New Directions in Disaster History
In his 1957 AHA presidential address, William Langer issued what he called the “next assignment” for historians, psychological history. In particular, he urged his colleagues take up the historical effects of catastrophe. “Famine, pestilence, natural disaster, or war,” he speculated, “should leave its mark on the group, the intensity and duration of the impact depending, of course, on the nature and magnitude of the crisis.” Historians, he complained, had little studied the effect of any of these things on individual or group psyches. Langer spoke at the height of the Cold War, and his audience must have heard his concern for understanding the cultural aftereffects of “famine, pestilence, natural disaster, or war” through ears accustomed to hearing warnings of nuclear armageddon. Understanding the effects of disaster on a population and its culture may have seemed like a particularly pressing concern.
More than fifty years later, historians are, perhaps, heeding Langer’s call, albeit not precisely in the way he might have imagined. Just as Cold-War Americans feared they were living at the precipice of total disaster, so too are contemporary Americans particularly aware of the dangers of disaster. Climate change and global urbanization have meant ever growing numbers of extreme weather events and increased casualties when disasters strike. Terrorists and governments claiming to fight them both inflict death and destruction on civilians and their communities. New, internet-enabled communications technologies allow us to watch distant disasters from the comfort of our living rooms and offices, letting us witness earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, and wars that would once have remained nearly invisible to North Americans.
In this context, disaster history is burgeoning. Recent years have seen the publication of books placing disasters in the contexts of social, political, cultural, architectural, and transnational, among other fields. This round-table brings together four Americanist scholars of disasters to talk about the state of the field, and indeed whether "disaster history" really is a field. Drawing on our individual research projects as well as our understandings of the larger field, we will discuss disaster history’s utility to other fields of history; questions of whether disasters change history or a best imagined as a way into understanding preexisting phenomena; and interdisciplinary engagements with other disaster scholarship. Julia Irwin (University of South Florida) will discuss the place of foreign disaster response in 20th-century U.S. foreign relations. Jacob Remes (SUNY Empire State College) writes about working-class responses to urban disasters in the Progressive-era U.S. and Canada. Michele Landis Dauber (Stanford University), a lawyer and historical sociologist, lends an interdisciplinary voice to the conversation, discussing the importance of disaster relief to the creation of the American welfare state. We will be moderated by Ted Steinberg (Case Western Reserve University), an environmental historian and author of a germinal book on the history of disaster in the United States.
As a round-table, we will not be presenting formal papers. Instead, each participant will talk for about ten minutes on the themes described below. Steinberg will then lead us in conversation about disasters and their history.