The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Literature and Memory
Hovanec, Caroline Louise
Although the outbreak of “Spanish flu” in 1918-1919 has been labeled a “forgotten pandemic,” it has made a significant mark on literature and culture, especially that of the 1930s. This paper examines three works of that decade that address the pandemic: John O’Hara’s short story “The Doctor’s Son,” William Maxwell’s novel <i>They Came Like Swallows</i>, and Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel <i>Pale Horse, Pale Rider</i>. These works treat the flu as a material and historical event and as a figure for other threats to the integrity and boundedness of the human body. “The Doctor’s Son” provides an entry into contextualizing the impact of the flu on the United States. <i>Swallows</i> delves into the possibilities of contagion as metaphor for other kinds of exchange and boundary crossings. <i>Pale Horse, Pale Rider</i> offers a vision of the modern body as marked by illness and injury in even its most normative manifestations. These works are especially relevant in the twenty-first century, as outbreaks of avian and swine flu trigger memories of 1918, and some currents of discourse on contagious disease tend to stigmatize the illness and those who suffer from it.