Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative

Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative

Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative

Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative


In the summer of 1629, John Winthrop described a series of epidemics that devastated Native American populations along the eastern seaboard of New England as a "miraculous plague." Winthrop was struck by the providential nature of these waves of disease, which contributed neatly to the settlers' justifications for colonial expansion. Taking Winthrop's phrase as its cornerstone,Miraculous Plaguesre-imagines New England's literary history by tracing seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century epidemics alongside events including early migration, the Antinomian controversy, the evolution of the halfway covenant and jeremiad, and Boston's 1721 inoculation controversy.

Moving beyond familiar histories of New World epidemics (often referred to as the "virgin soil" model), Cristobal Silva identifies epidemiology as a generic category with specialized forms and conventions. Epidemiology functions as both subject and method in Silva's argument, as he details narratives that represent modes of infection, population distribution, and immunity. He considers how regional and generational patterns of illness affected the perception of communal identity, and he analyzes the translation of epidemic events into narrative and generic terms, providing scholars a new way to conceptualize the relationship between immunology and ideology.

Closing with a discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,Miraculous Plaguesunderscores the portability of its insights into the geopolitics of medicine. Just as epidemiology aided in transforming colonial America, it continues to influence questions of geography, community, and identity that are bound up in global health practices today.


The doctors believe they can find the secret of the fever in the
victims’ dead bodies. They cut, saw, extract, weigh, measure. The
dead are carved into smaller and smaller bits and the butchered
parts studied but they do not speak. What I know of the fever I’ve
learned from the words of those I’ve treated, from stories of the
living that are ignored by the good doctors. When lancet and fleam
bleed the victims, they offer up stories like prayers.

—John Edgar Wideman, Fever

When I first settled on the subtitle of Miraculous Plagues during the initial stages of the project, An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative was whimsical, rather than analytic, and meant to intrigue readers, rather than illuminate them. Although it brought together the primary terms that would be central to my research, I had only vague notions of how those terms fit together at the time; I certainly did not foresee what an epidemiology of narrative would look like, nor did I have much more than an intuitive grasp of how such a study would eventually unfold. Despite the fact that “literature and medicine” was an active, well-defined field of study, and biological histories published in the prior thirty years had provided increasingly complex accounts of the effects of epidemics on indigenous peoples in the Americas during the colonial era, neither the disciplinary and nationalist paradigms that had long driven the study of literature, nor the statistical and mathematical tools of modern epidemiology suggested obvious ways to produce a coherent model for the kind of interdisciplinary work that I planned to undertake. and while my primary goal was to bring the analytical methods of literary criticism and epidemiology to bear on one another, the fact that I was trained in a literature department rather than in a medical school made it . . .

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