I’ve written three novels all set during a pandemic. Okay, I advertise these books as “First World War and 1920s,” but that includes the time of what is known as the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This particular strain of H1NI avian influenza didn’t originate in Spain, but even incorrect labels have a tendency to stick.
I didn’t prominently feature the flu pandemic in my books, but it does get a mention in two of them. In my third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, influenza explains why a young British officer who’d only come of age to join the fight in 1918 never made it to the front:
“His mother’s family had an ancestral heap in County Tyrone where he’d been dragooned into spending summers as a boy. As a result of this unenthusiastic connection to Ulster, he’d been commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in September 1918, just in time to contract the Spanish influenza. Out of consideration for his family’s feelings, he’d decided not to die, but instead endured a six-week convalescence, finally joining his battalion in France on the 14th day of November, 1918.”
In my second book, Truly Are the Free, the flu pandemic provided a convenient deus ex machina for killing off a supporting character. This was the oldest brother of my protagonist, a strapping and popular boxer within whose shadow the protagonist had long wilted. Here’s what Ned Tobin thought about the flu and his big brother, Bobby:
“He couldn’t bear to imagine Bobby dying the way he saw those men in France, gasping and starving for air as they drowned in their own overflowing lungs. So the great Bobby Tobin, felled by no man in the ring, was carried away on the 12th of October, 1918 in an overcrowded New Jersey Army hospital by a little bug he couldn’t see, let alone fight.”
So a useful tool to deal with inconvenient minor characters. In hindsight, I should’ve made the Spanish flu a main character, given our current unpleasantness. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
But here’s something else I found out in my meanderings around last century’s pandemic. Besides the obvious similarities to our present coronavirus troubles, there was an eerily similar confluence of infectious disease and violence stoked by racism.
With mass protests triggered by the on-camera murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, white America is getting an overdue history lesson, including for many a first encounter with the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Flashback scenes from this horrible event feature in the first season of the popular new HBO series, Watchmen.) In just over 24 hours of violence, triggered by a dubious allegation of assault by a white woman elevator operator against a black shoeshiner, as many as 200 black and 50 white Tulsans were killed and a prosperous African-American community was burned to the ground. However, Tulsa came two years after a much more widespread and deadly horror known as the Red Summer of 1919.
Let me set the scene—it seems impossible from our vantage point a century later. When the United States declared war on Germany in March 1917, there was debate within the African-American community whether or not to support the war effort. Some considered it a white man’s war fought for white men’s interests. But the majority, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, chose to support the war effort. The belief among most African-Americans was “if we fight a man’s war, we’ll be treated as men when we return.” They could not have been more wrong.
I based a pivotal scene in my second book on an actual event from the Red Summer. A main character, Chester Dawkins, returns to the United States after serving in a “colored” regiment in France. Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, wouldn’t allow black troops to fight within his white infantry divisions, he did send four regiments to the French Army. And after four years of catastrophic losses, the French were ecstatic to have them. Since the rest of the American forces weren’t ready for combat when the Germans launched their final massive Spring Offensive of 1918, it was these “colored” Americans serving with the French Fourth Army who found themselves in combat longer than any other American troops.
It was with one of these regiments that my young Lieutenant Dawkins covers himself with glory, winning the Croix de guerre. When he finally returns home, he lands at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, and finds himself in a victory parade arranged by the black population of the city to welcome home their returning heroes. This hard-earned and well-deserved celebration is set upon by white Marines and sailors with clubs and rifle butts while the white police force looks on.
My young hero is rescued from this violence by a cook who pulls him into the safety of his café. He sits Chester down and pours him some coffee:
“Chester stared down into the blackness in his coffee cup. He was startled by the hot tears pushing against the back of his eyes. He’d seen men die, beat the Germans, made the world safe for democracy. And nothing had changed here. Nothing. He gave a sharp sniff, raising the coffee to his lips to camouflage his bitterness.”
The violence raged across the country from early spring to late summer. But it represented something new in the centuries-long oppression of black Americans — they fought back. With 350,000 African-American doughboys returning from France, they were in no mood to accept the subservient and servile roles assigned them previously. In the end, more than 25 violent riots took the lives of hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of white Americans.
Just as these mass eruptions of violence were occurring, America was still struggling with an influenza pandemic. The Spanish flu ravaged America in three waves. The first hit the US from March through July 1918. This was the mildest wave, in a population of 100 million resulting in about 75,000 deaths (one of the more notable being a grandfather of the current President). The second and more deadly wave emerged in August 1918 and ran through January 1919, killing 200,000 more Americans. A third wave began two months later in March 1919 and flared into the summer, overlapping with about half the violence of the Red Summer.
There are of course significant differences between what America and the world faced during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and what we’re facing now. By the time the Spanish flu emerged in 1918, millions had been slaughtered in the carnage of the First World War. The widespread deaths caused by the pandemic served to export some of the mass production of death from the battlefield to the home front. All people—both soldier and civilian—were exposed to death on a colossal scale.
Historically, these rapid and widespread moments of tragic death have had significant effects on social outlook, cultural norms, and even economic systems. In the 14th century, the Black Death (as the bubonic plague was known) killed somewhere between one-quarter and one-third the population of Europe in just a few years. Colossally tragic on a scale we can hardly imagine, the plague made an end of the perniciously unequal system of land ownership and wealth distribution known as feudalism. Labor is worth much more, after all, when they’re just not as many laborers. Although it was not the sole catalyst for the Renaissance, the Black Death was certainly a necessary factor. The omnipresence and capriciousness of death led to more interest in enjoying this life rather than worrying about what came after; many surrounded themselves with beauty.
Likewise, the widespread and unpredictable death from both the carnage on the Western Front and from the Spanish flu uncorked runaway innovation and breaking of all the rules in the artistic, musical, literary, design, and fashion worlds that would characterize the Roaring Twenties. It may sound an odd thing to say, but history suggests we might not have had jazz or Art Deco or modern literature without the suffering and death of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic.
It’s too soon to predict what will emerge from the suffering and death and confusion surrounding us now as we struggle with COVID-19. Certainly our short-term focus must remain flattening the curve and caring for the infected. But we can already see inklings of what may lie ahead in the Black Lives Matter protests, changing attitudes toward universal healthcare, and serious debate about income inequality in the United States.
It’s a curious thing with us humans. It often takes catastrophe to spur us into doing the right thing.