The Culture of Calamity: Disasters and the Making of Modern America

By Neal, Arthur G. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2008 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Calamity: Disasters and the Making of Modern America


Neal, Arthur G., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Culture of Calamity: Disasters and the Making of Modern America Kevin Rozario, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Professor Rozario examines American responses to disaster from colonial times up to the present. His analysis examines the fascination with catastrophe as well as commitments to rebuilding. The pervasiveness of the American doctrine of progress is reflected in the positive aspects of disaster for the development of capitalism.

In addition to the introduction and the epilogue, the book consists of five major topics: The first focuses on the optimism growing out of catastrophe in Early America; the second concentrates on the San Francisco Earthquake and the Fire of 1906; the third discusses the excitement and sense of enchantment that became a part of the American experience with the San Francisco Earthquake; the fourth examines the nuclear age and the emergence of Federal Emergency Management; and the fifth makes an analysis of the culture of calamity in the age of terror. The epilogue draws upon the theme of "reckoning" in his observations on Hurricane Katrina. In combination, the author's treatment of these themes offers some important new perspectives for an understanding of human responses to disaster.

Americans responded to the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 with a high level of excitement and interest. Newspaper reports, film footage, and later theatrical reproductions of the calamity provided Americans with thrilling and delightful experiences. William James was in San Francisco at the time and described his experience with the catastrophe as one of "pure delight and welcome." Rozario's central thesis holds that modernity creates a "love of disasters," and disaster sentiment contributed substantially to the corporate restructuring of America and to the emergence of mass consumer culture. The "pleasure" of the San Francisco earthquake was by no means universally felt. After all, the city was left "in rubble and ash." Twenty-eight thousand buildings were destroyed and over 200,000 people were left homeless and destitute.

American optimism and a deep-abiding belief in program have shaped corporate and collective responses to calamities. The author draws on the notion of "creative destruction" to describe the capitalist emphasis on constant expansion and renewal of the business enterprise. Following the great fire that burned out several square miles of buildings, the city of Chicago was rebuilt in a grandiose style. Following the San Francisco earthquake, progressive-minded industrialists, merchants, and professionals were determined to rebuild the city by blending artistic form with efficient function. …

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