Moral History: William Cronon, Narrative, and the Moral Imagination

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

I appreciate Cronon’s piece and believe it’s a valuable conclusion to our semester’s readings. For all of our in-class debates about the merits of narrative history, I wish that we had had some exposure to Cronon beforehand to inform our discussion.  Our readings this semester—from McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood to Larson’s Isaac’s Storm—have certainly fostered my own appreciation for narrative histories. But Cronon offers an interesting element of narratives which I hadn’t considered before: the moral dimension of history. As he writes, “historical storytelling keeps us morally engaged with the world” (1375). And his conclusion is an interesting one because, in many ways, it echoes that of that of Edmund Burke, who first penned the term “moral imagination.” According to Burke, the “moral imagination” was the human’s perception which transcended personal, momentary experience and informed one’s ethical judgements. Art and poetry, according to Burke, shaped and directed it’s course. Cronon’s view of narrative is similar, merely exchanging art and poetry for historical storytelling. His argument is rather straightforward: human events and conflicts form our values; historical narratives bring order and precedent to those values, forming “our chief moral compass” (1375).

I happen to appreciate Cronon’s suggestion; my colleague Dan seems to think otherwise. As he sees it, any moral interpretation of history blurs the facts. If moralistic narratives become the predominant historical methodology, he writes, “history will become nothing but an over dramatized HBO version of the current academic field.” Instead, he claims, we ought to strive for  “more objective histories.” He poses the question: “is being emotionally moved necessary to the study of historical events?”

Well, certainly not. But to be clear, Cronon is addressing historical expression, not historical research. Dan is right to think that historians shouldn’t  need to bring boxes of Kleenex with them to the archives. But if Cronon is right in saying that “the questions [historians] ask are all about value,” then questions of moral value are reasonably pertinent—if not necessary (1376). Furthermore, it would seem that to write a good history, the historian ought to engage—at least implicitly—in the moral dimension of her work. Human actions, after all, carry a moral weight, and its up to observers to determine the merits of those actions.

Where I think some—like Dan—may find fault in a moral, historical narrative, however, is in its presumed shift in focus from concrete analysis to abstract description. But according Cronon’s stipulations, to “moralize history” does not water down it down; nor does it alter it. As Cronon writes, readers of history “cannot escape the valuing process defines [their] relationship to it” (1375). What’s important to note here is that, in Cronon’s view, readers do the “moralizing,” not the historians. Certainly a historian crafting a narrative can mold it with various biases—a fact which Dan seems to target exclusively with his “politicizing history” comment—but ultimately, according to Cronon, the historian’s work merely forms the “telos against which [readers] judge the . . . morality of human actions” [emphasis added] (1375). So, perhaps it’s important to bear in mind that, for Cronon, his ‘moral imagination’ informs the reader—not the historian—and the historical craft is left objective and intact.



The ‘Invisible Hand’ Takes Up the Plow: Environmental and Economic Interpretations of the Dust Bowl

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

As my colleagues Price and Molly have shrewdly noted, there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl, one that pits market forces against natural causes. But what’s particularly interesting about this tension, as Price suggests, is its ambiguity. To call the Dust Bowl an environmental disaster is an understatement; to call it an economic tragedy is shortsighted. Instead, I think, we ought to read this particular disaster as a complicated intersection of the two, to understand how people driven by market forces used the land and how, as Molly writes, “the land . . . got its revenge.”

In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz navigates this tension rather well. Though he states initially that his is “a record of lands . . . of soil, rather than people,” he carefully includes explanations of the political and economic forces that motivated the behavior of plains people. Indeed, as Lorentz explicitly highlights, the rising price of wheat and the crisis of war spurred old ranchers in the “cattleman’s paradise” to take up the plow. Contrary Molly’s suggestion, however, I think that Lorentz remains to true to his “record of the lands” even in this coverage of human behavior. As he explains the underlying forces of farm expansion, Lorentz repeatedly invokes the environmental costs and dangers of the wheat boom, interspersing the phrase “high winds and sun” throughout his dialogue. Moreover, with the advent of the Dust Bowl, Lorentz returns to panoramic shots of the landscape—only covered in dust and death, rather than grassy hills. Lorentz, it seems, characterizes the land as a victim at the hands of humans.

That said, I do think that Molly is right in stressing Lorentz’s attention to humans in the film. Though—as I argued above—Lorentz’s primary focus is the victimization of the land, I think there is something to be said for Lorentz’s treatment of plains people. Particularly at the end of the film, he highlights their suffering, characterizing them as he does the land, as victims. He describes them as “blown-out, baked-out, and broke” and later as “homeless, penniless, and bewildered.” Those affected by the Dust Bowl were certainly victimized. The only question is: by whom? Lorentz, I think, leaves a clear, resounding answer to this question at the very end of film: “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

So, in sum, I think that Lorentz balanced the tension between the environmental and economic causes of the Dust Bowl by stressing two, intertwined instances of victimization: the land at the hands of plains people and plains people at the hand of the land.


A Gordian Knot or a Web of Lies?: Steven Biel and the Meaning of the Titanic

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

As we’ve already encountered thus far in the semester, disasters often yield a variety of interpretations. From Father Pernin’s account of the Peshtigo Fire to the “seismic denial” of San Francisco’s leading capitalists, personal motives—whether economic, social, political, or religious—tend to color descriptions and blur otherwise clear observations of human catastrophe. For some, this phenomena would seem a real thorn in one’s side, obscuring the facts of a disaster. But for Steven Biel, it presents an exciting opportunity: the chance to disentangle a web of intersecting, conflicting, and overlapping personal stories, to make sense of a  “diversity of meanings” (118). In Down with the Old Canoe, Biel tackles and interprets this web for himself and—as Dr. Shrout so often encourages us to do in class—”parses out” its various strands to weave a single, intelligible reading.

Well, not really. In reality, the various interpretations of the Titanic were a lot more convoluted and tangled-up than one might think. The disaster itself, Biel writes, was “historically not intrinsically meaningful,” and whatever historical meanings it did offer were “neither simple nor universal” (8). The conventional narrative of chivalric, first-cabin males was nothing but a “myth” in that it “located a disturbing event within routine structures of understanding” (24). The conventional religious interpretation, likewise, owed its existence to the “familiar moral vocabulary” of Protestantism (65). Convenience—whether in the form of a convenient gender or class hierarchy or a convenient religious language—it seemed, determined the Titanic’s various meanings.

But in nearly every instance, ideology also shaped interpretation. Biel notes that just as the conventional narrative reinforced conservative race, gender, and class hierarchies, so too did it undermine ‘traditional values.’ Feminists, for instance, “turned the chivalric myth against itself” (105). Socialists treated the Titanic as  a symbol of Capitalism itself, the iceberg as the imminent threat of Proletarian revolution. African Americans, meanwhile,  stripped the conventional ‘myth’ of its racist connotations to endorse a message of “universal brotherhood” (109). Such a ‘diversity of meanings’ suggested that, despite their advocates claims to timeless truth, interpretations were themselves products of their own time, rooted in an equally tangled social, political, and ideological web. The America of 1912 was “contested terrain” (100). It found itself at the ‘watershed moment’ of a revolutionary, transitional period of American history: the Progressive Era.

As disappointing as it may be to realize that even Harvard’s own Steven Biel can’t find the ultimate strand in this tangled web, the one and only absolutely without-a-doubt true meaning of the Titanic disaster, Biel’s point is an important one. The Titanic was certainly meaningful, but only in that it reflected the social and ideological complexities of a particular historical moment.  As Biel points out, the Titanic really “changed nothing except shipping regulations” (24). Instead, it was the disaster’s role as a sort of blank canvas for American society that created the Titanic‘s meaning.

So, perhaps Nate should consider revising his statement from last week. He claimed that when people attempt to interpret human catastrophes, they tend “to skew their own interpretation of what happened,” thus obscuring the real meaning of the event itself. But what if a disaster, as Biel would suggest, is not ‘intrinsically meaningful’? Well, then it would seem that treating its various ‘meanings’ as a tangled web is futile. Maybe it’s more useful to think of them as a Gordian Knot. Just cut through it all and realize, like Biel did, that ‘meanings’ are historically constructed.

Close to Monongah, Even Closer to a Thesis: Research Update (3/5/14)

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

I realize that this post is a week late. I guess that the lack of assigned reading kept me from looking over the syllabus last week. Still, I figure that a research update could be helpful and maybe—I really hope it does—count as a blog post.

I’m currently half an hour north of Monongah. Initially, I had hoped to visit the town and see the historic mines, cemeteries, and memorials, but  6″ of snow and sub-freezing temperatures have kept me from venturing too far outside. Instead, to escape the cold, I’ve spent the last day in the warmth of the West Virginia Regional History Center. Though I’ve been able to gather some primary sources digitally, the best—that is, the personal letters, company records, and investigative reports from the disaster—are all housed in the Center’s archives. I’ve been lucky to peruse and photocopy the many of these. In addition to these primary sources, I have slowly been working my way through stack of secondary sources. I have found these to be the most helpful in narrowing my thesis.

Though my initial plan was to research the disaster’s death toll and the way it was falsified and reported, I’ve found in my research that not only is this question less feasible than other options. It’s also much less interesting. Plus, a number of scholars have written on the very topic in the last several  years, leaving the question practically null and void. So, I have since changed my focus. By the end of last week, I had three “lenses” through which I planned to examine the disaster and find my thesis: gender, ethnicity, and class. Since nearly half of the victims of the disaster were either Italian-speaking immigrants or illiterate natives, uncovering the various  views of the disaster from ethnically diverse perspectives would be unfeasible. Likewise, interpreting the disaster from the standpoint of gender would be difficult, considering the paucity of surviving letters and records of the women directly involved with the disaster, the 250 widows. So, by process of elimination, I have chosen class.

My research now focuses on the class tensions that arose during the hearings following the disaster and during the subsequent movement to reform West Virginia’s mining laws. Today, I read through the correspondence of West Virginia mining officials and Fairmont Coal Company owners to find primary sources from an “elite” perspective. Tomorrow, I will examine the letters and records of the miners themselves.

So, though I may be close to Monongah, I think that I am even closer to a thesis. Hopefully by the end of tomorrow, as I begin my drive back to Davidson, I will have stumbled upon it. Then, the process of writing really begins.

‘Three-Sixty-One’: Myth, Memory, and the 1907 Monongah Coal Mine Disaster

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

For those who heard the blast at mines No. 6 and No. 8, the number three hundred sixty-one bore a personal significance. Indeed, for many, it was etched in their minds like the mines themselves, cut deep into the grassy hillside along the Monongahela River. It was etched into the mind of Catterina Davia, who in honor of her late husband, Victor, hauled coal from the lowest mines to her house at the top of the hill—four times a day for twenty-nine years. It was etched into the mind of the poet Louise McNeill, who honored the ‘Hunkies,’ the ‘Tallies,’ the natives, and the boys who perished at “ill-starred Monongah.” And it was etched into the mind of Reverend Everett F. Briggs, who faithfully preserved the memory of the ill-fated, immigrant miners, who travelled far across water to die deep underground. For these and others, however, three hundred sixty-one spoke as much to lives lost as to lives never found, the names left absent from the ‘three-sixty-one’ reported dead at Monongah.

For my research proposal, I intend to examine the ways in which the death toll from the 1907 Monongah Coal Mining Disaster was determined, falsified, reported, and preserved to influence relief efforts and to create the mythos of the Monongah disaster. From local gravediggers’ claims of six hundred twenty bodies to the Italian commemoration of over nine hundred deaths, from the embellished casualty report of Mayor W. H. Moore to Reverend Brigg’s estimate of over five hundred lost, the death toll is as significant to the Monongah narrative as the “one survivor” folktale and the runaway minecart that—in regional legend, at least—caused the explosion. In my own research, I hope to contribute to the long-standing narrative of Monongah as well as the recent scholarship that has emerged since the disaster’s centennial in 2007.

Three questions will guide my research: Who were in the mines on December 6, 1907? Who of these persons—if any—were missing from the death reports? And how were these unknown miners remembered?

In my research, I will rely on a collection of both primary and secondary sources. Though the recent scholarship of regional historians Davitt McAteer and Joseph Tropea is most relevant to my proposed topic, I will consult a much broader list of secondary source material, including—though certainly not limited to—works examining the contemporary coal mining industry, the regional histories of immigrant populations, the philanthropic and legislative responses to industrial disasters, and the social histories of coal mining towns. For primary sources, I will likewise consult a breadth of materials. To uncover which miners were listed among the dead, I will consult the records of the Monongah Mine Relief Commission and the Fairmont Coal Company. To understand how the death toll was reported, I will examine national and local newspaper articles detailing the disaster. And to analyze the ways in which unlisted miners were remembered, I will review the poems, stories, songs, and paintings of those who commemorated the disaster. Such research, I believe, will not only shed light on the Monongah disaster narrative, but further explain the significance of ‘three-sixty-one’ in the minds of those for whom Monongah bears a personal significance.

Works Consulted

Briggs, Everett F. “Mine Disaster.” Science 146, no. 3640 (October 2, 1964): 14.

Gunn, Angus M. “Monongah, Pennsylvania, explosion.” In Encyclopedia of Disasters:     Environmental Catastrophes and Human Tragedies, edited by Angus M. Gunn, 231-5.         Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

McAteer, Davitt. Monongah: The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History.     Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2007.

McNeill, Louise. “Monongah (December 6, 1907, Marion County, West Virginia, on the Monongahela River).” In Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems, edited by Maggie        Anderson, 93. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Rittenhouse, Ron. “Catherine Davia’s Memorial Mound of Coal, Monongah, 1907.” 1907. In       Italians in West Virginia, edited by Victor A. Basile, Judy Prozzillo Byers, 31. Charleston,        SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.

Spignesi, Stephen J. “The 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster.” In The 100 Greatest Disasters of All Time, edited by Stephen J. Spignesi, 216-9. New York: Citadel Press, 2002.

Tropea, Joseph L. “Monongah Revisited: Sources, Body Parts, and Ethnography.” West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies 7, no. 2 (2013): 63-91.

——. Review of Monongah: The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History, by             Davitt McAteer. Appalachian Journal 35 (2008): 358-64.

“December 6, 1907: Monongah Twin Mines Disaster.” In West Virginia Disasters. Logan, WV:   The Logan Banner, 2003.

Natural Teleology: the Railroad and the “Natural” History of Chicago

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

Our readings this week bridge a divide that I’ve seen in our previous readings: a disjunction between urban, economic, and environmental history. Rozario overlapped urban and economic history, Matthews environmental and social history, and Schneirov economic and social history. In Nature’s Metropolis, however, William Cronon does not merely suggest where these subjects might overlap, but fuses each together, suggesting that just as an isolation of the rural and the urban is an “illusion,” so too is any division of these historical subjects (18). In Chicago, Cronon asserts, we see the rise of a natural city and, consequently, a unique, interdisciplinary subject of historical inquiry.

As Eli humorously argued in his post last week, Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”—while it was certainly significant to the historiography of the American West—implausibly treated the frontier as an omnipotent actor in American history that not only offered the natural conditions suitable for westward expansion, but served as a driving force for American democratization. Much of Eli’s critique of Turner seems to be Turner’s heavily stereotyped characterization of the frontier.  But, as I think Eli’s quotations allude to, Turner personifies the frontier as one who “masters the colonist” (quoted in post). Its stereotypes aside, such a notion of the frontier seems contrived. While I can accept treating the frontier as  a natural actor in history, I have trouble with seeing a place as taking such an active role in events. If anything—as, I think, the articles by Kevin Rozario and James Connolly would suggest—places can reflect social and economic changes, rather than direct them. In this sense, I think we should should see nature—whether on the frontier or in the city—as a passive actor, being acted upon and responding  accordingly.

A Turnerian himself—though certainly a disillusioned one—Cronon adopts much of Turner’s treatment of nature and place as actors in Nature’s Metropolis. Chicago’s expansion, he asserts in his prologue, was foreshadowed by “nature’s own prophecies” and “expressed natural power” though the product of human ingenuity (13). But as Cronon goes on challenge what is, in fact, natural and unnatural about the city, I think we can begin to see the clearest depictions of nature and place as historical actors much like we might consider persons to be. As Sarah previously highlighted, the natural landscape surrounding Chicago directly influenced its development. From its central location to its proximity to Lake Michigan, the area in Upper Illinois that would one day be Chicago drew the eye and inspired the rhetoric of early “boosters.” But as Cronon highlights, Chicagoans’ struggle to overcome its natural disadvantages also shape much of their story. For example, to compensate for its muddiness, Chicagoans literally raised the city in its early history. What’s interesting in Cronon’s treatment of nature, however, is that, in addition to  environmental factors, he treats economic and technological impacts as natural—he calls them “Second Nature,” whereby humans adapt nature form new environments. Such “natural” actors include an ever-expanding, national railroad network and Chicago’s economic  alliance with the industrialized Northeast. These “First Nature” and “Second Nature” forces drastically influenced the emergence of Chicago as “Nature’s Metropolis.” What I found most interesting, however, were instances where these seemingly disparate natural forces converged. Cronon highlights one particularly interesting example of this phenomenon: the railroad. Economically, the railroad cut back on Chicago’s seasonal economic cycles and strengthened the city’s trading alliances with other regions. Environmentally, the railroad transformed and blended into the natural landscape. But the railroad was also influenced by other natural forces. In Chicago, proximity to Lake Michigan and the Erie Canal influenced travel rates, while its central location attracted both the eastern and western ends of the railroad web. In this sense, the railroad did not exist in “First Nature” or “Second Nature” exclusively, but in both. As Cronon writes, the railroad “partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy” (72). This, I argue, suggests that Cronon treats “nature” much as Turner treats the frontier—an omnipotent force as much as a historical actor.

So, in reading Cronon, how should we understand his Turnerian bias?

I’ll leave this for discussion in class. But—as I argue above—I think that Cronon simply recapitulates Turner, substituting “nature” for the frontier and endorsing a natural teleology for the Chicago’s preeminent rise as does Turner for American democratization.

Critical Distance: Ai Weiwei’s “Namelist” and the Memory of Disaster

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127
Ai Weiwei – Artist & Social Activist

Solemn yet provocative, artist Ai Weiwei treads a fine line  between commemoration and protest in his piece Namelist. Designed to underscore the deaths of 5,096 children in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai’s work—as its title suggests—lists the names, genders, ages, and birthdays of each young victim. But even more, Namelist attempts to make order of the unfathomable chaos of disaster, reinforcing as much the guilt of government officials as the innocence of voiceless victims. Following the earthquake in May 2008, a volunteer investigation spearheaded by Ai uncovered the corruption and oversight of Chinese governmental officials, who failed to address poor school construction before the earthquake and struggled to cover it up in the aftermath. As many like Ai have protested, it was not merely the earthquake itself, but these governmental failures that claimed the lives of thousands of students, who passed away in—to them—unthinkable ways: swiftly, brutally, far from home. Ai’s work thus assumes the task of social activism, challenging quite directly—with simple, black script on white paper—the inhumane response to human catastrophe. But how does such artwork preserve the memory of disaster?

As an American observer, Namelist calls one word to mind: distance. While the Sichuan Earthquake lies distant in my memory— nearly 8,000 miles away and six years into the past—Ai extends this physical separation with his emotionally detached memorial. Countless boxes stretch from one wall to the other, most filled with names and birthdays, some with numbers, others empty. Scanning the list, each box overlaps with the others until the victims themselves seem to lose their individuality. But this feature, I think, encapsulates much of Ai’s message. In his attempt to organize neatly the deadly toll of the earthquake, to personalize each individual’s suffering, Ai fails. The only distinct, individualizing feature of each victim is his or her assigned number, which—in many cases—is the only information listed. Much of this interpretation, I admit, is influenced by the fact that I cannot read each victim’s name or birthday. Regardless of the language barrier, however, I sense a critical distance from the Sichuan Earthquake. I don’t feel any empathy towards its faceless victims. Witnessing loss on this scale seems incomprehensible to me. And for this reason, I believe that Ai’s work successfully assumes the task of social activism. Rather than burying his audience in emotion, he places the viewer in the position of the arbiter, to determine the culpability of those allegedly at fault.

That is not to say that Ai completely depersonalizes the very real suffering of each victim. On the contrary, in his piece Remembrance—a companion piece to Namelist—Ai treats each victim individually. A nearly 4 hour-long  audio recording, Remembrance plays the names of all 5,096 victims read by over 3,000 strangers. As each unique voice reads a name in its native language, each child assumes his or her own individual identity. Like scanning the list of names, I realize just how difficult it is to make sense of, to place an order on the immense suffering and chaos of disaster. But unlike viewing Namelist, I do not  sense the same effect of melding each victim together. Instead, by personalizing each individual’s pain in his depiction, Ai preserves the memory of each child, while the echo of each name reverberating off of the list creates a powerful juxtaposition. As I stated previously, Ai tempers his protest with commemoration. And in combining the experience of Namelist with that of Remembrance, Ai performs this tremendous balancing act, reconciling the impersonal distance of disaster with the personal pain of each victim.

Assuming this position as both a distant arbiter and a personal witness is much like the task of the historian who studies disasters. While analyzing each event empirically is the ultimate aim, one cannot ignore the importance of preserving its memory and those of its victims. As we continue to study disasters this semester, reading the work of both scholars and popular historians, let us remember the critical distance and humane depiction of Ai Weiwei’s works and ask ourselves: how should historians perform this balancing act? Or can only artists, like Ai, tread this fine line between commemoration and analysis?

A Crucible of Fire: Interpreting the “Gilded Age” and Characterizing Its Disasters

Warning: Undefined variable $num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 126

Warning: Undefined variable $posts_num in /home/shroutdo/public_html/courses/wp-content/plugins/single-categories/single_categories.php on line 127

Just as last week’s readings approached disasters, our readings for Tuesday’s class examine the “Gilded Age” and approach it generally, attempting to characterize the period and, in doing so, look beyond its materialism and superficiality. As Sarah addressed in her post, Charles Calhoun adopts this approach in his analysis of the period and suggests that in the context of US history it was a time of “substantial accomplishment,” when advancements in politics and pop culture  coincided with urbanization and  economic development (3). Indeed, as Sarah writes, the period was “not as gilded as it seems.” But perhaps even more boldly than Calhoun, Rebecca Edwards advocates for the period’s significance and, one might say, preeminence in New Spirits. The “Gilded Age,” she insists, was not merely a time of greed, inequality, and other ills of so-called unfettered capitalism, but an “Early Progressive Era,” the “starting point for modern America” (5). She notes, like Calhoun, that alongside the emergence of globalism and development of capitalism, the United States underwent a period of immense change, evolving into a more egalitarian democracy and fostering a democratic culture. But for Edwards, the period was not just one of progress. As she writes, the United States emerged from a “crucible of fire” in early twentieth century, fraught as much with greed and corruption as with disaster (1).

So, how might these affirmative views of the “Gilded Age” influence our interpretation of its disasters?

As our reading last week noted, disasters serve as “daily reminders of the limitations . . . of modernity” (Hewitt 2). Just as they exploit weaknesses in infrastructure and society, they can and often do illicit positive change to mend those weaknesses. And it would seem that this is especially the case in an evolving society, where progress might not begin with disaster—it’s already begun—but instead simply alters its course. Now, if Edwards’ and Calhoun’s assessments of the “Gilded Age” are accurate and the period truly was one of immense progress, I think we ought to evaluate the period’s disasters with its progressive ends in mind, analyzing the way in which disasters challenged the progressive course of the United States. The pitfall of this type of interpretation, of course, would be stooping to a teleological history, in which we interpret disasters as merely the causes of events, not as important events in and of themselves. But I would like to pose the question to the class: Should we interpret disasters in the “Gilded Age” as causes of the Progressive Era or as the results of a progressing era?

In his post last week, Price addressed and critiqued what Bergman described as the “utility” of disaster, suggesting that Bergman perhaps “jumps the gun” in considering disasters useful. And while I agree with him to some extent—it’s critical to recognize the deadly tolls of disaster—I think that we ought to study disasters with intention of uncovering their useful results. Not only does this approach attempt to understand disasters in their context, but recognizes both the momentary and long-lasting effects of those disasters. I think Edwards would agree with this approach as well. After all, she admits that even in this “Early Progressive Era,” it was the “fires” of the age that forged the tools of progress.