- American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic by Nancy K. Bristow
patients, influenza, war, memory
Since the late 1990s, so many books have been written about the 1918 influenza epidemic that another history might seem superfluous at this point. Not so. Most writers depict the epidemic as a medical horror story, focusing on desperate attempts to limit the contagion as it overwhelmed hospitals and public health departments, making it serve as a cautionary tale warning against hubris in the face of implacably mutating viruses. Historian Nancy Bristow takes another approach in this book, choosing instead to explore the experiences, remembrances, and meanings of the influenza for those who lived and [End Page 508] died in that terrible time—the pandemic from the ground up, rather than the top down.
The 1918 influenza pandemic was devastating, infecting at least one-quarter of all Americans—around twenty-five million people—and killing five hundred thousand. It attacked men and women in the prime of their lives with unprecedented ferocity, leaving families without fathers to support them or mothers to care for young children. Yet American public culture seemed to exhibit a collective amnesia about the epidemic despite the havoc it wrought, relegating it to irrelevancy because it did not correlate with optimistic narratives of medical and scientific achievement. Still, Bristow reminds us that individuals and families marked forever by loss did not forget the epidemic that tore their lives apart. The tensions and contradictions between this “national forgetting and personal remembering” (191) form the thematic heart of her project.
Bristow begins with a concise introduction that explains how medical achievements of the Progressive Era instilled in health professionals confidence that they finally knew how to control epidemic disease, an optimism that influenza would severely undermine in 1918. She then delves into the pandemic from the perspective of its victims, with extensive archival research accumulating fragmentary private memories and stories. American institutional and public memory may have recast the 1918 epidemic as a brief impediment to progress in medicine, but Bristow argues that afflicted individuals, families, and communities saw it differently, and that these experiences were shaped by social identities of race, gender, and class.
Massive numbers of the dead overwhelmed local undertakers and churches, forcing grieving survivors to reluctantly forego the solace of longstanding burial customs. Ideas about appropriate gender roles structured the fate of survivors. Influenza broke families apart. Widowers farmed their young motherless children out to female relatives because only women were considered fit to parent them adequately. Widows impoverished by the loss of husbands who earned the family’s keep had to send their older children out to work instead of school. Widows received public assistance, but widowers did not. When whole families succumbed, female neighbors stepped in because longstanding cultural expectations demanded that women perform caregiving tasks. Women also volunteered in massive numbers to work for the Red Cross. Class and race shaped the amount and quality of material support also. The poor got less care, and when wage earners fell too sick to earn, it meant hunger, cold, and homelessness for their families. The pandemic not only killed and severely sickened, it also brought misery or hardship to countless families.
Yet American society did not dissolve into chaos and recriminations. Bristow points out that though communities experienced stress and disruption, American society did not fall apart before the onslaught of pandemic [End Page 509] flu. Instead, individuals and communities responded in ways that served to reify existing social roles and assumptions. Influenza “remade individual lives but not Americans’ communal life” (9). Various health officials, for instance, routinely attributed the spread of the epidemic on Indian reservations to their stubborn adherence to traditional healing practices rather than on poverty and crowded living conditions.
Bristow also explores the epidemic experience from the perspective of the frontlines, in both the official reports and private letters of the local officials, volunteers, physicians, and nurses immersed in the day-to-day response to the...