Posts Tagged 'historical memory'

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?

Continue reading ‘On Seeing History–the Joplin tornado and Historical Memory’


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