Category: History

Black(s) Coffee

Here is a link to Historical Views on Contagion… in this case, Yellow Fever in Philadelphia.

It outlines some of the beliefs surrounding the disease at the time, for example Benjamin Rush thought that the origin of the disease was a pile of rotting coffee beans and that Blacks were immune to yellow fever… neither of these are true.


1790s Philadelphia

Fever Killed the Men
Slave Owners
Statistics during the Fever (Defoe Style)
The “Swelling” of the Fever

Here are four pictures that portray several aspects of the city during the Yellow Fever in Philadelphia. Statistics from the photo on the left shows the abundance of women in the city as “Wives were deserted by husbands” and “Men were seized by the disease in the streets” (pp.99).
















These photos can be found here (for the maps), and here (for the mortality rates)

Heard in ordinary Discourse

With Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year we shift from plague frameworks (as in Oedipus and The Decameron) to a full-blown plague narrative, an historical novel that was presented to the public, and in all likelihood understood by its original readers, as an authentic narrative of a plague outbreak. Defoe’s novel was published in 1722, in the aftermath of a plague epidemic in Marseilles, which had generated a lot of newspaper press in London. But the book purports to be an account of the city’s last great outbreak of the plague in 1664-65, some 57 years earlier. To put that gap in perspective, it’s roughly like a book or movie today being set during the 1950s. Maybe the better comparison would be to a narrative or film that claimed to have originated in the earlier moment, and to offer an historical eye-witness.

We’re going to be hard-pressed to take on the question of factual accuracy in Defoe’s narrative, though there is scholarship out there on the subject if you’re interested. Rather, I want to pay attention not just to representations of the plague, thinking about how they may relate to Defoe’s moment as much as to London in the 1660s, but also to other patterns that run through the text. One key issue, I think, becomes apparent from the very title page. Note the full title, and think about how it prepares us for the novel’s concerns. We have the question of genre and generic distinctions up front (something we’ve already been talking about), but also this matter of “publick” and “private.” Why call attention to these categories on the title page? The word “publick” comes up again in the title page’s gloss on the anonymous author: “Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before[.]”

Publicity seems to be a key feature of the novel’s opening paragraphs as well: The story starts not with the outbreak of plague, but with the narrator’s first exposure to “ordinary Discourse” about the plague’s return to Holland. The story precedes the actual visitation of the plague; what might the adjective “ordinary” mean here? Look at how many times “they say,” “some said,” “others said” appear in the sentences to follow. The opening paragraph seems to focus as much on chatter as a genre or sociological phenomenon as it does on the content of the gossip, though clearly the content is such that it’s instilling extraordinary fear in the narrator and his neighbors. Now look at the second paragraph’s opening sentence: “We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see prictis’d since.” I’d like us to start our discussion of the text tomorrow with a reading of these opening paragraphs. What’s the connection between invocations of “the publick” on the title page and the attention to publicity and the circulation of rumor/information, whether in speech or print, in the novel’s opening lines? And where might an historical novel pretending to be a recently discovered factual account fit into such a discussion?

He is the plague, the heart of our corruption

During our opening discussion of Oedipus the King — which centered primarily on the question of whether and how the plague in the play really matters to the remainder of the drama — I mentioned that one feature of writing about epidemic disorders from many times and places is a comparison between disease and breakdowns in language or communication. Epidemics are often accompanied by rumors — about their origins, effects, and remedies. This is certainly something to keep an eye out for as we move forward, paying close attention to variations on the theme as much as to its ubiquity.

I’d like us to pick up a similar topic when we resume on Tuesday: the question of plague as metaphor or allegory. Some readers of plague narratives assume that literary treatments of disorder or sickness are “merely” metaphorical — that a playwright or novelist is less interested in an actual medical crisis than he or she would be in using a plague setting to represent something like moral or political corruption. This assumption makes a certain amount of sense. Plays and novels, after all, are something other than a medical treatise, and accounting for the literariness of literary texts is very much something we’ll be interested in this semester. In the case of Oedipus, moreover, the characters seem to model for us a set of connections between plague and moral disorder: the solution to Thebes’ crisis, Oedipus echoes Apollo’s oracle, is to find Laius’s murderer and

Drive him out, each of you, from every home.
He is the plague, the heart of our corruption[.] (ll. 275-76)

By the end of the play, Oedipus seems to have internalized the city’s sickness, taken it on himself. The messenger declares that he’ll need assistance in his exile because the “sickness” is “more than he can bear” (l. 1429).

But a recent strain of criticism on the play recuperates some older efforts to take the plague context more seriously. After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

I’d like us to consider the question of plague-as-metaphor when we pick up our discussion tomorrow. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?