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The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes
Earth Sciences History. 33.2 (July 2014): p361+.
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THE LOST HISTORY OF THE NEW MADRID EARTHQUAKES. Conevery Bolton Valencius. 2013. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 460 pp. Hardcover, $35.

As readers of Earth Sciences History are well aware, historical books about natural disasters have become a tremendously popular niche market, suddenly attractive to both the trade and the academic publishing worlds. Ten years ago, Simon Winchester's Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (Harper Collins, 2003) demonstrated that the general reading public could still be induced in large numbers to purchase and absorb a nonfiction account that combined careful historical detail--even one equipped with scholarly footnotes--with healthy doses of geological theory and explanation, provided that the central subject of the account was a sufficiently spectacular cataclysm. As if to confirm the infallibility of this formula, Winchester followed up immediately with his book on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, just in time to celebrate that event's centennial--A Crack in the Edge of the World (Harper, 2005). Other capable writers have been equally keen to jump on the bandwagon, particularly with respect to the two tectonically active parts of the world that Winchester featured in his sensational scholarly works.

We have seen a recent outpouring of popular books featuring the Indonesian volcanic explosion that both preceded and dwarfed Krakatoa, including William Klingaman's The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (St. Martin's Press, 2013) and Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (Princeton University Press, 2014). The morbid appeal of California's past and present seismicity has a long pedigree, dating at least back to the brilliant science writer John McPhee's classic Assembling California (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993); notable entrants in this category include Carl-Henry Geschwind's scrupulously researched technical study California Earthquakes: Science, Risk, and the Politics of Hazard Mitigation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), Philip Franklin's socio-political critique The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself (University of California Press, 2006), and John Dvorak's just-released Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault (Pegasus, 2014).

Buried among all these examples of a burgeoning earthquake literature, 2013 saw the publication of two distinctive works on the cultural history and significance of seismic activity, each written by an extremely accomplished historian of science who had not previously focused on the earth sciences. European intellectual historian Deborah Coen's The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon to Richter (University of Chicago Press, 2013) was favorably reviewed for its philosophical and literary breadth in last year's Earth Sciences History (Vol. 32, No. 2). The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, written by the environmental historian of American medicine Conevery Bolton Valencius, offers an even broader range of historical materials and intriguing interpretive frameworks. Organized around one key methodological insight (the plenitude and nineteenth-century significance of what Valencius dubs in Chapter 5 as "vernacular" science), and the dialectic between two countervailing tendencies in professional science and in professional history, Valencius constructs a multifaceted narrative. She shows just how and why scientists tend to "forget" elements of the past whenever new scientific instruments and techniques obscure or demean the perceived value of previous forms of evidence. At the same time, she punctuates her account of this process with reminders that historians are particularly well-trained to "rediscover" forgotten aspects of the past whenever changing values and priorities force them to frame new research questions.

At the heart of these intertwined conversations between the practices of science and history, Valencius points to an essential tension that geologists experience when they define the object of scientific investigation to be "historical". In her book, the catalyst for all these complex considerations is a simple question. What exactly happened in 1811-1812, when a sustained series of substantial seismic events violently rattled the Lower Mississippi River Valley, reshaping its physical, environmental, social, and political realities so pervasively that the basic facts regarding these earthquakes would be both magnified into a magnificently colorful frontier tall tale, and minimized into a tectonic event of dubious scientific credibility? Her search for answers carried the author into a remarkably rich variety of sometimes obscure historical, cultural, and technical sub-domains, whose independent insights, findings, prejudices, and blind spots she manages to weave together into a magnificent narrative account of mutual scientific and historical rediscovery.

Historians of geology will be particularly enriched by the contextual analyses that Valencius infused into her narrative. For example, in discussing how seismology changed as a scientific field of study between the nineteenth and the twentieth century (Chapter 6), Valencius emphasizes how the development of new technologies (ever more precise instruments capable of timing, locating, and measuring the amplitudes of vibrations originating beneath the earth's surface) substantially reconfigured the components of scientific authority. The increase in availability of machinery and quantitative data tended naturally to diminish the value of eyewitness testimony of earthquake events, and thereby encouraged earth scientists to expunge a rich body of historical documentation of personal lived experiences from the scientific record. In addition, however, she notes with some irony that seismology's discriminatory preference for instrumental data tended to distort understanding of the relative likelihood and predicted severity of seismic hazards, especially in regions where the risk of earthquakes had previously been more highly respected. So, while Northern California's notorious quake of 1906 kick-started a new era in professional American seismology, it shifted attention to the West Coast and fetishized the significance of magnitude (e.g. Richter) numbers. Consequently, scientific study of seismicity patterns in regions like New England, South Carolina, and the Lower Mississippi River Valley suffered comparative neglect during much of the twentieth century, even though generations of settlers had sustained very damaging shocks within the very recent geological past (100-200 years earlier), and have no reason to suppose that these experiences will not be repeated.

Valencius does a fine job of tracing the institutional and personal careers of earth scientists who strove to overcome the hegemony of the West Coast earthquake paradigm. A standout example involves a Jesuit geophysics research effort housed at St. Louis University, which studied the peculiarities and characteristics of midcontinent earthquake behavior, with a focus on the New Madrid region. Though established in 1925, this modestly-funded but tenacious endeavor became even more isolated (and therefore critically valuable for its counterintuitive earth dynamics implications) in the 1960s and 1970s when widespread acceptance of the plate tectonics theory spelled even greater disregard for mid-plate geological phenomena, as compared with the "gold rush" of North American geophysicists and marine geologists who once again flocked to the mid-Atlantic, the Caribbean, and to all comers of the Pacific Rim to study various kinds of plate boundary interactions. In one of her many startlingly apt asides, Valencius contends in a footnote that the success of plate tectonics hinged on its proponents' ability to translate seismological data into a visually compelling map: "instrumental readings of ocean floor magnetism became 'seeable' as evidence of seafloor spreading, allowing a number of smart experts to accept an account of the world that differed radically from their own sense perception [of stationary continents] ..." (p. 265).

Chapter 7 provides an account of contemporary work in the earth science community that has led to a re-evaluation and the resuscitation of both public and expert awareness of New Madrid's seismic significance. Her discussion conveys the stories of ongoing institutional development and creative integration of historical and scientific methodological innovations through the eyes of participants, in a colorfully evocative and yet seriously detailed manner, Here, I would venture to say that Valencius achieves a blend of personal narrative and analytical exposition comparable to John McPhee's magnificent books about geology. Unlike many historians of science, Valencius does not shy away from discussing unresolved public controversies (such as the alleged relationship between hydraulic fracturing--"fracking"--and the increased frequency observed in seismic events where this technique is being utilized to extract natural gas) (pp. 308-310). Indeed, Valencius fully carries out her train of thought, investigating not only how history and science interact, but also how public policy has been shaped in the light (or, sometimes in the dark) cast by these two distinct forms of knowledge.

If there is one rule guiding critical scholarship, it is that no book review can ever be 100% laudatory. Even my effusive admiration for The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes has its limits. My biggest complaint arises primarily from the paucity of the English language. In such a book, the author is forced to rely rather monotonously on a tiny handful of metaphors to describe forces of change that operate beneath the surface of perceived reality. Admittedly, the overlap between colloquial and geological terms that can support her narrative in this regard is vanishingly small. Nevertheless, I do have to confess that I found her overreliance on a particular word or words to be tedious. For example, the word "tumult" appears four times on a single page (twice to represent earthquake action, and twice to represent currents of social and political change) (p. 59). Similarly, within the span of just three pages, the words "subsidence" or "subside" appear six times, "submergence" or "submerge" appear five times, and "sink", "sinking", or "sunk" appear another twelve times (pp. 216-218). But to say the book might have benefitted from a more severe editor takes nothing away from the marvelous combination of historical thinking, interdisciplinary conversation, and ingenious detective work that comprises this excellent addition to the ever-growing shelf of popular earthquake literature.

David Spanagel, Humanities and Arts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, USA,

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Spanagel, David. "The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes." Earth Sciences History, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, p. 361+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 21 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A390412556