Populations and Catastrophes?

Since this is Katrina week on the Gulf Coast, in which newspapers around the country ruminate over the depopulation of one of this region’s most interesting cities, I’ve been thinking about natural catastrophes and the sometimes hectic, sometimes protracted flows of populations in and out of cities. Here in Houston, we hear about the conditions in New Orleans every day, and we still have about 100,000 people living here who may or may not return to New Orleans, whether it gets rebuilt or not.

When I think about our period, at least in terms of canonical literary writings, I can only come up with two events of this type that made their way into literary representation; the great Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the Great Plague of London (1665). The first appears most famously in Candide (1759), the second in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). (I’d love to hear other candidates for this list, but these were all I could come up with, offhand)

One of the most interesting things about this text is its focus upon the city, or really the city’s population, as the chief protagonist for its narrative, such as it is. As my students always remark, it is a remarkably Foucauldean text, able to hold in view simultaneously a wealth of individual stories, including the narrator, along with the responses and decisions, both rational and irrational, of the authorities charged with protecting the city. But the most consequential Defoe made in his representation was his insistence that no individual story could stand in for the whole. H.F. is a cypher to us, and his responses really have no more authority than anyone else’s in this text. The text is filled with interesting dialogues involving people we meet only once, and whose ultimate fate we never learn. Everyone, including H.F., is just part of the larger ebb and flow Defoe is recounting.

As a result of this emphasis upon the population, this is a text with plenty of pathos, but not much sentiment. Part of it comes from the inclusion of non-literary documents like the Bills of Mortality, but part of it from the refusal to remain at the level of individual tragedy, which lends the text its astringency, as well as its cumulative force. We are made to feel that we, like the epidemic, cannot linger over any particular scene:

It was observable then, that this Calamity of the People made them very humble; for now, for about nine Weeks together, there died near a thousand a-Day, for about nine Weeks together, one day with another, even by the account of the weekly Bills, which yet I have Reason to be assur’d never gave a full Account, by many thousands; the Confusion being such, and the Carts working in the Dark, when they carried the Dead, that in some Places no account at all was kept, but they work’d on; the Clerks and Sextons not attending for Weeks together, and not knowing what Number they carried (p. 95, in Wall’s Penguin edn.).

When I tried to think of comparable accounts, I was stumped. I suspect that pamphlets or semons might contain similar materials, or maybe travel narratives or abolitionist writings. I suspect that the kinds of legal documents Sharon works with might have stuff like this. But I’d love to hear about other works that try to document the flows of populations, especially in response to natural disasters.

Any thoughts, or candidates for inclusion?

Best wishes,



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