Prologue: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Modern Memory

  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher


The 1918 influenza pandemic, World War I’s lethal twin, has been neglected in the Western world for almost a century, taking on the aura of a cultural and scientific mystery. Paul Fussell begins his 1975 work The Great War and Modern Memory by noting “the Curious Literariness of Real Life,… the ways that literary tradition and real life transect and the reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature.”1 By simply juxtaposing literature and life, he neatly omitted the difficult and rather inexact process of how real life becomes part of history or literature, where it assumes a stable range of meanings open to debate and takes on a cultural presence and solidity. When read by contemporary audiences, his bold omissions beg questions central to his endeavor. His foundational work suggests other historical events might also share the “Curious Literariness” he describes, opening themselves to exacting interpretation and corresponding with broader paradigms of narrative and meaning even if they remain absent, invisible, or underinterpreted for many decades. This chapter traces the complex processes of repression and recollection surrounding these forgotten parts of the 1918 influenza pandemic, allowing it to reemerge in the last decade of the twentieth century as a vital part of public discourse.


Influenza Virus Avian Influenza Influenza Pandemic Oral Tradition Public Memory 
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    See Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), for a discussion of the culture of war and memory in the twentieth century.Google Scholar
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    In A War Imagined: The First World War and English Cultures (New York and Oxford: Maxwell Macmillan, 1991), Samuel Hynes focused attention on World War I as a “great imaginative event” (xi; author’s emphasis), while Eric J. Leeds in No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), centers his study on “cultural repetoires of meaning” war participants used to represent their experience (ix). Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s No Mans Land Volumes I–III (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987, 1989, and 1996, respectively) cataloged the war between the sexes spanning the two world wars. Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate edited the collection Women’s Fiction and The Great War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Pearl James edited Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), respectively. Janis P. Stout’s recent book Coming Out of War: Poetry, Grieving and the Cultures of the World Wars (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005) emphasizes World War I poetry, especially women writers, high and low culture, and the connections between the two major world wars. Many other excellent works on World War I literature also exist, with the list here as only a representative sampling.Google Scholar
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    The scientific articles establishing the avian origins of the 1918 influenza virus published since Barry’s comprehensive historical study are (in chronological order): S. J. Gamblin, L. F. Haire, R. J. Russell, D. J. Stevens, B. Xiao, Y. Ha, N. Vasisht, D. A. Steinhauer, R. S. Daniels, A. Elliot, D. C. Wiley, and J. J. Skehell, “The Structure and Receptor Binding Properties of the 1918 Influenza Hemagglutinin,” Science 303.5665 (March 19, 2004): 1838–1842; Darwyn Kobasa, Ayato Takada, Kyoko Shinya, Masato Hatta, Peter Halfmann, Steven Theriault, Hiroshi Suzuki, Hidekazu Nishimura, Keiko Mitamura, Norio Sugaya, Taichi Usui, Takeomi Murata, Yasuko Maeda, Shinji Watanabe, M. Suresh, Takashi Suzuki, Yasuo Suzuki, Heinz Feldmann, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, “Enhanced Virulence of Influenza A Viruses With the Haemagglutinin of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,” Nature 431 (2004): 703–707; Terrence M. Tumpey, Christopher F. Basier, Patricia V. Aguilar, Hui Zeng, Alicia Solórzano, David E. Swayne, Nancy J. Cox, Jacqueline M. Katz, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Peter Palese, and Adolfo García-Sastre, “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus,” Science 310.5745 (2005): 77–80; Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid, Raina M. Lourens, Ruixue Wang, Guozhong Jin, and Thomas G. Fanning, “Characterization of the 1918 Influenza Virus Polymerase Genes,” Nature 437 (2005): 889–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Jane Elizabeth Fisher 2012

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  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

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