David Brooks’ “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” (NYTIMES), Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) and influenza imagined as shell shock

David Brooks’ “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” (NYTIMES), Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) and influenza imagined as shell shock

Richard Harding Davis, “On the Fever Ship,” The Lion and The Unicorn, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. Illustration, Howard Chandler Christy, p.90 [Held at scanned courtesy of Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester] See David Kramer, “Infirm Soldiers in the Cuban War of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Harding Davis”, War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, Special Double Issue, 2002, Volume 14, Numbers 1 & 2

The New York Times columnist David Brook’s skill as a popularizer is an ability to distill information into effective summarizing phrases.

In “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too: You may not like who you’re about to become.” (The New York Times, 3/12/20), Brooks discusses pandemics from 14th century Italy, 17th century England, 19th century Russia and 20th century America. In his analysis of why the Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 left such a faint mark on the historical and cultural imagination, Brooks concludes: “Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.”

I sensed Brooks felt he was on to something when he appeared on the PBS News Hour and Meet the Press. On both programs, Brooks mentioned that for a week he’d read up on pandemics. On Meet the Press, Brooks lamented; “And so in 1918, we lost 675,000 Americans to the flu, and nobody wanted to talk about it afterwards.” To which host Chuck Todd responded, “You paint an even more bleak picture than I thought.”

Brooks’ column piqued my interest to take a closer look at literary productions emerging from the 1918 pandemic.

Concurring with Brooks, in “Why Did So Few Novels Tackle the 1918 Pandemic?”, (Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017), Patricia Clifford writes; “Despite its vast toll, the pandemic was never a big theme in American literature—an absence the historian Alfred Crosby calls ‘puzzling.’”

In “‘Waste in a Great Enterprise’: Influenza, Modernism, and One of Ours,” (Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009), Joshua Doležal elaborates on the diminutive role of the 1918 flu in modern American literature:

(left) Literature and Medicine, Volume Twenty-Eight, Number One, Spring 2009, General Issue (right) Joshua Doležal “‘Waste in a Great Enterprise’: Influenza, Modernism, and One of Ours,” p.82 [Held at scanned courtesy of Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester]

As mentioned by Clifford, Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) — awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of a Nebraskan who fights in World War I — stands out as the first extensive depiction of the pandemic by a major American novelist. In his essay, Doležal says One of Ours “offers one of the few contemporaneous literary accounts of the 1918 pandemic, recounting the ravages on American soldiers aboard the fictional troop ship Anchises, bound for France” (82).

Willa Cather, One of Ours (1922), Scholarly Edition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006 [Held at scanned courtesy of Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester]

In a broad context,  the dearth of Spanish influenza fictions is primarily due to its association with the Great War, as yet another horrible manifestation. As Doležal says, the First World War thoroughly overshadowed the flu outbreak.

In Richard C. Harris’ “Historical Essay” (One of Ours, Scholarly Edition), Harris discusses the prevailing American view of the Great War: “By 1922 disillusionment over the war was very strong; the war was described as a senseless slaughter, and exercise in futility and deceit . . . Interest in One of Ours as World War I fiction quickly faded, partly because interest in the war quickly faded” (pgs. 661 and 665).

From this perspective, Brooks’ thesis — the Spanish influenza as “a shameful memory and therefore suppressed” — is valid. Americans wanted to forget the intertwined horrors of disease and war.

First, before turning to One of Ours, it may be instructive to look at America’s previous war, the Spanish-American War of 1898, where following defeat of the Spanish colonial army in Cuba, malarial fever swept through the American forces.

When writing my Ph.D. dissertation on literature of the Spanish-American War, The Rhetorical war: Class, race and redemption in Spanish-American War fiction: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Richared Harding Davis and Sutton Grigg, my thesis adviser asked what was my most important discovery.  While perhaps not the most important, the most interesting was a close examination of Richard Harding Davis’ overlooked short story “On the Fever Ship” (1899) whose findings were published in “Infirm Soldiers in the Cuban War of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Harding Davis” (War, Literature and the Arts, 2002).

War, Literarure & the Art: An International Journal of the Humanities, Special Double Issue, 2002, Volume 14, Numbers 1 & 2 [From David Kramer’s collection] See“Infirm Soldiers in the Cuban War of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Harding Davis”

The Spanish-American War was perhaps the United States’s most popular war. The nation had not seen extensive battles for over thirty years. From a cultural standpoint, the war offered a staging ground for young American soldiers to test their mettle and prove their manhood. Many, including Theodore Roosevelt, author of “The Strenuous Life,” believed American men were losing their vitality, beset by the dangers of emasculating “overcivilization.” To them, the Cuban battlefields — where Roosevelt went with his Rough Riders — were a place of re-invigoration.

In 1898, Davis, journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and dramatist, was at the height of his fame. Going to Cuba as a war correspondent, Davis’ dispatches were filled with reports of heroic American soldiers unflinching in the face of combat.

Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (left) and Richard Harding Davis in Cuba. From Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story: New and Improved

Davis’ “On the Fever Ship,” however, was an exception. Described as a mini-masterpiece by his biographer Scott Osborn, “On the Fever Ship” is one of Davis’s few experimental fictions.  Deviating from his standard conventional mode, Davis has the narrator enter the mind of a stricken, traumatized soldier, an attempt at psychological realism with distinctly modern overtones.

The plot of “On the Fever Ship” is deceptively simple: an unnamed Lieutenant awakes from an apparent eight-day coma, finding himself confined in bed on a military fever ship. The Lieutenant, wounded at San Juan Hill and then stricken with fever, suffers from temporary amnesia.

The Lieutenant is frustrated and bewildered by his condition and the diagnosis that he must remain in bed. One of the Lieutenant’s most frenzied concerns is the whereabouts of his New York fiancée. In his overwrought imagination the Lieutenant expects her imminent arrival on board the ship. At the height of his terror, he mistakes one of the ship’s nurses for his fiancée, and passionately embraces her. The nurse is offended; the ship’s Doctor, however, concludes that perpetuating the illusion is essential for the patient’s survival and sanity. The nurse enacts the masquerade; the Lieutenant is kept alive long enough to disembark in New York and reunite with his fiancée, although his condition is still feeble.

(left) “On the Fever Ship,” from Richard Harding Davis’ The Lion and The Unicorn [Held at scanned courtesy of Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester]. Following the Cuban Campaign, Davis would write, “On the Fever Ship,” perhaps his most experimental and psychologically troubling short story. The story is a thinly veiled depiction on a Lieutenant suffering from “shell shock” — the phenomenon that would become widespread 20 years later during WWI. See Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story: New and Improved


My reading argues that Davis uses “fever” as a screen, mask, displacement or metonym for an sub-textual exploration of the phenomenon of shell shock – today called PTDS – in which soldiers develop psychological symptoms seemingly lacking an organic cause. While the Civil War had its version of PTSD — Soldier’s Heart — no medically diagnosed cases appeared during the Spanish-American War. Nonetheless, the Lieutenant suffers from fever but his symptoms — muteness, nausea, dizziness, tremblings, spasmodic weeping, disorientation, and hallucinations — eerily resemble those associated with shell shock.

Davis’s realist fiction exposes the “real” effects of war, in which the Lieutenant’s apparent heroism under fire seems hollow compensation for his sufferings.  I argue that Davis imagines a character whose vulnerability of mind and body and war-induced symptoms contain intimations of the psychic ills that would become so prevalent the Great War of 1914-1918.

I wanted to see if Davis’s device — exploring shell shock through the lens of physical illness (in Cather’s case, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918) — holds true in One of Ours. And, to degree, it does.

Influenza enters the novel in “Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises” where on the troopship headed to France, “a scourge of influenza had broken out on board, of a particularly bloody and malignant type (387).” The accompanying note states, “The actual outbreak of influenza on transports carrying United States troops is here anticipated by several months.”

Unlike in “On the Fever Ship,” in One of Ours the scourge appears before the battles in France begin. In this way, the voyage acts as foreshadow for the physical distress the men will face in the trenches and under fire. The soldiers become seasick, faint, somnabulistic. Some lie in stupors with congested eyeballs rolled back in their heads with only the yellowish whites visible.  Several die and buried at sea.

One soldier, otherwise a fine husky boy of eighteen, misconducts himself, “sniveling and crying like a baby.” Another scared young man does not have the fever, but blubbers in his fear.  Cather’s depiction of the traumatized men match Davis’ in “On Fever Ship:”

(left) “On the Fever Ship” p.87 (right) One of Ours p.410

This passage is crucial. Here we can see influenza as a device for exploring war-caused PTSD. The men’s symptoms are physically real but they mirror the psychosomatic symptoms of shell shock. Vigorous, vital and clean-blooded young men — not even very sick who would otherwise recover — snivel, blubber and cry. They have simply “lost their courage.” Perhaps they have Soldier’s Heart.

As the Anchises docks in port, the flu has broken. Soon afterwards, the main character, Claude, sees a train-load of wounded American soldiers sent back from evacuation hospitals to await transportation home:

One of Ours, p.440

The connection between influenza and war — “the boys who died on board had never seen as sick as these did” — is explicit. Claude thinks the wounded may never get well. The boys may heal physically but perhaps never fully mentally.

In another crucial passage, Claude comes face-to-face with an actual shell shock victim, described as a “psychopathic case.” Like the unnamed Lieutenant in “On the Fever,” the soldier suffers from memory loss, which similar to the Lieutenant manifests itself as confusion about his fiancée whose letters and photographs he has but cannot remember:

One of Ours, pgs 443-44

The passage is striking because the “star patient” appears out of the blue; no where else do we encounter such an clinically odd response to the experience of war. Although “this psychopath” plays but a cameo role, Cather herself was intrigued by cases of shell shock. As described in the Explanatory Note:

Explanatory Note 443, p.765, One of Ours

Despite her interest, Cather only gives a short glimpse into a “Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous.” For the most part, Cather highlights the courage and toughness of Claude under fire. But very significantly, Cather calls the sufferer “the lost American” — a representative precursor of the Lost Generation. (According to Wikipedia, The Lost Generation is the generation that came of age during World War I. “Lost” in this context also means “disoriented, wandering, directionless” — a recognition that there was great confusion and aimlessness among the war’s survivors in the early post-war years.)

Contemporary critics consistently complained that One of Ours presented war in romantic terms, perhaps cynically capitalizing on popular sentiment that desired to see the war as a great patriotic triumph. But in the boys whose courage influenza takes on the Anchises and in the lost American psychopath  — like 56 thousand other neuro-psychiatrically disabled soldiers — we can see physical and psychic illness as two sides of a dual pandemic.



The scene presents a series of problems if we read beneath the literal surface. The straightforward interpretation is that the Lieutenant’s fever-induced hallucination is entirely ingenuous and proves his devotion to his fiancée. The reader is left to speculate on the unbreakable power of true love.  Still, the story is more nuanced than that. The story’s crisis occurs when the Lieutenant almost discovers his hallucinatory error. Whether a delusion or not, the Lieutenant appears to have experienced sexual desire for the body of another woman. The prevailing sexual codes required a denial of erotic motives and the Lieutenant’s absolute physical loyalty to his betrothed. His desire would seem to represent a sexual dysfunction, a symptom of his psychic distress. The Lieutenant’s descent has reached new depths. His bodily control has eroded, his libido is either perversely released or entirely ruled by fantasy, and he may have lost his mind.

Howard Chandler Christy’s accompanying illustration in the book’s first edition depicts the Lieutenant’s hallucination and the Doctor’s penetrating gaze. In the illustration, the Lieutenant imagines that he sees his fiancée. The Doctor, like the reader, knows differently. As the sketch is rendered, the Doctor looks through the Lieutenant’s mirage, casting his diagnostic scrutiny directly at the patient. In doing so, the illustration registers the Lieutenant’s feminization. The bedridden and partially exposed Lieutenant, medicine or absinthe at his side, is contrasted with the standing and fully clothed Doctor, the sword hung at his side.

Also—as a suggestion rather than assertion—it seems possible that above the image of the virginal fiancée is the faint outline of a nude female torso, arms twisted and hair strewn. Earlier, I argued that the Lieutenant appeared to experience sexual desire for Nurse Bergen. However, in the illustration, Christy has effaced Nurse Bergen and perhaps substitutes the eroticized torso.

At this point, the story, and the illustration, allows us to ask: do the Lieutenant’s hallucinations and impulsive actions arise solely from the fever or do they originate in his dysfunctional mind? Or, were they caused by the very shock of his charge up San Juan Hill? The doctor’s intervention, especially in the use of a hypnotic or mental cure, highlights the plasticity of the Lieutenant’s psyche; he is now subject to clinical manipulation. The doctor’s deception transforms him into a specimen, another potential case history written up for the Society for Psychical Research.


“Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story:” New and Improved


Dr. Joseph Roby could not save Lenore Engel, 11, victim of the 1918 pandemic buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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