Written by Kirsten Macdonald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherlock Holmes and Zombies piece together a picture of our culture, one that ravaged the world with the spanish flu over 100 years ago.
A LETTER FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, QUARANTINED IN 1920 IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE DURING THE SPANISH INFLUENZA OUTBREAK.
It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that, he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.
The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.
You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand.
In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.
PS: I thought this would be a nice break from the news. Next week I will publish my perspectives on what we’ve all been through this week. N- this is a parody letter designed to lift your spirits care of this wicked fellow
The Great Gatsby by Scott f Fitzgerald available here.
Walt Disney was 17 when he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in September 1918.
He came down with the flu while serving on the south side of Chicago. He returned home to be nursed back to health by his mother. Walt Disney survived it and went on to draw a famous mouse.
original print Mickey Mouse available here
Katherine Anne Porter is the iconic author of the short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider and well known for a fictional account of the epidemic. Katherine herself became very ill with the flu and nearly died, her romantic interest at the time died from the same strain and set the sad interpretation and muse for Pale Horse. She is reported to say
“It (the flu) just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready.”
Science journalist Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World
“It was a pandemic of influenza that struck in three waves. The first, mild wave in the Northern hemisphere’s spring of 1918 receded in the summer or late spring. A much more lethal second wave erupted in the latter part of August and receded towards the end of that year, and the third wave emerged in the early months of 1919.”
She goes on to say “Russia was the first, followed by Western European nations, to put in place socialized healthcare systems. Along with that comes epidemiology, the search for patterns and causes and effects of patterns in healthcare and alternative medicine took off in a big way and spread around the world.”
Laura’s book available here
Historical literature expert Susan F. Beegel is Editor of The Hemingway Review and an Associate Professor of English.
Recently featured on a podcast, Susan mentions Hemingway likened the Spanish flu to war, a shocking way to go. The normally reductionist writer spoke gravely about the ‘battle.’ He lost family members to it.
“My grandmother talked about going to work one day and working with a doctor, and coming in the very next day, and the doctor was dead. Before the pandemic burned itself out, it killed approximately 5 check . It killed more people than World War I itself, it claimed more lives than the Black Death of the Middle Ages in 100 years, and more people in 24 weeks than AIDS in its first 24 years. And most of these people were young people, or the majority of them, between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, and historians who study this say maybe killed between 8% to 10% of the world’s total population of people in this age group.” You can hear more of this podcast – click here
Spiritualism took off in a big way after so many deaths.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, whose son and younger brother died of influenza was a big promoter of spiritualism. Doyle sold-out events discussing spiritualist ideas and showing “spirit photographs,” which claimed to show living people with the “ghosts” of dead family members standing behind them.
Gregorios Xenopoulos October 1918 was a novelist, journalist and writer of plays from Zakynthos. He was lead editor in the magazine The Education of Children during the period from 1896 to 1948, during which time he was also the magazine’s main author. He wrote poetically about the flu as a Spanish woman.
“As only if I could speak Spanish, I would be able to get on with this odd lady. The first thing that I would beg her would be not to invade so suddenly – she could understand me, if I could speak to her in her language. What a devil! Forty degrees of fever, suddenly, without any warning are not a joke! The invasion of forty crazy masqueraders in the saloon, during the carnival celebration, wouldn’t increase the temperature as much as the invasion of this lady. Despite the fact that ‘children’ of Andalusia are warm and lively, in a foreign place, they should behave in a distinctive way… I would also beg her not to stay for so long! Forty days visit is performed not by the Armenian, but by the Spanish lady… As for forty days, I couldn’t stand up on my legs, as during all these days I was obliged to entertain my crazy visitor… Hot drinks, quinine, suction cups, mustard plasters, foot washes, tonic regimes and so on… And as I didn’t know Spanish, I couldn’t even study, during the hours that Mrs. Influenza was letting me alone, the ‘Don Quixote’ from the original text!…’
Elizabeth Outka, associate professor of English at the University of Richmond says in her book Viral Modernism -The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature;
“Writers wrestled with the scope of mass death in the domestic sphere amid fears of wider social collapse. Overt treatments of the pandemic are seen in works by authors like Katherine Anne Porter and Thomas Wolfe and its subtle presence in works by Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats.”
HP Lovecraft was said to be inspired to create Zombies with the Herbert West–Reanimator after the Spanish flu.
One thing we must remember, society’s fear of a looming demise is as old as time itself. Pandemics are not unprecedented; we have been here before. During the Spanish flu, those in quarantine were lead to reflect, express and found ways and means of surviving, creating and breathing life into storytelling and art.
Right now, we are all living through an event our future children will learn about. What beauty will they be taught? How shall we inspire them? What will we change?
One thing will continue to raise us up; the joy of true faith, friendship, humour and as the great Mr Fitzgerald mentioned; red wine, whiskey, rum, gin, and lord, if you need it, brandy might help too.
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