Tragedy and Optimism in ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’

Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell was an ambitious project—and critics took notice.

rebecca solnit, a paradise built in hell
Sallie Dean Shatz

It feels eerie to read A Paradise Built in Hell in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires, and the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. We’re living through disasters as disruptive as the five Rebecca Solnit examines in her 2009 book, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss on September 23. Investigating human behavior, Solnit concludes that the kindness of citizens in the aftermath of tragedy suggests we’re more capable of broad, long-term social change than we might realize.

When critics reviewed A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster, while inevitable, felt less immediate than it does now. The book’s reception reflects that era. Critics analyzed the book from the standpoint that disaster was a past occurrence or a hypothetical future, even though 2009 was a year with earthquakes, typhoons, and hurricanes of its own. “The bad news is that more disasters are coming, arising from any number of sources,” historian and Alta contributor William Deverell wrote in his review of Solnit’s book. “Yet Rebecca Solnit sees human possibilities inherent in the certainty of big trouble.”

By the time A Paradise Built in Hell was published, Solnit had already established herself as a successful author and won critics’ approval for her books, including River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and Wanderlust: A History of Walking. A Paradise Built in Hell showcases her distinct voice, allowing her to demonstrate her depth as a writer as well as the breadth of her research.

Perhaps one of Solnit’s greatest challenges in writing A Paradise Built in Hell was to balance factual retelling and emotion, not falling too hard on either side. Rely too much on history and she risks her writing becoming detached and lengthy, reminiscent of a collection of newspaper articles or a textbook. Lean into sentiment and her message of resilience could get lost in platitudes and tragic lamentations. Critics lauded Solnit for her ability to walk this tightrope. “Solnit is neither naive nor blind to the misery out of which she finds faith forged,” Deverell wrote. “The result is almost always captivating and compelling, not least because she is unusually gifted at mixing dispassionate narration with fervent, first-person experience.” Steven Winn, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, commended Solnit for her nuanced portrayal of tragedies: “impassioned as she may become, Solnit does not shy away from the complexities and ambiguities of her subject.”

In a review laden with high praise for the book and its author’s thinking, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner dubbed Solnit a “rugged, off-road public intellectual.” For Garner, the standout chapters of Solnit’s book were her essays about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the most recent tragedy that she investigates. These chapters are the best proof of Solnit’s thesis and her theory of elite panic: the idea that the group who does the most harm in times of disaster is made up of the wealthy and elite who create alarm when their class status is threatened by uncertainty. Garner called the Katrina chapters the “book’s most absorbing and eye-opening section.”

A Paradise Built in Hell captured critics’ attention with its honest, stunning vision for society. As Deverell wrote more than a decade ago, “There’s a hopeful, optimistic, even contagious quality to this superb book.” Perhaps, as California is immersed in its own kind of hell today—smoke, wildfires, pandemic—this book provides the hope readers need.•

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Solnit on September 23 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, click here.

We also invite you to join us and your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about A Paradise Built in Hell:

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