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Contagion Aesthetics: Modernist Literature and the Influenza Pandemic.
The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed an astonishing 50-100 million people worldwide, and the United States lost more people in the pandemic than in all the wars of the 20 the and 21st century, combined. Arriving just as the First World War was drawing to a close, the pandemic brought a non-human, invisible horror into every community, shifting enemies, threats, and targets, and changing the calculus of risk and blame between soldiers and civilians. Until recently, the viral tragedy has been largely hidden, drowned out by its overwhelming scope, by the broader ways outbreaks of disease are often silenced, and by the way the human-inflicted violence consumed the literary and cultural attention. If we know what to look for, though—if we recover the sights and sounds of the pandemic, and its wide-spread devastation and impact—the outbreak emerges as a catastrophe as influential as World War One, a spectral trauma haunting both the literature and the culture. The talk offers a sensory and affective history of the pandemic, presents some of the reasons for its seeming disappearance, and then draws on two examples to investigate how literature speaks to moments of catastrophic contagion: W. B. Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming,” and Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The works showcase the often surprising ways interwar Anglophone literature encoded the conditions of the influenza pandemic—and the ways this literature resonates through our current global crisis.

Jan 29, 2021 12:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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