The Origins of Yellow Fever in Arthur Mervyn

Some of the stories we have encountered about contagion so far stress the nature of the disease as an extraneous agent.  Thucydides specified that the pathogen causing the Plague of Athens came in through Africa and H.F. took note of the rumors about the Plague of London of 1655 coming in from Holland.  Although Yellow Fever is a key element in Arthur Mervyn, characters do not dwell too much on its origins. 

Take a look at Harvard University’s portal on historical views of diseases and epidemics (conveniently called Contagion) to learn more about Yellow Fever and 1793’s outbreak, the rotten coffee anecdote included.  Moreover, the YouTube series Philadelphia: the Great Experiment looks into various aspects of the city in which Arthur Mervyn takes place and offers various insights about the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793 and how it affected not only the urban landscape but also the collective memory.

This video mentions sugar and slaves coming from the Caribbean as the culprits of bringing the pathogen into Philadelphia.  The following passages from the book make allusion to these trade routes but do not relate them to the Fever.

On page 91, Mervyn finds Watson’s correspondence.

The fourth letter was open, and seemed to have been very lately written. It was directed to Mrs. Mary Watson. He informed her in it of his arrival at Philadelphia from St. Domingo; of the loss of his ship and cargo; and of his intention to hasten home with all possible expedition. He told her that all was lost but one hundred and fifty dollars, the greater part of which he should bring with him, to relieve her more pressing wants. The letter was signed, and folded, and superscribed, but unsealed.

On page 274, which we analyzed in class, he encounters a Frenchman and his slaves.

I mounted the stage-coach at daybreak the next day, in company with a sallow Frenchman from St. Domingo, his fiddle-case, an ape, and two female blacks. The Frenchman, after passing the suburbs, took out his violin and amused himself with humming to his own tweedle-tweedle. The monkey now and then munched an apple, which was given to him from a basket by the blacks, who gazed with stupid wonder, and an exclamatory La! La! upon the passing scenery, or chattered to each other in a sort of open-mouthed, half-articulate, monotonous, singsong jargon.

With all this in mind, how can we think of Arthur Mervyn in terms of Contagion-themed literature? Is it a novel about contagion or one in which contagion works as an element adding to the network of relationships among characters and characters and their environment?  How do the author’s strategies differ depending on our answer to this question?

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