On Seeing History–the Joplin tornado and Historical Memory

James Marten gives us his thoughts on the relationship between history and memory after his recent visit to Joplin Missouri, a place ravaged by a tornado, and a people whose trauma should not be soon forgotten.

Recently a few of my colleagues have reflected on scholarly journeys that have taken them to Egypt, Nigeria, China, and Samoa.  But I’m going to spend a few paragraphs reflecting on a much less exotic place—Joplin, an old zinc mining town of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri—and on something that many would not even consider history yet: the F5 tornado that cut through town on May 22, 2011, killing 160 and injuring nearly 1000 people and causing $3 billion in damages. (See this Youtube video of the tornado.)

I flew to Joplin in late March to deliver the annual Jeans Lecture at Missouri Southern State University.  It was actually a delightful trip. My hosts in the Department of Social Science, Steve Wagner and Virginia Laas, were gracious, the audience welcoming (including the ten or so fifth or sixth graders who followed their teacher down to the podium after the talk to shake my hand, as though I was a minister standing at the church door after a Sunday service), and my flights through Memphis and Springfield on time.  Joplin is a typical small city in the heartland.  The mining industry that nurtured it between the 1880s and the 1940s has completely vanished; it is now the commercial and medical center of a large rural area.  The motels, big box stores, and chain restaurants clustered near the exit ramps of I-44 have drawn business away from the circa 1940s downtown, which seemed to have nearly as many empty storefronts as flourishing businesses.

Encountering up close the physical evidence of a months-old catastrophe and talking to perhaps ten or a dozen people who had lived through it was a moving experience that started me thinking about a question that is too personal, too abstract, too subjective to have just one answer: how do people actually process an event that is so clearly historical?  When do events—both traumatic and triumphal—transcend the transient nature of personal experience and memory?

Joplin residents have a lot of experience to absorb.  My hotel was just south of the mile-wide swath the tornado plowed through the city, destroying virtually everything in its path, including one of the city’s two hospitals, a high school, and several elementary schools (public school students are scattered in facilities throughout the city, waiting for rebuilding that will require passage of a bond issue this spring).  A busy four-lane street runs straight through this section of town, the wreckage is mostly gone, and a few houses have gone up, but many people are still living in FEMA trailers near the airport. A handful of trees still stand, but stripped of their bark and covered by tiny green branches sprouting at odd angles, they look like nothing so much as mutant plants from another planet. Despite the traffic and activity, the emptiness is profound.    It’s eerie, even in daylight, but even more so from the air at night, I’m told, when the absence of lights makes air travelers think there’s a wide black river rolling through Joplin.

For those who lived it, the tornado slashed through their sense of time in much the same way it gouged out a good share of the south side of town: there is no other time but before and after the storm. Virtually every conversation I had during the forty-eight hours I spent in Missouri eventually became a conversation about the tornado.  Everyone knew someone who had died, or lost a house, or a pet.  They talked about their days and nights helping clear wreckage, the ways that rumors about missing colleagues flashed through their personal networks, the way in which the MSSU campus had become the staging area for many relief efforts.  The professor whose class I visited in the afternoon had lost his house and a cherished dog; some of his friends thought he’d been killed when he went missing for a day or two (he was awaiting treatment for a minor injury).  A woman at the reception following the lecture talked at some length about a local dentist who was collecting stories told by some child survivors of the “people with wings” who had protected them from the storm.

There are no doubt countless stories about tragic deaths and miraculous survivals, bitter disappointments and uplifting recoveries, but most will never become “history”—as in all times and places, only a tiny portion of the human experience ever enters the historical record.  Perhaps that dentist will actually publish the stories he collects, perhaps someone will make the effort to record oral histories of survivors and volunteers. And, of course, in this era of Facebook and blogs and other electronic forms of recording one’s dramatic and mundane experiences, many stories will survive indefinitely on the internet. But mainly people will try to put the storm behind them, as survivors have processed other community or national tragedies.  One way of doing this is to commemorate victims and heroes.  A simple memorial paying tribute to the volunteers who flocked to Joplin in the tornado’s aftermath has already been built in one of the city’s ravaged parks, while other commemorations of the victims will no doubt emerge. (“Restore Joplin” is raising money by selling t-shirts and other items through its website: http://www.restorejoplin.com/our-mission.) Closure will come for some residents when, a year after he attended a memorial service in Joplin, President Barrack Obama will speak at the commencement ceremony for the high school’s class of 2012.

It’s likely that the process of historicizing this event will take a long time. And it‘s probably inevitable that, like most human experiences—even those as dramatic and meaningful as the Joplin tornado—most of what happened that fateful day will be kept close to the hearts of those who experienced it, framing their lives in highly personal ways, becoming parts of their histories (with a lower case h) rather than contributing to public interpretations of the event (History with an upper case h).

One of many scenes of devastation that can be found at http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/devastating-pictures-of-the-joplin-missouri-torna.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  His most recent book is Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America.  He frequently blogs on Civil War topics, such as slavery, veterans, and inspiring future Civil War historians.

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