The 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Wisdom of Poets, and Trump

Catharine Arnold's "Pandemic 1918" prompts thoughts of mortality and the need for an examined life.

Japanese schoolgirls wearing the ubiquitous face masks of 1918: comforting but of little value.

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, the newly dead Emily Gibbs asks the Stage Manager: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

The Stage Manager tells Emily no.

But then he adds, with a touch of hope: “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

No lines from any other literary work have made a larger impression on me than the ones in that exchange. When I first read them back in high school, I felt I should aim to be like Wilder’s poets. (I knew I could never aspire to sainthood.) And I think I’ve done a fair job of living with that aim. I don’t consider my own life or mortality every, every minute. But I regularly measure time in my head: marking anniversaries, centenaries; noting the passage of the years; calculating how many years I may have left.

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One milestone I observed recently was the two-year anniversary of writing about books for The Clyde Fitch Report. And I’ve done plenty of time-line contemplation in the pieces I’ve written. For instance, in 2017 I covered a book marking the centenary of John F. Kennedy’s birth. Earlier this year, I was drawn to a study of the political upheaval that took place around the world in 1968, precisely half a century ago.

And now I’ve read a book that would put anyone in mind of mortal coils, of the fragility of a lifespan. British writer Catharine Arnold’s Pandemic 1918 is a study of the worldwide influenza outbreak (commonly called Spanish flu) that claimed as many as 100 million lives worldwide at the very time people were slaughtering one another with fighter planes and mustard gas, near the end of World War I.

“Spanish flu” survivor Katherine Anne Porter.

Arnold’s book is subtitled “Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History.” It’s stuffed with accounts of people who witnessed the pandemic firsthand — some having themselves fallen sick but ultimately surviving. Arnold tells of such writers as Katharine Anne Porter (who lived through her illness and wrote about it in Pale Horse, Pale Rider) and Thomas Wolfe (who, in his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel, described the horrific death of his brother at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”).

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But many of the eyewitnesses Arnold presents were ordinary people recalling excruciating childhood memories. For instance, there was John Delano, who was six years old when influenza broke out in his Italian-immigrant home town of New Haven, CT. Before the illness arrived, his young world seemed carefree:

Life to me was just lots of Italians living together…. For every little affair — baptisms, birthdays, Communion — we had a party. It was always parties, parties, parties.

But then came the pandemic. Suddenly, down the block, coffins piled up outside the morgue. John and his young friends wound up playing on them, and one day he fell and broke his nose on one. His mother chided him. Didn’t he realize there were people in those boxes?

Days later, John knocked on his pals’ doors, but nobody came out. His mother told John that God had taken them.

Pandemic 1918 is full of figures. We learn that 14,000 miners in South Africa fell ill by late September 1918. We’re told that 8,573 New Zealanders died from the flu, including 2,160 Maori people. The statistics become mind-numbing at points. It’s the personal accounts, such as Delano’s, that make the human toll fathomable and real. The world didn’t realize fully at the time exactly what had hit them. The strain of influenza that stalked humanity in 1918 was unusual for the swiftness and power with which it struck. It hungered to kill robust young adults, not just infants and the aged. You could feel alive and well in the morning and be rapping at death’s door by nightfall. Lungs filled with pus; faces turned blue.

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It strikes me as odd how little people now know about, talk about or care about this pandemic, just as younger people today have so little sense of how the AIDS outbreak changed life in the 1980s. I told one friend about Arnold’s book, and he was completely unaware of the 1918 crisis. The fact that scientists have not been able to learn all they need to know about the virus should give us all pause — especially as deadly new iterations of avian flu might very well emerge. But there are so many other crises going on now. Who wants to be reminded of a season of death 100 years ago?

Catharine Arnold’s other books include “The Sexual History of London” and “Bedlam.”

As I read Pandemic 1918, mortality was much on my mind. A longtime friend of mine has been nearing the end of his life this summer. And we all witnessed John McCain reach the end of his. Little things remind me of how rapidly my own tempus fugit. I saw an article about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, and learned that I am a few weeks older than that venerable patriarch. That was a bit of a cosmic wake-up call. Much of the time I still feel like I’m a youngster. Apparently not.

Early in August I went from NYC back to Oregon for a big family gathering at the Wood property, where my father passed away this March in the house he’d called home for nearly 80 years. Afterward, I and family members sorted the contents of an old trunk: Grandma Wood’s citation for excellence in her high-school German classes; scads of baby booties for the tiniest of feet; diplomas earned by my late uncle Vance; Life magazines from the weeks following the Kennedy assassination.

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Even when the menace of Trump is gone, we shall not be past the pestilence.

I did my usual figuring, and calculated that Grandpa Wood (who died back in the 1940s) would likely have been courting my grandmother in 1918. When I was growing up, she and I would spend much time together. She would tell me a great deal about her early life: her classmates, her beaux, even her high school’s production of The Lamentable Tragedy of Omelet and Oatmealia. But I don’t recall her ever talking about the influenza crisis. Had the rampaging health menace steered clear of her part of Wisconsin? Or was the pandemic too painful an episode to tell your grandkid about? Or maybe it was just that, once the global health crisis passed (which it did, in 1919), the rest of life absorbed her. She and my grandfather married at the top of the 1920s, and soon there were kids growing up and a Great Depression and another World War and big stretches of life that needed to be lived. There was no time for — and, perhaps, no obvious sense in — thinking at length about death (the memento mori thing) or realizing one’s life every, every minute (the memento vivere thing).

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My first article for CFR appeared at about the time of the last primary elections of 2016. It was a look back at Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, and it examined how the rise of Donald Trump mirrored Lewis’ fictional account of a fascist American presidency in the 1930s. Almost everything I’ve written here since that first post has been colored in some way by the unprecedented events of the past two years: national conventions, debates, election, inauguration, pussy hats, Steele dossier, Charlottesville, Helsinki. Whether I was covering books about toxic masculinity, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Chicago’s Haymarket Riot, the outrages of the Trump regime have been front and center in my mind.

Those outrages were there, too, as I prepared to write about Arnold’s book. But I found that I was reading it at a time when things in the White House seemed to be reaching a turning point. Some of the president’s key cronies — Michael Cohen, David Pecker, Allen Weisselberg — appear now to have “flipped,” shedding their loyalty to Trump like so much useless snake skin. Anything can happen in the next few months, of course, including nothing. But I sense strongly that this presidency is unraveling. Yes, “it” can indeed happen here. And it did happen here. But it doesn’t need to keep happening. For the first time in two years, I feel that the end of the Trump era may be nigh.

At the same time, I consider what happened in November 1918 as the Armistice arrived. As Arnold describes it, people were ebullient in the streets when news came of the end of the war. But, at the same time, people continued to die from influenza. Some breathed their last while church bells rang out to spread the happy news. For many families, the joy was muted.

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When the menace of Trump is gone — and somehow, sometime, he will be gone — we, too, shall not be fully out of the woods, not completely past the pestilence. The possibility of a Pence administration looms. And, even if America is drenched by blue tsunamis this November and in 2020, the virus that created an epidemic of bigotry and a blatant disregard for truth won’t have been washed away. In the midst of our relief, as the blessed bells ring, we’ll still need to contend with the coffins piled on the sidewalk in front of the morgue.

Maybe there will be some permanent sort of changes made. Maybe we will have taken to heart the need for rule of law and for protecting our electoral process. We’ll want to ensure that our government recommits itself, post-Trump/Pence, to a realignment with rational thought — with science, for Christ’s sake. It’s scientists who continue to fight to protect us against medical emergencies like the 1918 epidemic and who’ll continue to seek ways to reverse climate change, the ongoing scourge of our own era. So, yes, heed the scientists!

Maybe we will also contemplate the wisdom of poets. We need them to remind us of the importance of “realizing life,” as Emily Gibbs put it — as well as of the impossibility of realizing life all the time. It’s fine to get out of our heads sometimes. We can stop the incessant measuring of minutes, months and years, and carry on with the living of our lives.