blackbirdonline journalSpring 2020  Vol. 19 No. 1
    continued from v18n2’s “Enough of Us Still and Brave Enough”

That Night Another Change


The last dread epidemic was perhaps the worst the world has ever known, and has taken its toll from every known country, and has spared no race. Oceans have not kept it in bounds, not have the highest mountain chains prevented its spread.
      ―James A. Hayne, “Presidential Address to the
        South Carolina Medical Association,” Florence,
        South Carolina, April 16, 1919

That night another change comes over our hut. On all
the benches, in all the corners and in what had been our cheerful reading room are sick men, many of
them ill unto death.
     ―Addie W. Hunton & Kathryn M. Johnson
, “Over        the Canteen in France” from Two Colored
       Women with the AEF, 1920

My father went to the dispensary but the doctor said he can’t come till noon, but he didn’t. Then I went to the dispensary, dinner time, but the doctor didn’t yet come when we went back to school. My mother says you can die ten times before the dispensary doctor comes.
     —Mary Antin, “The Lie” collected in The Atlantic
       Narratives, second series, 1918

He had become very ill—could hardly move from where he lay; and she, who loved him, and was to have married him, and spent all her waking hours in thinking what she could do for him, persuaded him to have a telephone installed and brought to his bedside so that he and she could talk . . . Nothing, as it happened, could have saved his life, but this modern device lightened his last weeks.
      —E.V. Lucas,“The One Left,” collected in
The Atlantic Narratives, 1918

The past three issues of Blackbird, rooted in our v17n2 presentation of work from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, offered parts one, two, and three of our 1918 Suite, a look at text and images related to the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic.

Despite knowing there was more of interest to be discovered, our time budget was spent and we had moved on, save for a thought of possibly putting up some filed images and ephemera, if back-publishing into the archive.

And then, before we knew it, COVID-19, lockdown, and images and situations in the daily news that directly echoed what we had previously published or researched in 1918–1919 history: to mention a few, loss of people in the prime of life, overwhelmed and sick health-care workers, mortuaries pushed past capacity, images of mass graves, uncertainty concerning treatment and transmission, suicides, government closing of business and churches, citizen anger from those who felt government intervention an overreach, increased xenophobia, and the angry desire to find cause or blame for the illness. In 1918, it was attributed by some to the Germans, popularly to Spain—thus “The Spanish Flu”—by others to divine punishment, and by at least one public observer, to the alignment of the planets. American citizens were told not to spit or sneeze, to cover their mouths when coughing; people were advised, or required in some areas by ordinance, to wear masks; magazines were full of advertisement for (unproven) influenza remedies; people were desperate for “medicine,” whether snake-oil tincture, homemade poultice, or just alcohol because there was often nothing else at hand, though no medicine of the day could really help; parallels today abound.

Patients at moving picture show wearing masks because of an influenza epidemic.`
  Patients at moving picture show wearing masks because of an influenza epidemic. (detail)
U. S. Army Hospital Number 30, Royat, France
Description and photograph courtesy The National Library of Medicine.
The NLM believes this item to be in the public domain.

As our university moved to virtual instruction and enforced telework from home, Blackbird editors found ourselves cut off, like so many of you, from the tools of our workplace; staff members were suddenly spread out across the United States, all of us working on sometimes spotty Internet connections, inadequate production equipment, and, for some, households turned upside down by the circumstantial demands of lockdown. Lacking access to the computers, tools, interns, and side-by-side work to complete our original Gallery build, we turned instead to a 1918 Suite Coda, to revisit and to offer readers, in a fourth installment, text and images from The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919 even as we experience—though, so far, on a far lesser scale than that of 100 plus years ago—a like crisis of our own.


Though 1918 didn’t have commercial airplane travel to quickly spread the virus globally, troop ships crossing to France in WWI were apparently a significant vector for the disease. More than one account reports horrifying conditions on board various transports as soldiers were, in close quarters, struck down with influenza. (A selection from Willa Cather’s One of Ours, published in our 1918 Suite Part 2, provides a fictional account of a troop ship outbreak—based in part on an Army Medical Corps physician’s diary—including a burial at sea. In Part 3, included from an untitled sonnet from Voigt’s Kyrie, the voice of a soldier writing home of his experience on his transport ship, "down below half the batallion ill. / Thirty-four we left behind in the sea / and more fell in the road. . . ”)

Here in our 1918 Suite Coda, we revisit a troop ship narrative, but this time in a nonfiction account of the USS Leviathan, as related by E.W. Gibson, who served as Captain of the 57th Pioneer Infantry. “Leviathan A Charnel Ship” is taken from a 1920 article in Vermont’s The Bethel Courier. (Blackbird has added historic public domain photos to accompany the telling.) Gibson relays an affecting and unforgettable narrative of an outbreak of influenza on shipboard and, as in Voigt's poem quoted previously, how ill men on the march to the transport ship in the U.S. were “falling out of ranks, unable to keep up.” Upon arriving in France, marching five miles through "the mud flats beyond the city of Brest," Gibson writes of those who survived the crossing: "The lassitude of the men made it impossible for hundreds of them to make camp with their comrades. They were picked up by Y. M. C. A. and K. C. men and ambulances and taken, to hospitals or helped into the camp. That night the men slept in their pup tents and in the mud."

In “Over the Canteen in France,” a selection from Two Colored Women in the AEF, we present an excerpt by Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson in which they write of greeting incoming soldiers, the 809th Pioneer Infantry, a segregated all black regiment coming off their transport in St. Naizaire. Returning that evening to their camp, the two women found not the “swarthy soldiers” of the 809th they had met earlier as these men had been sent, with just a few exceptions, to another camp. Instead, Hunton and Johnson provide support to a group of white soldiers who become, that night, “ill unto death” from influenza, an outbreak that had begun at sea on their transport.

Warwick Deeping’s House of Adventure engages the trope of switched identities; a British soldier in Beaucourt, France, steals the identification tag of his comrade, killed by a shell. Influenza figures twice in this narrative; we excerpt the novel’s opening detailing identity swap, and the protagonist’s hospitalization with his first round of influenza, just after having been released as a German prisoner of war. Though the text is fictional, the settings are real, and we provide several historical photographs of war damage to the region for context.

In 1918, Atlantic Monthly published two anthologies selected by Charles Swain Thomas, The Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, (series one in March and series two in July) of work from their previous issues. These volumes are, to some degree, marketed as texts for high school and college use as well as “the reading public.” We are mindful that these anthologies would have been in the hands of readers when the worst of the influenza pandemic (its second and third wave) struck in the fall of 1918 and winter of 1918–1919. We wonder how these stories, written well before the pandemic, would have been read differently in the middle, or aftermath, of the crisis.

Both anthologies contain multiple examples of illness and sudden death stories. Such loss narratives are, perhaps, not surprising in a pre-antibiotic and still medically naïve part of that century, but we found the following two stories spoke most to our moment, even as we also imagine reading them in the context of 1918 and 1919.

Mary Antin’s “The Lie” (1913) is the story of a teacher, her Russian immigrant student, and his family. How differently would a reader react to the student’s affliction with “la grippe” in the center, or aftermath, of a global pandemic? We also find this story resonant given the contemporary roles and challenges of educators, now working at an enforced distance, and how their work and advocacy often extend beyond bullet-point learning objectives and bureaucracies.

E.V. Lucas’s “The One Left,” originally published in 1912, certainly has relevance in 1918 as a quarantine and loss narrative, but the technological aspect, and further role of speculative technology, speaks directly to the role networked technology and information storage plays in our current lives. And a little bit to an idea of surveillance in the “retrieval” aspect of the imagined technology. (The story poses the invention of a machine that can retrieve previous conversations from any phone line.) In Lucas’s story, the protagonist’s fiancé is in quarantine but his illness remains unnamed. We know he died at the story’s opening; what follows is an account about how telephonic technology of the day allowed the pair to communicate daily despite his quarantine, and how, in this speculative fiction, an imagined “recovery” technology allowed the protagonist to access, if obsessively, a replayable record of those conversations after the death of her beloved.

Under our Time Capsule, beginning with something of a lighter note, find the breezy account of Chicago theaters reopening after an enforced hiatus and instructions from Popular Science on how to modify a 1919 influenza mask for smoking. (Ben Affleck take note.) More than a simple how-to, the mask instructions seem a vehicle to criticize “authorities” who “think that the influenza can be cured by legislation.” Finally there is a modest selection of images and clippings—to start—from the Great Pandemic. The two pieces above, and the historic images (which we mean to add to over the life of the issue) echo familar stories of our moment, intermingling humor with anxiety and overwhelming loss, offering comedy against despair.  end

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