnstown spread quickly, drawing assistance from all corners of the United States. This assistance included help from the fledgling Red Cross, which arrived to set up tents and hospitals for the victims. Here Kierner makes the odd point that the absence of assistance from the federal government “belied a modest but significant expansion of federal involvement in disaster relief” (p. 206). Here, she points to the work of Gareth Davies and his assertion that the Civil War and Reconstruction had made federal disaster relief more common. However, bringing the book to a close with discussion of a postwar disaster that did reflect this increase in federal relief efforts rather than one that lacked a federal response would have strengthened Kierner’s contention that the roots of our present-day culture of disaster lay in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. This is especially true given the central role that the federal government now plays in disaster planning, mitigation, and response. 

In all, Kierner offers a clear and cogent analysis of the ways that societies across three centuries of British Atlantic and early US history conceptualized, came to terms with, and then responded to large-scale, sudden, and unexpected loss. Inventing Disaster deserves space on the shelves not merely of historians interested in the niche topic of disaster but of anyone interested in the development during these three centuries of print culture, religion, science, moral philosophy, technology, or government. In addition, Kierner’s easy-to-read prose and relatively short chapters make the work suitable for use in an undergraduate classroom, while her wide source base and combination of micro- and macro-level analysis would provide appropriate fodder for discussion in a graduate seminar.



Citation: Adam Costanzo. Review of Kierner, Cynthia A., Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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