JAH Special Issue on Katrina Draws Attention





"The present is a void," the literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks wrote in 1918, "and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value." Coining the phrase he is best remembered for, Brooks called on his fellow citizens to join in the search for "a usable past." If they could not discover one, he argued, they could invent one.

Brooks's pitch was not aimed at historians, whose profession directs them more toward discovery than invention. But 90 years later, a group of historically minded scholars, inspired by events whose memory is still raw, have mounted their own search for a usable past. In a new special issue of The Journal of American History, they set out to make historical sense of what happened in New Orleans in 2005.

"Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?" features 20 essays by historians and scholars in complementary disciplines, including sociology, geography, and musicology. They take some of the issues thrown into stark relief by Katrina — race and poverty, decaying urban infrastructure, government failure, humanity versus nature — and set them in the context of New Orleans's 300-year history.

The journal's editor, Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, had been mulling over how to put an event like Katrina into historical context. "It didn't feel right to me that 10, 20, 30 years from now, people would look back at the journal and, except for a few book reviews, it would seem as if this incredibly devastating, catastrophic event didn't register for historians to comment about," the editor says. He recruited Clarence L. Mohr, chairman of the history department at the University of South Alabama, to edit the special issue with Lawrence N. Powell, a historian at Tulane University who is writing a history of New Orleans for Harvard University Press.

Mr. Mohr acknowledges that it is "very unusual for historians to wade into something so recent." But in an introduction to the issue, he and Mr. Powell argue that historians have an obligation to "make the present comprehensible in terms of what has gone before." They strike an activist note seldom heard among scholars who tend to the past. The work in "Through the Eye of Katrina" represents "an attempt to enlist history and its allied disciplines in the task of civic reconstruction," they write....


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