By Jeremy Ray Jewell
At a time when fear of the influenza was in danger of being deemed unpatriotic, art retreated to nationalism or escapism.
Personal reminiscences of the 1918 flu pandemic — the so-called Spanish flu — are sparse. Known as “the deadliest pandemic in history,” it is puzzling that the lives and deaths of the illness’s sufferers were so thinly undocumented. In Spain, the “Spanish” flu (which may have originated in Kansas) was called the “Soldado de Nápoles” or “Neapolitan Soldier.” The name was inspired by the song from a popular zarzuela “La canción del olvido” (“The Song of Forgetting”): “si muero quieriendote / que muerte tan buena (“If I die loving you / what a good death).” One of the work’s librettists, Federico Romero, boasted that the song was as catchy as the flu. For many others, WWI was uppermost in mind. In fact, it was the relative absence of war reporting in neutral Spain that permitted the first accurate reports of the illness to spread. Overall, the massive armed conflicts pushed the pandemic and its suffering into the background. The agonies of the flu eventually became classified as private, in contrast to the death toll of the public battles.
At a time when fear of the influenza was in danger of being deemed unpatriotic, art retreated to nationalism or escapism. Musical theater historian John Kenrick observes that “vaudeville and the legitimate theatre faced the very real prospect of financial ruin.” Yet in P.G. Wodehouse’s romantic comedy about a young woman in New York who unexpectedly inherits a fortune, The Adventures of Sally, the pandemic barely rates a cameo. Serialized in Collier’s in 1921, the farcical tale of misadventure involves numerous aspiring theater artists but barely mentions the pandemic’s impact on Broadway and the real world.
Deaths from this poorly understood virus reached as many as 50 million, so claims for folk remedies and snake oils abounded. Yet the highest-grossing film of 1919 (the one largely responsible for the subsequent success of Paramount Pictures), The Miracle Man, delivers a heartwarming message about the transformative power of medical scams. A gang of confidence artists leave their Chinatown haunt in New York and hatch a plot featuring a New England patriarch with alleged healing powers. Instead of pulling off their scam, they end up converted from their evil ways.
There were a few exceptions to this artistic indifference. Texan Katherine Anne Porter would catch the disease in Denver in 1918, surviving it — though her hair turned permanently white — at the age of 28. The harrowing experience inspired her 1939 narrative “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”: “The stranger swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time.” (Arts Fuse commentary on the novella.) The pandemic might have been a catalyst for themes of fate, tragedy, and stoicism that became prevalent in Southern Gothic literature. It is revealing that the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) says he lost his father to the “epidemic flu” while also suggesting that “the papers” say he killed him. The Misfit yearns to be the agent of death (perhaps acting out his fantasy of parricide) rather than the Spanish flu.
There are no better American artifacts that express the personal impact of the pandemic than the songs sung by bluesmen. Essie Jenkins’s “The 1919 Influenza Blues” exposes the follies of the rich and their arrogant presumptions of security. Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon” bears a more millennialist message — the last hope of the oppressed — and one which, with ironic echoes today, questions the elites’ insistence that schools and churches be closed. Both tunes remark on the transmission and spread of the flu (“It floated through the air,” “People were dying everywhere / Death was creepin’ all through the air”), as well as the failures of medical professionals. “The doctors they got troubled and they didn’t know what to do,” sings Johnson, “They gathered themselves together, they called it the Spanish flu,” Jenkins explains, “The doctor said it soon would be in a few days influenza would be controlled. Doctor sure man he got had. Sent the doctors all home to bed and the nurses all broke out with the same.” In both of these compositions American society is condemned, along with a belief that the global wave of death and suffering should have — must have — a purpose.
Looking back now, the cultural amnesia that followed the pandemic should not be all that unexpected. There was the slaughter of WWI, as well as social unrest and revolution from Russia to Mexico. Dying of the Spanish flu often meant, for all practical purposes, expiring from those world-historic events. And there may well be a class element to the forgetting. COVID-19 circulates among all classes, yet the arrogance of the wealthiest exposes the rest of us to greater harm. And it turns out that the poor and the working-class are hit harder than others. Millions of the underclass died during the 1918 pandemic, but there is a difference between then and now. With the advent of the internet, the rise of HIV/AIDS activism, and growth of technology, experiences with COVID-19 are being routinely recorded. There was much less interest in chronicling the demise of the poor a hundred years ago. So we may feel some relief that our predecessors did not. But it is unclear whether in the future these memories will inspire art, engage politicians, or trigger major reforms in our health care industry.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.