Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Southern Silence: American Literature and Viruses

Melanie Benson Taylor

It is a mystifying fact that the 1918-19 Spanish influenza pandemic—which infected one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50-100 million—inspired almost no works of American literature. Also puzzling: of these few, the three most significant and acclaimed were written by southerners.
Virginia native Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922), Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) all depict the authors’ own experiences with the plague, with varying degrees of autobiographical intimacy. Wolfe lost his beloved older brother to the virus, and thereafter vowed, “this is why I think I’m going to be an artist. The things that really mattered sunk in and left their mark.” Porter herself nearly succumbed: reportedly, she was so ill that her obituary had been written, but she narrowly survived due to an experimental dose of strychnine. Just twenty-eight years old, her dark hair turned white overnight, and decades later she remarked that the illness had “simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready.” T.S. Eliot similarly claimed that his brain had been permanently affected by his own bout with the virus. 
In Viral Modernism, Elizabeth Outka reports that more Americans died during the pandemic than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. Outka attributes the astonishing literary and cultural neglect of the Spanish flu to its coincidence with WWI and the armistice; simply put, the spectacle of war overshadowed the mundanity of disease. 
For Cather and Porter, war and plague blur indistinguishably. Porter’s protagonist falls ill just as she is falling in love with a soldier. While she survives the virus, he does not; but, arguably, he—about to ship out to the front—is dead to her long before the symptoms manifest. The inevitable loss of her lover exposes how bereft she already was: estranged from family, struggling to support herself as a female artist, disenchanted by the politics of war and the corrosions of modernity. The “plague,” as she and her lover refer to it, merely literalizes—disastrously so—the infectious depletions of modern life and the settler state. Her fever dreams send her on a delirious, palimpsestic odyssey through the South—a historic “landscape of disaster” marked by its early slave trade, economic perversities, ecological overdevelopment, familial dysfunction, and social alienation. Her lover even appears to her as an Indian, shot through with arrows in a Coopersque wilderness: it is, plainly, the epidemic illness of settler modernity and war that obliterates him long before the flu can. For Porter, plague indeed became a career-long metaphor for what she referred to as the “grotesque dislocations” of modernity that left the world “heaving.” 
Because of the South’s unique positionality at both the perimeter of American consciousness and the epicenter of its historical atrocities—witness to slavery, Removal, Reconstruction, segregation—the region’s writers seem peculiarly poised to depict the traumas of a pandemic. But they are also uniquely apt to sublimate it.  
Midway through Mississippi writer Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex (1976), his autobiographical protagonist Harry muses on a recently unearthed WWI-era monument in his town: its plaque is “unreadable,” and the experience gives the boy a “hot profound nausea and a headache.” Are these casualties of war or of the flu? Hannah refuses to say, but Harry’s body registers the elision. Later, Harry and his college roommate visit the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, and the latter erupts in vomit—a side-effect of his chronic bout with the “Hudson Bay flu,” an invented illness that does not kill the young man but simply reemerges habitually. On haunted sites that collate deep, expansive settler histories and local tragedies, these southerners both acknowledge and abject their own complicity. “Jesus mercy, I was sad,” Hannah’s protagonist thinks. 
Driven to speak, write, and expel these haunting losses, southern writers struggle to disentangle the personal from the political, the inveterate from the immediate. In the end, both Porter’s and Hannah’s protagonists reflect on the “strange silence” that attends such enormity. “No more war, no more plague,” Porter’s protagonist greets her survival, “only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns.” In “the dead cold light of tomorrow,” she thinks, “Now there would be time for everything.” But what, exactly? Four decades later, Hannah’s narrator realizes that “The horror was, I could think of nothing to say. I couldn’t even think of what to think.” 
Could the literary record of COVID-19 be as barren as that of 1918-19? It is difficult to imagine otherwise, particularly as we begin to see this “novel” virus enfolded by old, deep, systemic inequities. Strange silences, ineffable losses, gutted promises—these are the tangled legacies of global pandemics, national histories, and regional traumas.

About The Author

Melanie Benson Taylor

Melanie Benson Taylor is Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern...

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