One-Minute Book Reviews

May 1, 2009

Flu in Fiction – Katherine Anne Porter and Thomas Wolfe

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A lot of people have been writing about Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novella inspired by Porter’s near-fatal struggle with flu during the 1918 pandemic. But Thomas Wolfe also wrote memorably about the catastrophic illness his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel.

Hilton Als says in an article on Porter the April 20 New Yorker:

“In ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ the heroine, Miranda, takes ill during the flu pandemic of 1918. Living on scant wages in a boarding house, she contemplates her immediate past from her sickbed, and among the images that loom and leer in her dreams the most significant involve a horse she rode while growing up on a farm in the South—the horse, we gradually understand, symbolizes death.”

Als quotes a Paris Review interview in which Porter said of the flu:

“It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day,’ the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.”

Less attention has gone lately to the fictionalized account given by Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel. Gina Kolata writes in Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) that Wolfe was a student at the University of North Carolina in 1918 when he got a telegram, asking him to return home immediately:

“His brother, Benjamin Harrison Wolfe, was ill with the flu. He tells the thinly fictionalized story in Chapter 35 of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

“Wolfe came home to a deathwatch. His brother was lying in a sickroom upstairs while his family waited for what they feared was inevitable. Wolfe went upstairs to the ‘gray, shaded light’ of the room where Ben lay. And he saw, ‘in that moment of searing recognition,’ that his beloved 26-year-old brother was dying.”

Wolfe writes in Look Homeward, Angel that the stand-in for his brother, a character also named Ben, lay in his bed, the outline of his body “bitterly twisted below the covers, in an attitude of struggle and torture.” Ben’s sallow complexion had turned gray and his body gasped for air:

“And the sound of this gasping – loud, hoarse, rapid, unbelievable, filling the room, and every moment in it – gave to the scene its final note of horror.”

Read an excerpt from Look Homeward, Angel.

CDC Projected Death Toll for Flu Pandemic: 89,000 to 207,000 People — Army Estimates That 1.7 Million Americans Could Die

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In 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on what might happen if a pandemic virus – similar to the relatively mild virus of 1968 – struck the United States. It estimated that between 89,000 and 207,000 people in the U.S. would die. Why so many?

John Barry responds in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Penguin, 2005):

“The reason for this high toll is the same reason that the CDC has concluded that, despite medical advances,  more Americans are now dying from ordinary, endemic influenza than in the past: in 1918, 1957, and even 1968 relatively few people alive had impaired immune systems. Today a large and growing number of people do – primarily the elderly, but also cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation, transplant recipients, those infected with HIV, and others.”

The figures in the first paragraph appear in Barry’s fine book, and his endnotes give their source as “Modeling the Economic Impact of Pandemic Influenza in the United States: Implications for Setting Priorities for Intervention,” by Martin I. Meltzer, Nancy J. Cox, and Keiji Fukuda. (See Figure 2 under “Results – Deaths.”) Meltzer’s paper has other information about the possible scope of a pandemic, including the percentages of deaths expected in different age groups.

Barry also writes that “the World Health Organization estimates that a virus akin to that of 1968 would, in today’s world, kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people worldwide.” The Washington Post reported in 2006 that WHO estimated that a virus akin to that of 1918 would kill 62 million people worldwide.

The CDC’s projected figures are much lower than those in a United States Army War College Program Research Paper “The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Implications for Homeland Security in the New Millennium,” which you can find easily by pasting the phrase in quotations into the Google search bar (though I can’t seem to link to it). That paper puts the estimated death toll for a flu pandemic at 1.7 million Americans.

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