Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2020: EPIDEMIC – Pt. 4 – Voices in Time

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
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[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images are from Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2020: EPIDEMIC, except where noted.]
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[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 50+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]

[This is a READING section, for those who might stumble in looking for photography. My summaries of the L.Q. historical journal continue.]

The ‘forever’ summary continues. In descending order are my previous musings on this issue:’s+Quarterly+Summer+2020%3A+EPIDEMIC

Voices in Time is the main body of every Lapham’s. Usually three categories (Outbreak, Containment, and Recovery this issue), with 20-25 literary extracts in each.

I trust you agree there is little of more importance to read or learn about these days than epidemics, pandemics, plagues, or any of those nasty viral, bacterial, global disasters. After getting a good history refresher from this issue, I have to wonder why we, as ‘technologically modern, scientifically advanced’ countries around the world, seem to be caught unawares and unprepared. Epidemics have been occurring for all of history. Mother Nature’s cleansing? She is very thorough and efficient.

72 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, 1.61 million deaths. (Google. Data changing daily.) There are hundreds of thousands of deaths from influenza every year. Should we be blasé and shrug off these deaths as ‘just the way it is’? I like to think we can do better.

Onward. As I mentioned in Pt. 2, L.Q. has generously posted the Epidemic Table of ContentsUnderlined items are links to literary extracts or author references. The same can be found for any issue at its Voices In Time online.

The first extract in the first section of any issue (Outbreak, here) is frequently contemporary. This one is 2019 from Wuhan, China, the origin of COVID-19. It relates the difficulties Chinese doctors had in confronting the new disease in December 2019 and the month after. The ‘authorities’ suppressed distribution of news about it. “How can there be this lack of principle, this lack of organizational discipline, this creating and spreading of false rumors.” (p. 24)

Friedrich Engels, who with Karl Marx was the co-developer of Marxism and co-author of The Communist Manifesto (Wikipedia), makes pertinent points about the unhealthy conditions of poor people due to crowding. (Similar issues have been noted about the spread of COVID. There is a reason we are ‘distancing’.)

From The Condition of the Working Class in England:

“All conceivable evils are heaped upon the heads of the poor. If the population of great cities is too dense in general, it is they in particular who are packed into the least space. As though the vitiated atmosphere of the streets were not enough, they are penned in dozens into single rooms, so that the air which they breathe at night is enough in itself to stifle them. They are given damp dwellings, cellar dens that are not waterproof from below, or garrets that leak from above. Their houses are so built that the clammy air cannot escape. They are supplied bad, tattered, or rotten clothing, adulterated and indigestible food.”

“Consumption carries off a horde of victims annually in the factory towns of the North. In competition with consumption stands typhus, to say nothing of scarlet fever, a disease that brings most frightful devastation into the ranks of the working class.”

“When one remembers under what conditions the working people live, when one thinks how crowded their dwellings are, how every nook and corner swarms with human beings, how sick and well sleep in the same room, in the same bed, the only wonder is that a contagious disease like this fever does not spread yet farther.” (p. 31-32) (Full extract free.)

William Bradford, from the Plymouth Colonies in America, 1634, notes the decimation of the indian population from disease, perhaps not realizing it is the colonists who brought it:

…for it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness, and such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died, and many of them did rot aboveground for want of burial…”

But by the marvelous goodness and providence of God, not one of the English was so much as sick, or in the least measure tainted with this disease, though they daily did these offices for them for many weeks together.” (p. 33) (Free.)

On crowding, another extract:

“James C. Scott, from Against the Grain. In this work Scott, a professor of political science at Yale University, traces the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to life in sedentary households supported by agriculture and livestock, a transition that proved, in the words of one reviewer of the book, a “complete disaster for humankind.” “We were all,” writes Scott of the new proximity of humans to their livestock in settled communities, “crowded onto the same ark, sharing its microenvironment, sharing our germs and parasites, breathing its air.””

“Epidemic disease is, I believe, the “loudest” silence in the Neolithic archaeological record. Archaeology can assess only what it can recover and, in this case, we must speculate beyond the hard evidence. There are nonetheless good reasons for supposing that a great many of the sudden collapses of the earliest centers of population were due to devastating epidemic diseases.”

“Sedentism alone [“In cultural anthropology, sedentism is the practice of living in one place for a long time.”-Dict.], well before widespread cultivation of domesticated crops, created conditions of crowding that were ideal “feedlots” for pathogens. The growth of large villages and small towns in the Mesopotamian alluvium represented a ten to twentyfold increase in the population density over anything Homo sapiens had previously experienced.

The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and agriculture.” (p. 35-36)

(p. 25)

Ibn al-Wardi reports on the plague in 1348 Aleppo, Syria, only to die from it himself.

“One man begs another to take care of his children, and one says goodbye to his neighbors. A third perfects his works, and another prepares his shroud. A fifth is reconciled with his enemies, and another treats his friends with kindness. One is very generous; another makes friends with those who have betrayed him. Another man puts aside his property; one frees his servants. One man changes his character, while another mends his ways. For this plague has captured all people and is about to send its ultimate destruction.” (p. 39)

Samuel Pepys, famed English diarist, recorded the 1665 Great Plague of London:

June 7
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.” (p. 40)

August 15
“Up by four o’clock and walked to Greenwich, where called at Captain Cocke’s and to his chamber, he being in bed, where something put my last night’s dream into my head, which I think is the best that ever was dreamed, which was that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my arms and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake, but that it was only a dream; but that since it was a dream, and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeare resembles it) we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this, that then we should not need to be so fearful of death, as we are this plague time.” (p. 41) [What a dreamer!!]

September 7
“Up by five of the clock, mighty full of fear of an ague, but was obliged to go, and so by water, wrapping myself up warm, to the Tower, and there sent for the weekly bill and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,878 of the plague; which is a most dreadful number and shows reason to fear that the plague hath got that hold that it will yet continue among us.” (p. 42)

In 1912 Jack London writes a futuristic tale of The Scarlet Plague in San Francisco in 2013. (Free.)

Renown author Willa Cather, of whom I’ve heard many times but never read, writes (Free) of burial at sea due to influenza on a troop ship in 1918 (the last BIG epidemic before COVID-19), researched:

“While writing it the following year, Cather came down with the flu. The doctor treating her, she learned, had served as a medical officer on a troop ship. He allowed her to read his diary, which proved a valuable source for the novel’s description of a flu outbreak at sea. Elsewhere in the work, the protagonist considers those who succumbed to the flu, destined to be forgotten for dying in a hospital rather than on the battlefield: “They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes.”” (p. 51)

“The doctor said they might as well face the facts; a scourge of influenza had broken out on board, of a peculiarly bloody and malignant type.”

“Lieutenant Bird died late in the afternoon and was buried at sunrise the next day, sewed up in a tarpaulin with an eighteen-pound shell at his feet. The morning broke brilliantly clear and bitter cold. The sea was rolling blue walls of water, and the boat was raked by a wind as sharp as ice.” (p. 48)

In addition to her description of the severity of the epidemic, I found Ms. Cather to be quite the poetic prose writer. This portion from Wikipedia is a better example:

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers … I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” — Willa Cather, My Antonia[16]

Speaking of Wikipedia, early published female writer (yes, globally there were many before, but it was still a man’s world, drat those presumptuous male egos) Margaret Cavendish led me on a march through numerous degrees of separation therein:

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…
…became an attendant of Queen Henrietta Maria
…Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland as the wife of Charles I (who eventually lost his head over the Cromwellian restoration).
…She was mother of his two immediate successors, Charles II and James II and VII
…The Province of Maryland, subsequently the U.S. state, was named for her.
…She had a court dwarf Jeffery Hudson …and on and on.

17th century England was quite tumultuous:

Stuart 1603–1714
Jacobean 1603–1625
Caroline 1625–1649
(Interregnum) 1649–1660
Restoration 1660–1714

Not to mention the Great Plague of London, which is why we are here in the first place, but I digress. Wikipedia can be quite the (educational) distraction.

Larry McMurtry has an extract on cattle epidemics and hoof and mouth disease, from Horseman Pass By, from which the Paul Newman movie Hud was adapted. Lapham’s notes: “After the publication of McMurtry’s second book, the New York Times wrote, “If Chaucer were a Texan writing today, and only twenty-seven years old, this is how he would have written.”” (p. 56) Look him up, ‘you know where’.

In 1827 Alessandro Manzoni wrote a historical novel which includes chapters on the Great Plague of Milan (1629-1631), extracted. ‘This epidemic… claimed possibly one million lives, or about 25% of the population.’ ‘German and French troops carried the plague to the city of Mantua in 1629 as a result of troop movements associated with the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Venetian troops, infected with the disease, retreated into northern and central Italy, spreading the infection.’ (WikiP.)

Ahmed Ali has an excellent extract on the flu pandemic in 1918 India, describing the chaos of burials and bodies. “Over twelve million Indians died during the 1918–19 flu pandemic…”

“And Azrael, the angel of death, had not a moment to spare. From house to house he rushed, from door to door, snatching the souls away from human beings burning with fever yet hungry after life, wanting to live on in a world which did not care about them at all.” (p. 66)

You who are poetically inclined will appreciate Thomas Nashe’s 1592 ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’, free.

Physician, bacteriologist, and author Hans Zinsser has an excellent piece from his Rats, Lice, and History. Not free.

“The louse sacrifices a liberty that signifies chiefly the necessity for hard work, the uncertainty of food and shelter, and exposure to dangers from birds, lizards, and frogs; loses the fun of having wings, perhaps; but achieves instead a secure and effortless existence on a living island of plenty. In a manner, therefore, by adapting itself to parasitism, the louse has attained the ideal of bourgeois civilization, though its methods are more direct than those of business or banking, and its source of nourishment is not its own species.” (p. 69)

Namwali Serpell, from her first novel The Old Drift, offers a unique perspective of disease, that of mosquitos:

“This is one topic to give us our due: we know far more virology than you do. Malaria, dengue, fevers yellow and black, West Nile, and the newcomer, Zika. Illness we know, in our blood and our spit. Parasites, viruses, wormy nematodes: you name it, we surely deliver.” (p. 70)

We are approaching the end of the OUTBREAK section. There is an extract on the Spanish introducing smallpox to the Aztec, with the expected devastating results. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley) writes of a futuristic plague (free!). Thomas Mann, from Death in Venice, is free. Pliny the Elder. It’s all good.

2600 words on in this piece, it’s time for a break. Mix in some fine art from Lapham’s Quarterly, proof-read, publish online. Next up, Containment and Recovery.

The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.

5 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2020: EPIDEMIC – Pt. 4 – Voices in Time

    1. Mother Nature, and ALL our wonderful, exemplary political parties (I’m in the middle of a temporary I’m sure frustrated mood with the USPS et al 😱🤯🤪‼️) will sort it no doubt.

      Liked by 1 person

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