"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"

This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.

Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”

This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.

A Million Little Pieces

This is a little (lot) late in coming, but I want to say something about this past winter’s Oprah-James Frey controversy. For those of you who don’t remember, the controversy erupted when Oprah discovered that James Frey had “lied” in writing “A Million Little Pieces,” the memoir of his struggle with drug addition, which Oprah recommended to her viewers as part of “Oprah’s Book Club.” In a memorable episode, Oprah invited Frey to her program to scold him for his disingenuousness and to demand an apology. A clearly frightened Frey aquiesced to Oprah and dutifully took his medicine.

This episode excited an army of pundits, most of whom joined Oprah in condemning Frey. It also elicited widespread commentary on Oprah’s cultural importance, both as an arbiter of ethics and taste and as a king-maker in television, publishing, and other media.

There was also a discussion of how now to shelve Frey’s book, as fiction or non-fiction. Most of this discussion hinged on just how much of Frey’s book was factual and how much was fabricated. Implicit in these discussions was a firm equation of the terms “non-fiction” and “fact.”

This equation, I think, demonstrates a key difference in the way professional historians view history and the way the general public views history. Or at least in the way the two groups view historical sources. That is, I don’t think there are many professional historians who would surprised if they found certain details of any given memoir, whether by Frey or Honest Abe, to have been fabricated, exaggerated, etc. Trained to be critical of sources, historians view even “non-fiction” books (especially memoirs) critically, and they do not trust every “fact” presented to them as such.

At the same time, this does not mean that historians dismiss out-of-hand any book containing factual errors or fabrications as wholly untruthful. We all know that a lot of valuable truth can be gleaned from mis-recollected, or exaggerated, or self-serving personal narratives. I guess you could say that historians have a more subtle notion of the relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “truth” on the other.

I hope nobody thinks I’m defending Frey. The guy is a confessed liar. But sources—especially auto-biographies—are always slippery, and they always stand in complex relationship to historical truth.