- Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative
Scholars from archeology to social history have offered histories of the epidemics that struck colonial New England. Cristobal Silva, a professor of English and comparative literature, provides an ambitious contribution. He delves deeply into the history of disease in Massachusetts from 1616 to 1721, focusing not on factual questions about which epidemics struck when, but on how colonists used the epidemics to forge communal identities. He is careful to avoid anachronism. His use of "epidemiology" does not imply that colonists had something reminiscent of our modern science. Instead, he defines epidemiological thought as any texts "which, regardless of their medical or scientific pretensions, aim to represent the etiologies of illness, and to explain why epidemics act as they do" (p. 10). He examines both the literary aspects of epidemiological texts and the epidemiological aspects of literary texts "to deploy the tools of literary analysis toward uncovering the complex relations between language and form, on the one hand, and epidemiological history, on the other" (p. 141).
The story begins with the epidemics of 1616-19. English writers used narratives of Indian susceptibility to justify their own colonial project in New England. Subsequent developments disrupted this narrative. By midcentury serious epidemics had begun to strike the English. Silva focuses on the cyclic dynamics of smallpox. Striking every ten to fifteen years, each epidemic affected only children and young adults. This pattern resonated with concern among the colony's elders about declining religious faith in the second and third generations. Smallpox produced "a pattern of infection that colonists could not help but read in generational terms as punishment for these younger colonists' sins (or their failures to join the church)" (p. 128). Epidemics, deployed in narratives, served political purposes.
Miraculous Plagues also takes up topics of less obvious relevance to historians of medicine and finds valuable lessons in them. Disease rhetoric played an important role in the Antinomian Controversy that led to the trial and expulsion of Anne Hutchinson in 1637. Silva argues that John Winthrop and other elites "deployed epidemiological rhetoric as a strategic maneuver to contain Antinomianism" (p. 18), for instance describing it as an "affliction," a "distemper," "Gangrene," a "Leprosie," or a "Plague" that infected churches and needed to be purged. Silva [End Page 281] also provides a fascinating discussion of the work of Samuel Fuller, the physician sent from Plymouth to aid colonists in Salem in 1629, and Hutchinson, who worked as a midwife before her banishment. Both used their medical visits "as a vector for disseminating theological opinions, which nevertheless had the potential to disrupt community" (p. 95). Fuller, for instance, pushed the Puritan settlers to accept the more radical Congregationalist sentiments of the Plymouth separatists.
Silva uses these case studies to develop an elaborate conceptual apparatus. He writes repeatedly about an "epidemiology of narrative" and "immunological syntax." Although his definitions are at times shifting or obscure, the basic goal is to situate New England's literary history within the details of New England's epidemiological history, contextualizing Puritan thought not just within local political and religious intrigue, but also in the shifting patterns of migration, immunity, and disease. This is part of a broader mission to "push aside static and monolithic biological histories in favor of recognizing the demographic and generational dynamics that shaped immunities and susceptibilities in the colonial context" (p. 141). An Afterword uses his work on the rhetoric of epidemics in colonial New England as a model for understanding the discourse on HIV/AIDS in Africa today.
While attention to epidemiology might (?) be novel for literary theorists, the basic approach here will be familiar to historians of medicine. Silva finds inspiration in the work of Priscilla Wald and Cindy Patton, but he could just as easily have followed the lead of David Arnold, Warwick Anderson, Nayan Shah, or Paula Treichler. My own work on the social and political function of disparity narratives covers much of the same ground. Time will tell whether "epidemiology...