- “Wood for the Coffins Ran Out”:Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic
Here’s what we already know—during the First World War, soldiers and civilians often had remarkably different experiences of the war corpse. Dead bodies were omnipresent on the front line and in the trenches, an inescapable constant for the living soldier. As critic Allyson Booth notes, “Trench soldiers . . . inhabited worlds constructed, literally, of corpses.”1 In Britain and America, however, such corpses were strangely absent; unlike in previous conflicts, bodies were not returned. This dichotomy underscores some of our central assumptions about the differences between the front line and the home front: in the trenches, dead bodies and the ever-present danger of becoming one; at home, the often haunting absence of bodies to mourn, though this mourning occurred in a place of relative safety. These assumptions miss, however, the sudden erosion of these distinctions in 1918, for in the autumn of that year, dead bodies were suddenly everywhere in Britain, in America, and across the globe; some neighborhoods had streets so full of corpses that no one was left alive to bury them. Death came swiftly and with such little warning that mass graves had to be prepared, and as one witness wrote, “Wood for the coffins ran out.”2 The influenza pandemic of 1918, which stretched its deathly fingers into 1919, was the most lethal plague in human history, killing somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people worldwide in an astonishingly condensed period.3 Yet despite inflicting five to ten times more causalities than the First World War, the flu was, for a time at least, seemingly forgotten. British and American literature rarely dwells on it, almost no memorials were built to mark its [End Page 937] destruction, and until the last ten years, few historians had told its story; it certainly makes few appearances in modernist studies today.4
This neglect, however, should not be taken to mean that the pandemic didn’t matter, or didn’t matter to modernism, or even that the flu was actually forgotten. The pandemic was the second great traumatic event of the early twentieth century, and even years later, survivors vividly remembered the experience. Modernist writers and painters themselves suffered from the ravages of the flu: Guillaume Apollinaire died; D. H. Lawrence, H.D., Katherine Anne Porter, and Edvard Munch barely survived; even T. S. Eliot felt his brain was affected by his bout with the illness. Our neglect of the pandemic arises, I argue, not because it was insignificant but because it became the shadowed twin to the war, a disaster as unprecedented in its casualties and in its suffering as the war, yet at times locked into a paradoxical relation with it. Because of the pandemic’s historical position right at the armistice as well as its unusual constellation of symptoms and aftereffects, it alternatively became a suspect rival to the “real” trauma of the Great War and (paradoxically) a loss too great to assimilate. Flu deaths were in part drowned out by war deaths, but also in part subsumed into the vast work of mourning that marks the postwar period and modernism itself. The flu’s shadowed position continues to hide the profound impacts of the pandemic. As scholars of modernism and modernity, however, we should explore the subtle ways the outbreak weaves itself into the fabric of modernism and begin to analyze rather than perpetuate the pervasive postwar evasion of the flu.
My investigation of the pandemic intervenes in two ongoing discussions in modernist studies. First, important recent works on modernism and mourning by critics such as Patricia Rae, Tammy Clewell, and others have explored how modernism is often marked by a refusal of traditional modes of consolation; mourning remains unresolved, in part functioning as a political protest against various aspects of the war.5 Quite naturally, these analyses of mourning are usually focused on war and political turmoil, certainly central sources of grief in the early twentieth century. The pandemic, however, adds a new dimension to the history of modernist mourning. While individuals certainly grieved over those lost to the flu, there were very few public...