- Of Bodies, Families, and Communities: Refiguring the 1918 Influenza Pandemic
The Spanish influenza of 1918 has been called a “forgotten pandemic,” lost in the archives amidst records of the Great War, the armistice, and the new era of modernity ushered in by these cataclysmic events. It was not that Spanish flu did not keep pace with the war in terms of destruction of life. Estimates of the flu’s death toll hover around fifty million people in a single year, while World War I was responsible for about eight and a half million casualties.1 It was that the war had such a powerful hold on cultural memory. As Paul Fussell (quoting Vernon Scannell’s poem, “The Great War”) observes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “‘The war that was called Great invades the mind . . .’ and that war detaches itself from its normal location in chronology and its accepted set of causes and effects to become Great in another sense—all-encompassing, all-pervading, both internal and external at once, the essential condition of consciousness in the twentieth century.”2 The “Great Influenza,” it seems, made for a less compelling story. Alfred W. Crosby points out its conspicuous absence from modern history textbooks and from the oeuvres of the great American writers in the 1920s. John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway—none of these authors treated the flu in any detail in their work.3 “It is especially puzzling,” says Crosby dryly, “that among those Americans who let the pandemic slip their minds were many members of that group of supposedly hypersensitive young people who were to create some of the greatest masterpieces of American literature, i.e. ‘the lost generation’ for so many of whom World War I, the other great killer of the era, was the central experience of their lives.”4 In his account, by the end of the decade, the pandemic seemed destined to become a mere footnote in literary history. [End Page 161]
In the 1930s, however, a few authors began to look back on 1918 in a different light. Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider is perhaps the best-known fictional account of the epidemic. The story, published in 1939, closely follows an account of Porter’s own illness and recovery during the pandemic, when she was working as a reporter in Denver. William Maxwell’s novel They Came Like Swallows dramatizes the effects of the flu on a Midwestern family. Maxwell was a child in 1918 when his mother died of influenza, and the novel echoes this family history. Finally, John O’Hara, only thirteen years old during the pandemic, published “The Doctor’s Son” in 1935, a short story fictionalizing his own experiences during the flu outbreak. Within a five-year span, then, three fairly major American writers revisited their memories of the Spanish flu through their fiction.5 The “forgotten pandemic” had returned to the literary imagination.
Porter, Maxwell, and O’Hara were better situated than Hemingway’s generation to address the pandemic because of their greater distance from the war. O’Hara and Maxwell were too young to join the military in 1918, and Porter, as a woman, could not enlist as a combatant. While Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Stein were in Europe during the fall of 1918 and could readily assimilate the pandemic’s destruction into the general senselessness and violence of the war, people living an ocean away inevitably experienced the flu as an independent and crucial event. Porter says of her illness, “It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready.”6 For Maxwell, too, his mother’s death from influenza and pneumonia marked a major turning point in his life, one that he revisited not only in They Came Like Swallows but in Ancestors: A Family History; So Long, See You Tomorrow; and Time Will Darken It as well.7 Porter, Maxwell, and O’Hara all wrote about the flu in highly autobiographical works, and the importance of the pandemic in their...