We are today in the midst of an important historiographical revision in the role of disasters in American life. A new disaster history is imminent, and it is a welcome corrective to the instant histories and narrative case studies that have long dominated this genre. Historians are now examining disasters not as singular events, standing in for particular policy or leadership successes or failures. Instead, the new disaster history examines disasters as slow—linked across time and space—and provocative of new social and political processes, rather than only reflecting fixed identities and long-standing conflicts. Indeed, disasters are both: they are revelatory and generative, and as such, they deserve attention in their own right, especially through comparative analysis. Such is the methodology used by Jacob A. C. Remes in his sterling new book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. Remes’s attention is focused on the capacity of the Progressive Era state to deliver disaster relief—a nearly constant challenge in a time marked by urban fires, floods, pandemics, violent labor conflicts, and war. “Disasters,” according to Remes, “exposed the tensions of the Progressive Era and the growth of the interventionist state. The state and its actors in the military and civilian relief bureaucracies sought to impose order on what they imagined to be a chaotic social landscape” (196). But the people in this landscape of suffering were not passive; in fact, they possessed substantial capacity for recovery. In such periods of disaster recovery, Remes argues, we should be attuned to an emergent “disaster citizenship,” visible through “contestations, negotiations, and compromises”—periods of struggle that did not uniformly sanctify nationalism or faith in experts (the twin poles of mainstream progressive aspiration) (196). The “disaster citizenship” Remes charts out had much more to do with heightening the existing (and sometimes invisible to experts/reformers) bonds of community for disaster victims—bonds the victims had forged as laborers, as immigrants, as members of a religious community, as women and men, and often as immigrants shuttling across national boundaries. To illustrate the “disaster citizenship” concept, Remes focuses on two case studies: the Salem, Massachusetts, fire of 1914, and the Halifax, Nova Scotia, explosion of 1917. The Salem fire started in the Korn Leather Company and rapidly engulfed a wide swath of the town, ultimately forcing over eighteen thousand residents out of their homes and/or jobs (54). Salem’s Irish mayor, John Hurley, presided over a relief effort that evolved from a surprisingly diverse Committee of One Hundred to a more elite Committee of Fourteen. Over time the locus of power shifted away from the mayor’s office to that of the governor, who appointed a five-member Salem Rebuilding Commission, “steadfastly technocratic in its outlook and ethos” (65). Two large refugee camps were rapidly established, with security and order enforced by the state militia. “Whether for reasons of public health, efficiency, or power, Salem’s elites wanted refugees to live in the camps where it was easier to control their labor and family life” (94–95). Conflicts erupted at every level, from seemingly minor disputes over hanging name tags, building furniture and customizing tents, and opening beer stands—to more heavy-handed efforts at discerning and punishing relief fraud and malingerers. Before long, labor recruiters arrived with opportunities for working families to move away to neighboring industrial towns. The temporary diverse working-class community of the camps had been, in microcosm, an experiment station for Progressive Era public health, city planning, and labor control techniques. The Halifax explosion resulted from the collision of two war-bound ships, the Imo and the Mont Blanc. The latter, loaded with explosives, caught fire, and the resulting blast killed two thousand people (21, 23). Relief authorities in Halifax, augmented by militia as they had been in Salem, were often surprised that so many Haligonians preferred to stay in their ruined homes or with relatives whenever possible. When victims did seek public relief, they found themselves, again like Salem, subject to formal scrutiny: “trained workers had to investigate each claim carefully, rendering the complex, informal, and illegible family economy into simple, formal, and legible decisions about money, housing, and material goods” (107). Salem’s knowledge-by-tragedy provided a base of practical action for Halifax. For example, Christian Lantz, general secretary of the Salem YMCA, arrived from Salem to help establish the Halifax relief system. Working-class families also tended relationships at a distance, relying on an informal network of information and aid that stretched across New England and maritime Canada. In Salem and Halifax, unions and churches provided the bases for a disaster citizenship that could allow for long-term recovery. In the rush for reconstruction, unions scrambled to remain relevant and serve as foci for members who needed material relief and jobs. Churches often fared better, with clergy holding “knowledge and authority that was useful both to the technocrats and to their congregants” (193). Remes’s close attention to the importance of congregations like the French Canadian St. Joseph’s parish in Salem, led by Father Donat Binette, provides some of the most moving and persuasive moments of this highly readable book. Recovery was, after all, not merely or even primarily material, as progressive reformers presumed. Disaster recovery was experienced at the level of holding together families and neighborhood ties, in feeling pride in doing meaningful and fairly compensated work. Recovery was witnessed in the makeshift muddy pews of an open-air church, where Father Binette delivered a post-fire mass, erecting a “spiritual and emotional architecture” that held life together for Salem’s community of sufferers (166). Remes is among the vanguard of the new disaster historians, motivated by the twenty-first century wave of disasters to search out antecedents that help us understand the formation of a modern state that “manages” (or does not manage) disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Shaping a disaster history that interweaves labor, ethnic and religious identities, and an evolving progressive state by way of transnational cases, Remes has, in the end, delivered a tour de force of method for the new disaster history, and hopefully a portent of things to come in this emerging field. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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