Good Plague Literature

This blog idea was sparked by my brother's email with the subject line, "Good plague literature". He's rereading Camus' The Plague nowadays with his at-home extra hours. When finished, he may move on to Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Masque of the Red Death.

His choices got me thinking about other literary works concerning plague, epidemics, disease, pestilence, and influenza. Turns out there are many, both fiction and nonfiction. For this blog, I've chosen just a handful of older literature. Links to the books go to Denver Public Library's ebook collection or to freely available online works. I've also included links to pertinent critical essays from the excellent Literature Resource Center (more about this database below). Writings about contagious diseases go back to the ancient world and are found in different literary genres.

Greek historian Thucydides' passage about the pestilence at Athens (in History of the Peloponnesian War, written in the 5th century BC), is an unsparing, rather terrifying, depiction of the disease's physical ravages, as well as commentary on its psychological and societal impacts. A critical analysis about the passage can be found at Thucydides and the Plague in Athens.

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, published in 1722, is an account of one man's experiences during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Read a critical essay about this work: Defoe and the Disordered City.

The nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" is evidently NOT a song about London's devastating 1665 plague or the Black Death of the 1300s. I'd heard that "ring around the rosie" referred to the red splotches on a plague victim's skin; posies referred to the flowers and herbs people carried in hopes of warding off the disease; and ashes, ashes referred to the funeral pyres. Not so! The song/poem didn't appear in English until 1881—it seems humans are incredibly good at inventing stories to explain nonsensical children's songs. Sometimes posies are just posies. For more information about the meaning of nursery rhymes read, Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason and Analysis: Real Meaning of Nursery Rhymes.

I even found poetry dedicated to contagious disease. As a 15-year-old, Winston Churchill wrote The Influenza, 1890, a poem about the Russian flu pandemic of 1889-90. It's the only known piece of poetry by him.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley will forever be known as the author of Frankenstein. However, she is also the author of the futuristic post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, published in 1826. Main character Lionel Verney is the last man on earth, and he tells the story of humanity's annihilation caused by a virulent plague accompanied by changes to the Earth's normal climate. The book was not well received; read the 1826 unfavorable review here.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter, is set in 1918 Denver. It's about a doomed relationship during the historic 1918-19 pandemic flu outbreak. Porter, herself, fell sick to the flu while working for the Rocky Mountain News in 1918. Critical essay here: Nightmare and Apocalypse in Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London is set in 2073, sixty years after an epidemic has decimated the population. Survivor James Smith is traveling in the San Francisco area with his grandsons, basically living as hunter-gatherers. Published as a novel in 1915, find a critical essay here: No Ties except those of Blood: Class, Race and Jack London's American Plague.

If you'd like to dig further into plague (or otherwise) literature or read biographies about any of these authors, check out the wealth of information that is the Literature Resource Center database. Here you'll find full-text critical and literary analysis essays, author biographies, and plot summaries. In addition to the serious and academic articles, you'll also find audio transcripts, websites, and reviews of film and theater productions. The database contains information on more than 165,000 authors from all time periods and from around the world.

While plague literature isn't escapist reading, it was somehow helpful to view it within a historical perspective and know that it has been faced before.

In response to the current health emergency, we are currently not providing in-person or telephone services. But we're here for you—please contact us through our online chat service Ask Us! or by email.

Written by Veronika on April 6, 2020