How Pandemics Seep into Literature


Arts & Culture

Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918.

In October of 1918, a delirious Katherine Anne Porter experienced what she termed “the beatific vision.” Close to death from the novel influenza virus that would kill 50–100 million people, Porter felt transported to a paradisal landscape, one free of the pain and fear that had overtaken her body. To the surprise of all, she survived her illness, and later transformed the experience into her powerful novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That story is one of the few literary works directly about the pandemic that killed more people in the United States than the country lost in all the twentieth- and twenty-first-century wars, combined. The experience, Porter said, “simply divided my life … and after I was in some strange way altered … it took me a long time to go out and live in the world again.”

COVID-19 promises to alter us all in strange ways. It’s a paradigm-shifting event that divides lives and cultures into a before and after. We will emerge changed, though how those changes will manifest is far from certain. The sensory details of this outbreak—the masks, the faces of doctors and nurses creased with worry and fatigue, the closure signs, the antiseptic smells, the empty streets, the stacks of coffins—will weave their way into our minds and bodies, triggering us back to this moment years in the future. For me, the experience has also held an uncanny familiarity. I have spent the last five years writing a book about how the sensory and affective climate of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic infuses interwar literature, often in ways we have not recognized. My new awareness of the traces of that pandemic shifts my perception of this one, as if the sights and sounds from a century ago have re-emerged, becoming timely in ways I both feared and never wanted.

Comparisons between the influenza pandemic and COVID-19 have been widespread as we scramble for some map of how this outbreak might unfold. Through a medical lens, we ask which virus is worse. Do they spread in similar ways? How did public life change both then and now? Are there lessons that might be drawn or mistakes that might be avoided? Some differences between the two outbreaks are already clear: the 1918-19 pandemic killed healthy young adults at astonishing rates, and influenza seemed like a familiar rather than a new threat, despite the unique virulence of the strain, which meant it was even easier to dismiss—at least at first. And the timing mattered: the influenza pandemic came on the heels of the deadliest war the world had yet to see, an overlap that meant the pandemic received far less attention, despite killing so many more people. The second mass-death event in five years, the pandemic arrived when the world was already overrun with corpses and grief.

Yet the literature that arose from the influenza pandemic speaks to our current moment in profound ways, offering connections in precisely the realms where art excels: in emotional landscapes, in the ways a past moment reverberates into the present, in the ineffable conversation between the body’s experiences and our perception of the world.

Right now, every few days brings another reality into focus; what seemed far-fetched yesterday arrives tomorrow. The past is always another country, but the speed at which knowledge becomes outdated, naivete turns to realization, and basic truths change is dizzying during a pandemic. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Porter wove her own paradigm-altering experience into a broader meditation on the vertigo induced by such shifts. She encodes these swings in a play of styles, moving between a hallucinatory, dreamlike language to convey the virus’s invasion of bodies and a more straightforward, realist style to convey the war. Part of the challenge for the characters is to read correctly the story they are in; saturated in a war story that is terrible but familiar, this narrative is what seems real. They know their roles (male soldier, female civilian), the threat (artillery warfare), the enemies and the allies, and they know how this story ends (death for the soldier). Caught up in this paradigm, they miss that reality has changed, that the enemy is now invisible, that women face equal threats, that the home front is as dangerous as the front lines. There are consequences for misreading: as they worry over the threat to the soldier’s body in war, they circulate through restaurants, theaters, hospitals, and workplaces. Even after one of them falls ill, they touch and kiss and share cigarettes, believing themselves in the outdated story as a new delirium takes over the narrative and their lives. Porter captures the emotional and physical jolts of a constantly shifting reality, and the inherent risks in failing to adjust quickly enough to a new paradigm.

One’s reality doesn’t simply shift in a pandemic; it becomes radically uncertain—indeed, uncertainty is the reality. The unpredictability of the COVID-19 virus and all we don’t know about it means we have no idea where we are in the story or even what story we are in. Is this the first wave of something even deadlier to come? Have we reached the top of the curve? What’s the scope of the tragedy? Is the economy the real story? What do we think we know now that may prove fatally wrong? The narrative uncertainty causes many of us to turn to genre fiction and predictable movies (even if they are about disaster)—they allow us to pull down another story like a shade and sit in a place where we already know the ending. The modernist literature I spend my days teaching and studying typically grants the opposite, capturing the fragmentation and plotlessness of a postwar/postpandemic world. T. S. Eliot, who along with his wife caught the flu during the pandemic, felt weighed down by what he termed the “domestic influenza” of his health and home life, and his worries that his mind had been affected by his illness. The Waste Land—a poem about so many things and one that channels the larger zeitgeist of his moment—turns this uncertainty into a climate, with its fogs, its corpse-haunted domestic landscape, its pervasive sense of living death, and its delirious language.

The uncertainty rises, too, from the invisibility of the enemy. The consciousness is tuned to a threat that might be everywhere but cannot be seen. A world of surfaces and people become suspect, the body porous and vulnerable. W. B. Yeats captures this sense of menace in “The Second Coming,” a poem composed in the weeks after he watched his pregnant wife come close to death in the pandemic. The 1918 virus routinely drowned people in their beds as their lungs filled with fluids, and it caused sudden bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ears. The poem’s sense of chaos and horror comes, of course, from many causes, including war, revolution, and Ireland’s political violence, but the poem also speaks to the terror of an agentless, hidden threat, one that drowns innocence and lets loose mere anarchy and a blood-dimmed tide.

The invisibility of the threat in turn produces what we might term contagion guilt, a haunting fear that one might pass a deadly infection to another. Routes of transmission are known generally but rarely specifically; one fears but does not know the precise means of transfer. In William Maxwell’s elegiac novel They Came Like Swallows, which recalls his own pregnant mother’s death in the influenza pandemic, the characters are haunted by all the what-ifs: what if they had taken their boy out of school earlier? What if they had chosen the next train car rather than the first one? What if they had not entered the room that day? Such guilt can live in the mind as a low-lying presence, unresolved and unresolvable. And this guilt comes, too, in its anticipatory form—what if that touch, that visit, that missed hand wash harms a loved one or a stranger? Porter’s central character in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” dreams of a nightmarish invisible bow that shoots arrows at her beloved, who dies again and again despite her attempted interventions.

As we are witnessing every day, a toxic brew of uncertainty and fear also flows into well-worn channels of scapegoating and cruelty, turning an invisible viral enemy into an illusory but visible foe. The xenophobia woven into a “Chinese virus” or even the “Spanish flu” sets up whole groups for denunciation. Factual medical descriptions of contagion, disease, and contamination morph into poisonous discriminatory metaphors of moral uncleanness and danger. The early-twentieth-century horror writer H. P. Lovecraft channeled into his postwar/postpandemic writing his prejudicial and homophobic beliefs that immigrant hordes and deviants were tainting pure Aryan blood lines. After the influenza pandemic had swept through his home state of Rhode Island, Lovecraft populated his stories with proto-zombie figures rising from the dead in the midst of pandemics or wars, bent on further destruction. Lovecraft transforms a miasmic blend of diseased atmospheres and deep-seated prejudices into monsters that can be seen and killed with impunity, a move that suggests the dangerous ways anthropomorphizing the threat may mask vicious discriminatory impulses.

And yet what pulses through all these works—and through our current moment—is the body itself. Virginia Woolf, who knew so much about illness and whose heart was damaged by her encounter with the 1918 virus, observes in her essay “On Being Ill” how illness and the body are left out of our art and conscious experiences. We deny how in truth, “all day, all night the body intervenes.” In the midst of acute illness, the world both narrows and broadens into the body’s suffering, an experience hidden in part because of the profound isolation it so often produces. As Woolf writes, “those great wars which [the body] wages by itself…in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever” go unrecorded. The post-1918 pandemic works encode these internal battles, sometimes directly and sometimes in fragments and echoes. They capture the way a virus may shatter the body’s internal perceptions, the way fever and pain and fear of death turn reality into delirium. Porter depicts this mode by having the virus seem to infect the very prose, the cascading viral chaos reflected through the broken syntax and the invading dreamscapes, the disruption echoing “the terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire.” The Waste Land and “The Second Coming,” read through the lens of a body’s internal delirium, record hallucinatory realities, fragmented perception, the burning pain of fever and ache.

And finally, there comes the aftermath, both for our bodies and for our culture. How do such experiences live on in the cells, in the memory, in the streets? The continued sense of living death, of an experience that marks us with its shadow, echoes even after a pandemic passes. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, so often read as a novel capturing the aftermath of war—which it most certainly does—also records in its title character the physical and mental exhaustion that lingers after an illness. Like Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway has heart damage from her encounter with influenza, and as she moves through the streets of London and at home, she sees her world through her sense of bodily vulnerability, her very heartbeat and its lags pulsing through the memories of her illness. The sights and sounds and smells of the sickroom float back through her consciousness, shifting the ways she perceives the London day. Whether in illness or in observation, our own bodies are busy now. They are recording our pandemic, setting in place the reverberations that will echo into our future.


Elizabeth Outka is a professor of literature at the University of Richmond. Her latest book, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature is out from Columbia University.