“More Streptococci!”

Matthew Yglesias and Robert Farley have recently pondered the question of why the devastating Spanish flu of 1918 hasn’t been covered much by American writers. Neither of the posts (or their comment threads) mention the first novel that came to mind: Myla Goldberg‘s 2004 novel, Wickett’s Remedy, an interesting (if not entirely successful) attempt to tell a personal story about the epidemic with a few narrative tricks thrown in. But that doesn’t settle the question of why there was so little writing about the epidemic around the time it happened.

I don’t have an answer to that. But, looking for a little guidance, I stumbled over an interesting passage in The Gun and the Pen, a 2008 book by Keith Gandal about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner‘s responses to war in their writing. Gandal locates a passage in, of all places, Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer that, while not exactly thorough, does invokes the epidemic to bolster his antiwar critique:

Forward! Time presses…Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines! More and more of it—until the whole fucking works is blown to smithereens, and the earth with it!

Gandal explains: “‘More streptococci!’ is probably Miller’s attempt to reference the influenza epidemic of 1918 that was spread by the Great War and killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and 300,000 to 500,000 Americans—at least two and a half times the 122,000 U.S. soldiers that died in the war, and around half of those combat deaths are also attributable to influenza.”