Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic is well known in the history of the early republic, and so too is Mathew Carey's Short Account of the Malignant Fever, the influential pamphlet that described the city's moral breakdown and recovery during the pestilence. Some historians have criticized the Short Account's unflattering depictions of the African Americans who volunteered to aid the sick, but most have taken it as an accurate account of the city's response. This article offers another way of thinking about the work. By reconstructing the circumstances of its composition, and by deconstructing its narrative elements, it shows that Carey's Short Account was a literary creation, one that imitated historical plague stories. This reading of the Short Account illuminates little-known aspects of the literary culture and historical consciousness of early republicans. More important, it opens a window onto the "archaeology of plague narratives"—the pattern of narrative mimicry that predisposed plague writers to tell the events of epidemics in certain ways. The view it offers calls into question not only what happened in Philadelphia in 1793, but also what happens to communities when plagues strike.


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pp. 381-404
Launched on MUSE
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