Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Have You No Regard for Oblivion?"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Have You No Regard for Oblivion?"

Article excerpt

Envisioning Disease, Gender, and War:

Women's Narratives of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

by Jane Fisher

Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 262 pages

Brian Dillon

Nearly a century after an influenza epidemic began in the final months of World War I, then swiftly and viciously spread across continents, the death toll continues to defy rational processing. From March 1918 until 1920, Jane Fisher notes in Envisioning Disease, Gender, and War, "at least 50 million people worldwide and probably closer to 100 million" (14) died from the fever, often with fluid-filled lungs. The remarkably imprecise statistics on the death toll reflect, in part, the international sweep of the disease. Recent research shows "Africa suffering a higher death rate than Europe, Asia having the highest death rates of all."Some countries, including Nigeria, lacked precise records for causes of fatalities. Even where records were maintained, experts could not distinguish between pneumonia and the virus-born influenza, nor could the elevated numbers of "stillborns and women lost in childbirth" in the United States be accurately linked to the influenza (as poet Ellen Bryant Voigt notes in her terse, staggering commentary following her 1995 sonnet sequence Kyrie [781). Fisher's extensively researched prologue summarizes the scientific findings, which have increased significantly in the last generation, prompted in good part by Alfred Crosby's 1989 America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Misnamed colloquially as "the Spanish influenza" because Spain, not directly engaged in the war and thus free from wartime media censorship, allowed accounts to be published about the mysterious disease, the origins of the influenza remain under debate. An army base in Kansas? In "rural Asia, where pigs, poultry, and people cohabitate closely" (1.1)? Fisher, weighing in on this debate, contends that "Recent scientific research has confirmed the avian origin of the 1918 influenza virus."When readers of World War I literature contemplate this conclusion, they may recognize a weird irony in the fact that the creatures that play such life-affirming roles in this literature, from the singing larks that announced the break of day in Isaac Rosenberg's memorable poem to the canaries depended upon by the tunnelers in Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, could be the culprit of such devastation.

In contrast to the substantial canon of such literature written both during and since the war--from Wilfred Owen's five poems published during the conflict to Belfast-based Michael Longley's poems prompted by his Ether's military experience, from Vera Brittain's memoirs detailing her service as a nurse and her personal losses to Pat Barker's trilogy of historically-grounded novels--few literary works address the effects of the influenza pandemic. Fisher attributes this to the pandemic's contrast with World War I, which, she argues, "took place within comprehensible parameters" (9). The war's obscene motives, irrational military tactics, and individual acts of heroism allow for, even invite, discussions of various kinds in historical texts and literary works. Recall Krebs in Heming way's "Soldier's Home" who returns to Kansas from his overseas service roughly a half year after the war ended: he spends his afternoons reading the newly published. historical volumes on the battles he participated in.' "Conversely," Fisher writes, "the 1918 influenza pandemic remains still largely a mystery, challenging human understanding in terms of its origin, its extent, its epidemiology, and its precise mortality and morbidity" (9). Media censorship in both the US and Europe contributed to the consequent silence in literature of the time. Even though Fisher narrows her discussion to literature written by women (with the exception of some brief commentary on the male African Elechi Amadi's The Great Ponds), her endnotes outline a relatively small body of literature prompted by the pandemic. …

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