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Prologue: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Modern Memory

  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

Abstract

The 1918 influenza pandemic, World War I’s lethal twin, has been neglected in the Western world for almost a century, taking on the aura of a cultural and scientific mystery. Paul Fussell begins his 1975 work The Great War and Modern Memory by noting “the Curious Literariness of Real Life,… the ways that literary tradition and real life transect and the reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature.”1 By simply juxtaposing literature and life, he neatly omitted the difficult and rather inexact process of how real life becomes part of history or literature, where it assumes a stable range of meanings open to debate and takes on a cultural presence and solidity. When read by contemporary audiences, his bold omissions beg questions central to his endeavor. His foundational work suggests other historical events might also share the “Curious Literariness” he describes, opening themselves to exacting interpretation and corresponding with broader paradigms of narrative and meaning even if they remain absent, invisible, or underinterpreted for many decades. This chapter traces the complex processes of repression and recollection surrounding these forgotten parts of the 1918 influenza pandemic, allowing it to reemerge in the last decade of the twentieth century as a vital part of public discourse.

Keywords

Influenza Virus Avian Influenza Influenza Pandemic Oral Tradition Public Memory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Paul Fussell, Preface to The Great War and Modern Memory (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), for a discussion of the culture of war and memory in the twentieth century.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In A War Imagined: The First World War and English Cultures (New York and Oxford: Maxwell Macmillan, 1991), Samuel Hynes focused attention on World War I as a “great imaginative event” (xi; author’s emphasis), while Eric J. Leeds in No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), centers his study on “cultural repetoires of meaning” war participants used to represent their experience (ix). Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s No Mans Land Volumes I–III (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987, 1989, and 1996, respectively) cataloged the war between the sexes spanning the two world wars. Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate edited the collection Women’s Fiction and The Great War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Pearl James edited Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), respectively. Janis P. Stout’s recent book Coming Out of War: Poetry, Grieving and the Cultures of the World Wars (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005) emphasizes World War I poetry, especially women writers, high and low culture, and the connections between the two major world wars. Many other excellent works on World War I literature also exist, with the list here as only a representative sampling.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 391–2.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    For contemporary estimates of international 1918 influenza mortality, see Howard Phillips and David Killingray, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19: New Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003). For estimates of World War I casualties, see Hew Strachan, The First World War (New York: Viking, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 10.
    Maurice Blanchot, Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 3.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 71.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    See Gina Kolata’s book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1999); the documentary Influenza 1918 (Public Broadcasting Service, 2005); and Malcolm Gladwell, “The Dead Zone,” New Yorker, September 29, 1997, 51–65.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    A selection of contemporary fictional works drawing on the 1918 influenza pandemic include Christine Schwarz, Drowning Ruth (New York: Ballantine, 2003); Myla Goldberg, Wickett’s Remedy: A Novel (New York: Anchor, 2006); James Rada, Jr., October Mourning: A Novel of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic (Gettysburg, PA: Legacy Publishing, 2005); Thomas Mullen, The Last Town on Earth (New York: Random House, 2007); and the children’s book by David Getz, Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918 (New York: Holt, 2000).Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Alfred W. Crosby, Americas Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 264 ff; John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Viking, 2004), 406 ff.Google Scholar
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    John Dos Passos, U.SA.: The 42nd Parallel/1919/The Big Money (New York: Library of America, 1996), 867.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Earlier works of popular history focusing on the 1918 pandemic include A. A. Hoehling, The Great Epidemic (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1961); and Richard Collier The Plague of the Spanish Lady (New York: Atheneum, 1974). Contemporary works include Dorothy A. Pettit and Janice Baile, A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America 1918–1920 (Murfreesboro, TN: Timberlane, 2008); and Mark Honigsbaum, Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York: Little Brown, 1929), 229, 238.Google Scholar
  14. 33.
    Charles E. Rosenberg, Explaining Epidemics (Cambridge and London, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 111.Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005), 194.Google Scholar
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    Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York and Toronto: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988), 39–40.Google Scholar
  17. 37.
    Allyson Booth, Postcards from the Trenches: Negotiating the Space between Modernism and the First World War (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 49; author’s emphasis.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 49.Google Scholar
  19. 39.
    Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 122 ff.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 132.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 133.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 127.Google Scholar
  23. 45.
    Selected works of scholarship important in refocusing critical attention on World War I’s impact on literature include Jon Stallworthy’s Wilfred Owen: Complete Poems and Fragments, Volumes I and II (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1983); Modris Eksteins’s Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); Margaret Higonnet’s Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); Karen L. Levenback’s Virginia Woolf and the Great War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999); and Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s two-volume biography of Siegfried Sassoon: Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (1886–1918) and Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches (1919–1967) (New York: Routledge, 1999 and 2003, respectively).Google Scholar
  24. 51.
    David B. Morris, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998), 81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 52.
    See Richard Crawford, “The Spanish Flu,” in Stranger than Fiction: Vignettes of San Diego History (San Diego Historical Society, 1995); and Honigsbaum, Living with Enza.Google Scholar
  26. 56.
    The scientific articles establishing the avian origins of the 1918 influenza virus published since Barry’s comprehensive historical study are (in chronological order): S. J. Gamblin, L. F. Haire, R. J. Russell, D. J. Stevens, B. Xiao, Y. Ha, N. Vasisht, D. A. Steinhauer, R. S. Daniels, A. Elliot, D. C. Wiley, and J. J. Skehell, “The Structure and Receptor Binding Properties of the 1918 Influenza Hemagglutinin,” Science 303.5665 (March 19, 2004): 1838–1842; Darwyn Kobasa, Ayato Takada, Kyoko Shinya, Masato Hatta, Peter Halfmann, Steven Theriault, Hiroshi Suzuki, Hidekazu Nishimura, Keiko Mitamura, Norio Sugaya, Taichi Usui, Takeomi Murata, Yasuko Maeda, Shinji Watanabe, M. Suresh, Takashi Suzuki, Yasuo Suzuki, Heinz Feldmann, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, “Enhanced Virulence of Influenza A Viruses With the Haemagglutinin of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,” Nature 431 (2004): 703–707; Terrence M. Tumpey, Christopher F. Basier, Patricia V. Aguilar, Hui Zeng, Alicia Solórzano, David E. Swayne, Nancy J. Cox, Jacqueline M. Katz, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Peter Palese, and Adolfo García-Sastre, “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus,” Science 310.5745 (2005): 77–80; Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid, Raina M. Lourens, Ruixue Wang, Guozhong Jin, and Thomas G. Fanning, “Characterization of the 1918 Influenza Virus Polymerase Genes,” Nature 437 (2005): 889–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 80.
    Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, 17 ff; Jeffery R. Tautenberg et al., “Characterization of the 1918 Influenza Virus Polymerase Genes,” Nature 437 (2005): 889–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 106.
    Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1996), 2.Google Scholar
  29. 107.
  30. 110.
    Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 37–42.Google Scholar
  31. 111.
    Ibid., 236.Google Scholar
  32. 127.
    Kolata, Flu, 186 ff; Barry, Great Influenza, 455; Tautenberg et al., “Characterization”; Terrence M. Tumpey et al., “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus,” Science 310 (5745): 77–80.Google Scholar
  33. 130.
    Andrew Sullivan, “When Plagues Die,” in Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (New York: Vintage, 1999); Jonathan Engel, The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2006), 240 ff.Google Scholar

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© Jane Elizabeth Fisher 2012

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  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

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