The 1918 Flu Pandemic Changed Literature More Than You Think – Mother Jones
If you are interested in pandemic literature, there’s a lot of great things. I think Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of the best pieces of literature we have specifically on the 1918 pandemic. It’s absolutely terrific. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows is a short, beautiful, elegiac novel about the 1918 pandemic. It’s quite sad but it’s really beautiful. I think reading things like W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”—these are difficult texts, but this is a moment where you could see that they do match our mood.
You describe that mood, in part, as “spectral trauma.” You call flu “vast and ubiquitous” but also “diffuse.” So it’s everywhere, but also hidden. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about these word choices and what air they give to the literature.
For the period itself, it was spectral because the war was what seemed like the real story. People had been fighting the war for four and a half years. They knew the characters. They knew the plot. But the flu lurked as this spectral trauma that made everything worse but didn’t solidify into its own historical event in the way that the war did.
Also, trauma is usually spectral in that it is often something that people remember not directly but diffusely. You can have sensory things in your environment that will trigger it. Right now, we are all being primed for that to happen. I think that you’d be hard pressed to find anybody 10 years from now who won’t see a face mask—or see the tired faces of doctors or nurses, or the beeping of these machines, or a respirator, or the smell of a Clorox wipe—and be brought back to these moments. It becomes like a specter that is everywhere in the brain and in the emotional life.
Part of the difficulty of diseases, especially as contagious infectious disease, is its invisibility. The way that it spreads and the enemy is invisible. You cannot see it.