Influenza and Embodied Sociality in Early Twentieth-Century American Literature

Title

Influenza and Embodied Sociality in Early Twentieth-Century American Literature

Creator

Bracken Rachel Conrad

Publisher

American Literary History

Date

2020
1905-07

Description

This article reads two early twentieth-century American novels, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows (1937) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), in relation to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19 and the history of public health. Beyond serving as a literary record of “America’s forgotten pandemic,” it interprets these novels as experiments in what I term “embodied sociality”: a biocultural model of social life encompassing both the abstract, symbolic dimensions of community belonging and the concrete, biological contours of collective living made visible through the spread of infectious disease. I argue that Swallows and Pale Horse challenge the logic of “modern health citizenship,” which prioritized personal hygiene measures to prevent the spread of influenza through a community, that was promoted in turn-of-the-century public health efforts. Instead, these novels destabilize perceptions of the body as a discrete and potentially impermeable entity, revealing how to belong to a community is to be susceptible to the unseen agents of disease that move between bodies in close proximity, as well as to be, albeit unwittingly, a potential carrier of disease. Attending to embodied sociality as made visible by the flu, these novels necessitate a new way of writing pandemic—one that blends the narrative conventions of plague writing and autopathography. In so doing, I contend, Pale Horse and Swallows invite us to reimagine embodiment and community belonging by holding the local and global, personal and political, individual and collective dimensions of pandemic together. "When we recognize pandemic as simultaneously individual and communal, the boundaries that differentiate proximal bodies from one another and from a collective social body blur. And this knowledge, in turn, transforms the way we write pandemic."

Subject

influenza; embodied sociality; american literature

Identifier

Format

journalArticle

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Rights

Article information provided for research and reference use only. All rights are retained by the journal listed under publisher and/or the creator(s).

Pages

507-534

Issue

3

Volume

32

ISSN

0896-7148

NEOMED College

NEOMED College of Medicine

NEOMED Department

Department of Family & Community Medicine

Update Year & Number

February 2021 List

Citation

Bracken Rachel Conrad, “Influenza and Embodied Sociality in Early Twentieth-Century American Literature,” NEOMED Bibliography Database, accessed March 4, 2021, https://neomed.omeka.net/items/show/11580.

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