Plague Reading

At the request of our friends at the Coral Gables Democratic Club, we’ve put together a list of plague or quarantine -adjacent reading from the pre-1900 US literary tradition. Descriptions and links to good editions available through Books and Books appear below.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.

Walden has the odd power of bringing “truthers” out of the woodwork who believe that it is somehow damning news that Thoreau’s cabin was, as he states in the book’s first paragraph, “a mile from any neighbor” (but not more), and that Thoreau would on occasion take meals, socialize, and even wash clothes in the town of Concord where his family and friends resided.

Viewed properly, in Thoreau’s own terms, Walden was never meant to be an exercise in subsistence purism, but rather as he puts it, an effort “to live deliberately.” To live at Walden for two years for Thoreau was to examine critically the elements of the rapidly modernizing world and decide which ones to accept and reject, and, most importantly, to use his relative isolation to study the natural world around him.

Crucially, like many of us stuck where we are rather than in some idyllic retreat, Thoreau did not camp out deep in the woods, but rather in the Concord town woodlot, an aggressively un-special and non-secluded natural site along the railroad tracks which he managed to spin into magic through his own powers of patient observation.

It is also useful to recall that Thoreau’s era was rife with its own epidemics—cholera, yellow fever, and, particularly, pandemic tuberculosis, which sickened many of the Transcendentalists and their families and eventually killed Thoreau himself in 1862, when he was just 44. (MS)

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale.

Moby-Dick is best known for its length, the seemingly perverse detail with which it attends to the mechanics of the whaling industry, and its tragically obsessed ship Captain Ahab.  It is also, however, a weird, beautiful, and hilarious work about the lives of a diverse band of laborers doing dangerous work for dubious ends on a vessel they are unable to leave.

Since its return to literary favor in the 1920s, Moby-Dick has inspired all manner of artistic reimagining, from Charles Olson, to Frank Stella, to Jack Heggie, to Matt Kish. A great benefit of reading Moby-Dick now is the wealth of new artistic fan activity the novel has gained in the digital age. One great example is the University of Plymouth’s “Moby Dick Big Read”, which features a different writer or actor reading each of the 136 chapters (which you can download as podcasts if you like) and a different contemporary artist providing a visual response. (MS)

Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches

In addition to writing Little Women, Alcott experimented with a wide range of prose genres during her lifetime from the gothic tales to social exposés. In Hospital Sketches, she depicts the challenges faced by a Civil War nurse who gains insights into the conflict along the way by chatting with the wounded. In these accounts of a healthcare worker grappling with the traumas of war, Alcott manages to blend humor with social commentary.  (JF)

Charles Brockden Brown, Ormond: Or, the Secret Witness.

Brown is one of the great weird early American writers, who published a raft of gothic novels and short fiction during a brief period around 1800.  Brown was based in Philadelphia, which suffered a major deadly yellow fever epidemic in 1793, which provides the initial setting of Ormond, as well as another Brown novel Arthur Mervyn.  This same historic epidemic is also the setting of the twentieth-century collection Fever by John Edgar Wideman. (MS)

Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Even more so than Thoreau, Dickinson is US literature’s most famous adherent of shelter-in-place. As the work of someone who disdained not only public life, but also publicity and even publication during her lifetime, Dickinson’s poems tend to dwell on the explosive significance of the minute and the local. “I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—/ Life’s little duties do—precisely—/ As the very least/ Were infinite—to me—” (MS)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

One of the best-known slave narratives, Jacobs’s work explores the specific, gendered sufferings of the enslaved woman. While tracing the arc of her life from slavery to freedom, the narrative is perhaps best known for its account of the seven years Jacobs spent hiding in a small attic prior to her escape.  Her own painful version of “social separation”—she was able to have visits from some family members and was kept alive and abreast of the lives of her children through their help—serves to remind us that confinement looks different from the perspective of the truly unfree. (MS)

Edgar Allan Poe, “Masque of the Red Death: A Fantasy”

One of Poe’s most well-known works, this short story revolves around Prince Prospero and his social circle as they hold a masquerade in the Prince’s abbey. Oblivious to the world around them, the revelers gather in this secluded spot while a deadly plague ravages the less fortunate.  (JF)





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