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Appetite for destruction

The Culture of Calamity Disaster & the Making of Modern America Kevin Rozario University of Chicago Press: 294 pp., $27.50

July 01, 2007|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

KEVIN ROZARIO opens "The Culture of Calamity: Disaster & the Making of Modern America" by invoking Don DeLillo's 1985 novel "White Noise." It's a telling reference, for "White Noise" is among DeLillo's broadest efforts: accessible, funny, a satire on the disassociation endemic to American life. In it, a Midwestern professor named Jack Gladney meditates on the power of images, especially apocalyptic ones, to pierce the veil of daily artifice. "Only a catastrophe gets our attention," DeLillo writes in a line Rozario uses to open his introduction. "We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else."

Despite the acuity of such a statement, it offers an ironic comment on Rozario's efforts, since it is not disaster DeLillo means to get at but distance, our inability to feel things on their own terms. For DeLillo, calamity is less the point than a kind of metaphor, a reminder that, in mass culture, we not so much act as are acted upon. What's important, in such a formulation, is not the disaster but how it is interpreted and read.

And yet, Rozario's own sense of disconnect, of disengagement, is the most frustrating thing about "The Culture of Calamity," which seeks to frame disaster as a transformative social and economic engine in America since Colonial times. It's a fascinating idea, but in the end, Rozario stands at too great a remove. Part of the problem is his academic approach; an assistant professor of American studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., he writes prose here that is often cluttered with the jargon of the lecture hall.

"[A]ny history of disaster," he notes, "that fails to take into account contexts of modernization and capitalist development is doomed to leave its data cold and inert, bereft of interpretive force and significance." Content aside, this line makes for an almost perfect illustration of Rozario's problems as a writer -- a voice that is (yes) cold and inert itself, even as it suggests a framework in which catastrophe has become a central force in American life. In short, there is no blood here, no sense of disaster as anything more than an intellectual construct, no notion that for calamity to affect us, it must touch our emotions.

That's unfortunate, because Rozario clearly knows the territory of disaster, especially its history in America, beginning with a 1638 New England earthquake and a fire that destroyed "about fifty homes, stores, and warehouses" in Boston's North End on Nov. 27, 1676. This is the best stuff in the book, not just because it's largely obscure (an earthquake in New England?) but also because it allows Rozario to get at the issue of national identity when it was still in nascent form.

What's important about these early disasters, he suggests, is that they fulfilled a Puritan belief in nature as a matter of divine expression from which we might learn to better ourselves. As a result, the Boston churchman Increase Mather (father of the more famous Cotton) interpreted the 1676 fire as "a mild rebuke to inspire the people of New England to acts of moral and spiritual reformation that alone would make them worthy of salvation." This, in turn, helped establish a cultural context in which disaster would be seen in terms of possibility, an opportunity for improvement in the private and the public sphere.

As America grew increasingly industrial, these improvements became less spiritual than commercial, with catastrophes like the 1835 fire that destroyed 17 blocks in lower Manhattan triggering "business activity and economic growth." Perhaps the most profound example of this is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which more than 500 blocks and 28,000 buildings were obliterated, leaving much of the city to be rebuilt.

It's with the 1906 earthquake, however, that Rozario runs into trouble, because of his insistence on defining it as a modernist event. This is the kind of intellectual overlay that gives his book its distance, forcing the facts to fit an argument rather than allowing them to stand for themselves. For Rozario, the earthquake helped institutionalize disaster as a form of entertainment by recasting it as spectacle.

That's a nice enough idea, but much too narrow to account for the reality on the ground. Yes, the 1906 earthquake was the first modern disaster, but not because mass culture framed it as entertainment; rather, mass culture gave us the tools to see it plain. All those photographs ("once the immediate danger was past, amateur photographers were everywhere, flashing away with their portable Kodak Specials" ) are compelling not because they distance us but because they draw us in. Rozario does touch on that briefly: "The earthquake and fire carried people out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, opening them to intense, barely recognizable, emotions." Still, he backs away almost immediately, calling this "a fleeting transcendence" and arguing that many people "were glad simply of the excitement."

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