- Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature by Elizabeth Outka
Viral Modernism investigates the impact of the 1918–19 influenza that killed “between 50 to 100 million people” worldwide in both high modernist and popular cultural texts (1). No doubt Professor Outka did not realize that her book would be published in a year struck by a similar global pandemic called COVID-19 caused by a novel coronavirus. History in medical fields does repeat itself, and the truth remains the same: no one is immune from the pandemic. Neither did I anticipate, when I spotted this book at the 2020 MLA Convention’s Book Exhibit, that I would be writing a review while trying to protect myself from COVID-19.
Unlike the 1918–19 pandemic, COVID-19 reportedly started in Wuhan, China, by the end of December 2019. Since then, the pandemic has severely plagued many other countries worldwide. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government enforced the lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, 2020, which was lifted on April 8, 2020. Much of the scenario in China applies to other countries with varying degrees of severity. In the United States, for example, a total of 8,952,086 confirmed cases with 228,185 deaths, as of November 1, 2020, have been reported by the WHO.1 The pandemic has taken a toll on the US economy, with the Dow plunging 2,999 points, the worst sell-off since 1987, on March 16, 2020, and with the unemployment number hitting 12.6 million by September 2020 according to the US Department of Labor’s report, despite the “stay-home” order and “mask-mandate” in many states.2
Ironically or not, the pandemic scenes in Viral Modernism are faithfully replaying themselves in the current battle against COVID-19: pneumonia patients struck by both types of virus and exhibiting similar symptoms, no drugs or vaccine available to treat the disease, mounting deaths, shortage of medical staff and supplies, alarming human tragedies, and painful economic losses. Yet, there are two distinct differences between the pandemics. First, while the first one occurred toward the end of World War I, which had already weakened Europe’s economy, the current one broke out when the world economy was relatively in good shape. Second, while the origin of the first one still remains a mystery, the origin of the current one is known.
Outka argues that despite its mighty impact, the pandemic rarely has attracted critical attention in modernist studies. Viral Modernism breaks this “conspicuous literary and critical silence” by proposing a fresh angle for analyzing Anglophone modernist texts, suggesting “how our assumptions about modernism, modernity, the interwar period in Anglo-American culture change when we account for the pandemic’s devastation” (2). In addressing such silence, Outka sharply questions the assumption that certain types of mass deaths are less “grievable” than others for political reasons (2). Organized in three parts, the book not only offers new readings of interwar literary texts, but it also examines post-pandemic spiritualism in a variety of popular cultural texts. The conceptual threads underneath these three clusters center on what Outka calls “two tropes”: “The first trope centers on ‘miasma’ as a central way to recognize and to describe the pandemic’s absent presence . . . . The miasmic elements of the pandemic’s representation have their foil in a second representational strategy: repeated tropes of what I term ‘viral resurrection’ that counter the amorphous characteristics of the outbreak. Images of resurrection in general infuse interwar literature and culture” (5–6).
In part one, “Pandemic Realism: Making an Atmosphere Visible,” Outka analyzes the representation of the pandemic in the narrative works of Willa Cather (One of Ours, 1922), Katherine Anne Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1939), Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, 1929), and [End Page 861] William Maxwell (They Came Like Swallows, 1937). Labeled as “part-realist/part-modernist,” these novels overtly and substantially represented the pandemic, making “visible the pandemic atmosphere [and] capturing the ways the outbreak entangled...