Long after the dead have been buried, and lives and property rebuilt, the social and cultural impact of disasters lingers. Examining immediate and long term responses to such disasters as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Challenger explosion, American Disasters explores what natural and man made catastrophes reveal about the societies in which they occur.
Ranging widely, essayists here examine the 1900 storm that ravaged Galveston, Texas, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Titanic sinking, the Northridge earthquake, the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, the 1977 Chicago El train crash, and many other devastating events. These catastrophes elicited vastly different responses, and thus raise a number of important questions. How, for example did African Americans, feminists, and labor activists respond to the Titanic disaster? Why did the El train crash take on such symbolic meaning for the citizens of Chicago? In what ways did the San Francisco earthquake reaffirm rather than challenge a predominant faith in progress?
Taken together, these essays explain how and why disasters are transformative, how people make sense of them, how they function as social dramas during which communities and the nation think aloud about themselves and their direction.
Contributors include Carl Smith, Duane A. Gill, Ann Larabee, J. Steven Picou, and Ted Steinberg.
"A provocative and illuminating collection." ~Publishers Weekly
"While we have numerous books about specific disasters, the general subfield of disaster studies in the context of cultural history is just beginning to take shape, and this work will in a way mark its debut. . . . This is one of those rare books that is scholarly and intellectually sophisticated, yet because of the inherent interest in the topic and the literary talent of the authors, it should have significant appeal to the general reading public." ~Paul Boyer,Merle Curti Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"Covering disasters both natural (hurricanes in colonial America, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) and mechanical (the Challenger explosion, Chicago's deadly 1977 el train crash), these essays use contemporary media and political responses to explicate the cultural ramifications of the events. Novels published after the great Chicago fire of 1871 emphasized how the fire was both a punishment for the city's sins and also "the inscrutable workings of a divine hand" to make Chicago a more perfect physical city. Feminist writings used the chivalry of male passengers in the 1912 Titanic sinking to criticize 'the failure of men to protect women and children on shore,' while African-Americans' view of it as a 'white disaster' generated a large body of populist poems and songs that celebrated the absence of black victims…. Biel… has assembled a provocative and illuminating collection." ~Publishers Weekly
"Not earthquakes or oil spills, but the symbolic interpretation of untoward events is under examination here. Writing across the disciplines with a keen eye for difference and power, these students of American society insist that disasters offer no single ‘truth' or ‘lesson' but occasions for articulating and contesting claims on the nation's future. A brilliant thread runs through the collection, illuminating how people make even the most destructive events meaningfuland do so very differently. The authors' consistent attention to cultural interpretations which resist capitalist values and dominant gender and racial hierarchies was especially rewarding. This volume encourages us to think more deeply about what is at stake when disasters unfold in American communities. It should top the reading list of disaster scholars entrenched in the empirical social sciences and attract a new audience of those passionately interested in people, place, and risk." ~Dr. Elaine Enarson,Disaster Sociologist, coeditor of The Gendered Terrain of Disasters: Through Women's Eyes