Now that was a pandemic

Spring chases itself through the trees of the village on the first nice day in about 83 years. The streets of New Paltz are not empty, a little disconcertingly not empty. As I make my daily trek to my mother’s house across town, I just imagine it is Halloween and that for some reason nearly everyone chose a kind of half-assed surgeon’s costume this year. What are the odds?

Today, I head to my mother’s with a bit of burning question in my mind — an historical question for her, an historical being. Anything to get our minds off the acute worry-go-round, I guess of this time and this stage of life. Today some stray link clicking on the CDC website led to an hour engrossed in the story of the Spanish flu.

Spanish influenza set a pretty high bar for global pandemics. Its tallies are staggering: an estimated 52 million dead between 1918 and 1920 worldwide, among them nearly 700,000 Americans. A full two percent of the world’s population fell to it.


Lest we minimize it as some kind of planetary herd thinning of the elderly and infirm, Spanish flu had an appetite for those in the 15-to-35 age range, a population — when you think about it — that had just been pretty aggressively pruned by World War One. Science still doesn’t fully understand this unique property of the 1918 H1N1.

The seamless continuum of ruin that the Spanish flu forms with the Great War may alone explain why the worst of all modern pandemics doesn’t stand out more historically. Civilization, it seems, was inured to acute, voracious tragedy. Everything was already fully disrupted when it hit. The fragmented disjunctions and violence of modernist art, we are taught, were a direct consequence and expression of World War I. The old forms in all the arts no long made sense in a world of war-ravaged social foundations. Methinks Spanish flu may be under-credited for its role in the music of Schoenberg and the poetry of Eliot.

I ask my mother, who turns 93 in days and who was born less than a decade after that historic viral outbreak began, whether awareness of Spanish flu was fresh, the wounds still open, during her childhood.

“Maybe,” she says, I don’t know.”

Ask her about the crash and the Depression, which began in October of her third year on earth, and you get a very different response.

There are 2 comments

  1. Ann Hutton

    Good piece, John. I researched and wrote about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. One great new source of information is Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. As for your mother’s response to what she remembers–Spinney wrote, “The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively. Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.” Unlike the war effort and all the news and hyperbole that went with it, influenza killed people in their homes, one at a time. Many were never diagnosed. And the numbers of casualties may have been under-reported. Now we have a glut of “information” coming at us non-stop through social media. Hard to cope with the onslaught of it all, decipher what’s accurate and what’s not.

  2. Austin

    Well written interesting essay by John and Ann’s reply too. I expected there was more to the story. It sort of ended. 😳

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