Tang on Outka, 'Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature'

Elizabeth Outka
Yingying Tang

Elizabeth Outka. Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 344 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-18575-2.

Reviewed by Yingying Tang (Auburn University) Published on H-Diplo (November, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55267

Written in collaboration with Huiling Ding.

When Elizabeth Outka finished Viral Modernism in 2018, she could not have foreseen that another coronavirus would be ravaging the world in 2020. In seven months, COVID-19 has infected 39 million people, resulted in over 1.1 million deaths, and changed the lives of most people around the world.[1] However, in her conclusion, Outka rightly predicted the breakout of a global epidemic: “As scientists and researchers continually remind us, we are not ready for the next severe global pandemic, which—as they also remind us—is most assuredly coming” (p. 254).

Viral Modernism sets its sights on the literary world during and after the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Globally, the death toll from the 1918 influenza outbreak reached 50 to 100 million, compared with 15 to 22 million deaths caused by World War I (WWI). Widely seen as the central focus of modern literature, WWI fundamentally reshaped modern literature. The influenza pandemic, in comparison, seems to be invisible to and forgotten by modernist scholarship. Viral Modernism seeks to fill this glaring research gap. Addressing the silence in literature and criticism, Outka examines some of the most epochal modernist texts and popular culture to investigate how the pandemic’s influence infiltrated modernity and Anglo-American culture and how modern literature can be read differently through the lens of the pandemic. Outka tracks the presence of the pandemic in multiple literary works, digging deep into the factors that contributed to the disappearance of the pandemic and the dominance of the war in literature and culture. The war was viewed as masculine and purposeful, and young men’s sacrifice on the battlefield as redeeming the world. In contrast, dying from influenza was seen as a “less valiant, more feminine form[] of death” (p. 2). The mass deaths of the pandemic took place mostly in domestic spaces after WWI. For people still celebrating the end of the war, such deaths from a familiar disease brought continued, endless pain, making the sudden mass loss even more meaningless and absurd.

Outka divides the book into three sections. Part 1, “Pandemic Realism,” focuses on four American novels written in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic. All four authors, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, and William Maxwell experienced and survived the pandemic. Their novels provide direct, detailed descriptions of the original conditions of the pandemic, recording “sensory and affective markers” (p. 39) of the outbreak. Cather’s One of Ours (1922), for example, provides firsthand accounts of the pandemic’s outbreak among soldiers on a military transport ship. The vivid description of the pandemic atmosphere also reveals the intricate relationship between the war and the pandemic: with soldiers dying of influenza before they arrived on the real battlefield, the pandemic seemed to “rob men of their rightful chance to die in battle” (p. 45). Outka argues that this perception indicates how the war overshadowed the narrative of the pandemic, which was positioned as a minor, subordinate interlude that occurred before the major event. This arrangement implies the challenges of representing the pandemic and its losses amid the war’s dominant narrative and “more public presence” (p. 43). Death in the war was heroic, notable, and lent itself to political manipulation. Death from the pandemic, in contrast, was more like failure and would be soon forgotten.

In analyzing Wolfe’s (Look Homeward, Angel, 1929) and Maxwell’s (They Came Like Swallows, 1937) works, Outka points out another feature of the pandemic, namely, its ability to penetrate the domestic sphere and cause unexpected mass deaths of both men and women in places far from the battlefield. The church bells tolling for the dead never stop, serving as a constant reminder of the presence of the invisible virus and the senseless deaths that people “must continuously see but are helpless to stop” (p. 83). Being airborne and contagious, the virus spreads easily among close contacts, usually friends and family members. Besides creating a hallucinatory atmosphere that haunts every living person, the virus also causes “a disabling guilt” (p. 91) in survivors, whose self-blame and helplessness further damage every broken family.

While part 1 establishes the context to understand the pandemic and builds up a literary frame to make explicit the previously silent and forgotten pandemic narrative, part 2, “Pandemic Modernism,” uses this new frame “to reveal the subtle but significant presence of the viral tragedy” (p. 4) in three modernist texts that are not typically seen as related to the pandemic: Virginial Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), and W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1920). The works in part 1 were written soon after the end of the pandemic, when writers were able to see a full picture of the pandemic and offer “clear linear narratives” (p. 99). Written during or in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the works in part 2 are more fragmented and experimental because the “pandemic itself remains largely unnamed” (p. 99) and thus provides no understandable frames. For Outka, the “experimental structures and fragmented qualities of the language” in the works examined part 2 parallel “the delirium and confusion of the virus’s acute phase” (p. 100), which captures the “immediate traumatic fragments” (p. 99) and the “disruptions of plot that illness may produce” (p. 100).

Outka first looks at the individual suffering of the post-pandemic body in Woolf’s novel. Through two characters, Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf shows how one’s language and perception of reality can be shaped by their illness. Clarissa’s “agency and narrative structure” (p. 115) are eroded by influenza. Her illness dictates her emotions, thoughts, and feelings toward her surroundings. Likewise, Septimus’s psychology is permanently damaged by the illness. As a survivor of both the war and influenza, Septimus, like many others, is haunted by the trauma of the war, the near-death experience, and the illness’s long-lasting “neurological effects ranging from delirium to psychosis” (p. 105). These conditions have created “the hallucinatory-delirium mode” in Septimus and many others (p. 105), trapping them in the eternal state of “living death” (p. 113). Turning to The Waste Land, Outka argues that Eliot creates “sensory experiences” (p. 145) and pandemic images in the poem without directly mentioning the viral outbreak. Fever, dryness, and delirium as well as rats, bones, and unburied bodies work as “miasmic residue of the pandemic experience,” infusing “every part of the poem” (p. 145). The appearance of Sibyl, a mythical figure who has a withered body but eternal life, again implies the state of living death: when the war ends, the pandemic comes, and death continues. The post-pandemic body shuttles between death and life, forming “perverse images of deadly fecundity” (p. 159). Through the portrait of the grisly resurrection of the dead, Eliot rejects the Christian sacrificial model of death. The deaths of millions of healthy young people do not “bring renewal” or any “larger calculus gain” (p. 163); the loss is instead futile and meaningless. Lastly, Outka traces nonhuman, viral violence in Yeats’s poem even though political violence related to the war and Ireland’s revolution is often seen as its context. Unlike human-initiated violence that has clear characters and plots, “perpetrators and acts are obscured” in “The Second Coming” (p. 173). Violence is “purposeless and fruitless,” produced by “an unseen force” (p. 176). The “Christian models of redemptive violence” collapse and the “modern formulation” of meaningless death and macabre resurrection come into being (p. 194).

In part 3, “Pandemic Cultures,” Outka turns to spiritualism and zombie culture to examine the pandemic’s impact on the return of the dead in popular culture and literature. Outka points out that both spiritualism and zombie culture are profoundly related to mass death and loss and “offer quasi-secular and pseudoscientific models of resurrection for a modern age” (p. 199). They both represent the post-pandemic anguish and danger that Outka traces in the previous sections: “the hallucinatory-delirium mode,” the state of living death, survivors’ feeling of “loss, fear, and guilt,” and “the biological realities of viral replication” (p. 199). However, these two traditions also represent opposite forms of resurrection: spiritualism offers “a reassuring consolation” with scientific proof of loved ones’ return, alleviating survivors’, especially doctors’, guilt and mental burden. Zombie figures, in contrast, provide “a threatening consolation” (p. 200) that materializes the terrifying viral enemy as well as “the rage and horror left over from the viral tragedy” (p. 201).

As Outka analyzes in the previous chapters, the sudden mass death of the pandemic overwhelmed funeral services in every town. “Individual funerals were abandoned” due to the “scarcity of coffins” and overwhelmed grave diggers (p. 18). Bodies were buried without coffins in family backyards. As the second outbreak took place during winter, the ground was so hard to dig that many bodies were buried shallowly, with some of them reappearing on the ground afterward. The survivors lived close to the dead, “haunted by grief and guilt” (p. 205). Spiritualism consoles survivors with the hope and “scientific” proof of loved ones’ coming back. Zombie figures, in contrast, provide outlets to the “explosions of anger and guilt, paralyzing fear of contagion, and the terror and destruction of a flesh-eating monster” (p. 216) in the aftermath of mass death and insecure burials.

As we write these sentences during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing the same feelings of loss, guilt, anger, anguish, and consolation that characterized the forgotten 1918 influenza pandemic. With different parts of the world connected more tightly than ever, the impact and destruction of the pandemic are greater than in any novelist’s imagination. In a peaceful era, a pandemic for the first time has become the dominant global narrative. The entire world has had to adjust its operation mode to slow down the pandemic. Under lock-down orders, people work from home, participate in online conferences, and take classes remotely. They have adopted the new norms of wearing surgical masks, social distancing, and self-quarantine. Millions of dollars have been devoted to the development of vaccines, and thousands of scholars have turned to pandemic-related research. Meanwhile, shelter-in-place orders have also resulted in the temporary, and in some cases, permanent shutdown of parks, restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls. Many small businesses and even universities did not make it through the pandemic. Outka’s great work reminds people in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic that we should never forget its pain, horror, and struggles. As scientists point out, we may have to live with the Covid-19 virus for a long time. How we remember the tragedy of mass death, the breakdown of families, and the collapse of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic will help shape our preparedness for the next one. Here we want to end with Outka’s somber conclusion: “It would be more than possible to build and augment effective global response systems that would greatly reduce the impact of a deadly pandemic—but first far more people have to see the threat and be willing to act. The works I investigate remind us that even a modern catastrophic pandemic that has already happened can be hidden unless we learn to read for its presence” (p. 254).


[1]. COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, accessed October 16, 2020, https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b4....

Citation: Yingying Tang. Review of Outka, Elizabeth, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55267

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