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Home » Culture and Criticism

TN Read-Along #14: The Great Influenza Discussion Thread

Submitted by on March 20, 2012 – 2:37 AM18 Comments

Institutions are a strange mix of the mass and the individual. They abstract. They behave according to a set of rules that substitute both for individual judgments and for the emotional responses that occur whenever individuals interact. The act of creating an institution dehumanizes it, creates an arbitrary barrier between individuals. (299)

I haven't quite finished the book, and the passage above is one reason why I might choose not to continue. The deeper the reader gets into The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, the harder author John M. Barry tries with the literary devices, and the more he strains to ensure that it's his prose that's epic, not just the subject. The repetition of "there was no time" on pp. 317-8 (and "this was still influenza, only influenza" prior to that) that aims to create an incantation of sorts, but merely slows down the narrative; the quotations that seem shoehorned in to little purpose (Eliot, p. 303); the goosing of facts with italics or "poetical" descriptors…these devices, unnecessary to hold the interest, begin to wear actively after a hundred or so pages, through which we have already sat patiently, waiting for the biographies of every scientist involved to be brought to bear. I appreciate the laying of that groundwork, in theory, but in practice, once people start dropping dead, you need to find the point and get to it with a quickness. A large part of what still fascinates us about the flu epidemic is the rapidity of its spread and destruction; the narrative should reflect that rapidity as best it can.

Alas, mixed in with compelling details like the parents begging local officials to put their son's body in a bulk-size macaroni box, and tantalizing mentions of the federal government's utter failure to respond (this area of investigation may come together later in the book; so far, it's organized in a front-loaded fashion that doesn't suit its place in the story), there's p. 219's episode of Someone's Been Reading Too Much Whitman.

Many of the dead were more boys than men, eighteen years old, nineteen years old, twenty years old, twenty-one years old, boys filled with their lithe youth and sly smiles.

…Um, what? Look, maybe Barry is an accomplished poet elsewhere in his writing life, but regardless, it's not what we picked up this book for. "Many of the dead were more boys than men, just 18 or 19 years old." Done. Next graf.

With all of that said, three things, the first being that once I noticed the purpling of the prose, I couldn't stop noticing it, but it may not bother other people, and if you haven't started the book yet, I don't think you should let my nitpickery stop you, because (second thing) in spite of the overwriting, it's exhaustively researched, and a fascinating story regardless of how it's told. And third, I am sympathetic to the tendency to overshare information in which one has immersed oneself; a number of friends have asked how my day is going, and found themselves ankles-deep in a torrent of non-essential historical arcana about Pomeranians. Barry's editor could perhaps have gripped the reins a bit tighter, but s/he may not have wanted to get in the way of details like, for example, how the flu epidemic was leveraged into anti-German sentiment.

Did anyone else find certain locutions bothersome, or did you not even notice them? What did you think of the structure of the book — did it take too long to get to the main portion of the epidemic, or were you fine with the pacing? Discuss.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I agree that the pacing was odd–it's clear Barry didn't want to lose his reader with too many dry stats, but he's like a beginner chef that's only heard of salt and pepper–if his soup is bland he just keeps shaking in more and more of those two things until you're choking on Only Influenza.

    The actual details of the horrors that accompanied the outbreak of the fall wave–bodies piled in the streets and on porches, families huddled in their one room with a corpse because no one was well enough to dig graves, children starving because their parents collapsed–seem strangely muted, as if Barry was apologizing for the lack of cure by "his" scientists, the ones that he's been rasphodizing over for chapters on end.

    And Welch,I admire you and am glad to know of your life and work–but you blocked anti-vivisection legistature in the Congress???? NO. NOT NOW, NOT EVER. I know it's a book about the flu but the hagiographies of the scientists with hardly a whiff about medical ethics?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Agree on the beatification of the scientists — and how many of them did he have to biographize with "Dr. Suchandso never had a relationship with anyone of either sex"? I mean, if it's true, it's true. It was just a weird detail that seemed like it kept coming up.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I know! It was like he was trying to create some weird mythology with the scientists as some kind of celibate group of demigods. I was genuinely shocked at the end to hear Paul Lewis actually had a wife and kids–not so much so that she got utterly fed up with his bullshit, though.

    The book is genuinely worth reading for its history and the troubling details that flu may have set the stage for the rise of Hitler (I know, Godwin's Law but it's true this time!) The odd mix of that specific time in history, military FUBARism, and nature/biology cooking gently away, utterly disinterested in humans' opinions of their own advancement, was quite unsettling.

    The explanations of viruses and how the flu virus differs from its brethen was very well done–not too arcane/"science-y" but not too sixth grade report either. I once read a description of a virus as being "a packet of genetic material surrounded by bad news", and that sums up the flu to a T.

    The flu's vector–that is, how it gets spread around–was well summed up as well. But I have to take issue with the attitude of "people just had no idea how disease spread until 1914"–hardly. People may have had no modern scientific understanding of bacteria/viruses, but they certainly understood contagion, going back to ancient world germ warfare, the Black Plague, and so on. Hell, ask the Plains Indians about those blankets the nice white people dropped off. The idea that disease spreads from people and the objects sick people have handled was NOT some huge revelation.

  • Bev says:

    I certainly agree that the beginning of the book – all the histories of so many docs, was sloooow. More data than was needed, when I was trying to get to the good part about the influenza. It bothered me less by the end of the book, I think because all that detail may have been to show us that we didn't have gods or demigods to save us. We had ordinary human doctors and researchers, poor exchange of information, and often denial of how deadly this flu was.

    When we have a new flu that spreads like that, what we have to rely on is our own immune systems. Maybe.

  • Matt says:

    Oh no! This one is sitting on my shelf and, as a Great-War-era history junkie, I was really looking forward to it. None of this is making it sound attractive, though.

    Semi-related: a really good novel about the era, which deals with both the end of the war and the early stages of the epidemic, is W. D. Wetherell's "A Century of November."

  • Ann says:

    The "only influenza" repetition did grate for me as well, though it paid off a bit in the section on the media and government response (just the grippe, folks). It would have paid off bigger if there were 20-35% less of it up front though.
    I listened to this via audio book, so I didn't read the endnotes and can't be sure, but I think some of the minimalization or distance from the actual horrors of the immediate death toll was source material related. The best primary sources woul have been the newspapers at the time, but Barry is at pains to point out they weren't reporting this sensationally because of morale concerns, so he's left with anecdotal history (which are by their nature removed since they are taken later) and dry death counts (which are dry). Or maybe I'm making excuses and it could have been done with more emotion using a more narrative, less 5 thesis papers strung together, structure.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    @Matt, it's worth the read, definitely. It's just that the book is this odd combo of incredible detail about the researchers' lives and a relative paudicy of actual "and here's how it really was" scenarios for the actual flu epidemic.

    Barry's outlining of how truly wretched "medical" training was is chilling, no holds barred. That science as we understand it, as useful to humans in any medical way, is so very recent–brrrrr.

  • MinglesMommy says:

    I had to take a break from this book because otherwise I was afraid I'd never read an actual book again and then I'd end up reading magazines and eventually I'd just be looking at the pictures of People magazine and not even really reading the articles, and then one day my mother would find me curled up in a corner clutching my cat, covered in scratches (my cats hate being clutched), and talking about how I wanted to have a reality show and marry a basketball player some day and isn't Kim Kardashian just an amazing businesswoman who is totally misunderstood?

    (This is not "Great Influenza"'s fault – I've just been reading some very intense books lately, and they're all due back at the library, and enough was enough, so I switched to "Bossypants.")


    I'm not scientifically-inclined, so the beginning was a tad dull. But I did find that Barry's explanation of how viruses work, and how the influenza virus is different (and why this particular strain was so deadly) both fascinating and easy to understand. I will never look at a virus the same way again.

    Also, I found it fascinating how politics (insanity) and self-interest helped shove this nasty virus along and created the perfect environment for it to flourish.

    And I do have a new respect for those who dedicate their lives to finding out what makes us tick, and how to deal with the little bugs that try to take us down.

    What I didn't care for:

    GAD I wondered about the, "This was only influenza" bit – melodramatic much? Also, there are times when the science seems deliberately dry. I find the idea of the personal lives of the scientists to be interesting on a certain level; the idea seems to be that (unless you count Anna Williams) they simply never considered having personal lives and had no interest in them.

    I'm not finished as yet, although I'll certainly finish it. But for now, I'm carring "Bossypants" on the subway with me. It's a whole lot lighter and I'm not terrified of every sneeze and cough while reading it.

  • Jessica says:

    Interesting to compare this one with Pox Americana, which if anything is a little dry for its subject.

    "…how the flu epidemic was leveraged into anti-German sentiment": I haven't gotten to this book yet (apologies), but if this section includes a discussion of "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," I'm in.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Jessica: It does. Though you might be better off rereading that instead.

  • Suzanne B. says:

    Ack! I'm planning on picking this up, as soon as Evil Dissertation Chapter finishes itself – but another ashes-ashes-we-all-fall-down epic which, IMO, manages to keep a nail-biting pace? = The Great Mortality, by John Kelly. Although it got just a tad gruesome at times. Still, given the subject matter …

    Thanks for the pick, Sars, and for the heads-up about Ye Olde Purple Prose. I'll know when to start eye-rolling and page-flipping. :)

  • meltina says:

    Oh dear, you just had to have this book club while I'm trying not to procrastinate on writing a paper that's due in 2 days and I haven't even started on (typical of my grad school career, it's looking like)!

    I guess the purple prose did not bother me too much, because ever so eager to get to the whole puzzle box of how they figured out how to put together a vaccine, I basically got good at ignoring it. On rereads, I pretty much tend to skip a lot of the "meanwhile over in this corner of the country" chapters, unless it was the chapters on Baltimore and NY. My guess is that since he had more meat to work with in those two (more anecdotal accounts, and all that), he didn't have to use much filler prose to foster interest.

    That said, to highlight the good that goes with the bad, the explanation of how viruses work, and particularly how influenza works is top notch for a non-medical community reader audience, and the chapters on nascent DNA research were interesting to boot. Made me want to be an epidemiologist (alas, not enough medical background).

  • Sandman says:

    I'm only a few chapters in, but I've noticed Barry's tendency toward, shall we say, elaboration. When I hit "And for the bulk of two and a half millennia – twenty-five hundred years …" I thought "Why, yes, Professor, thank you, I'm familiar with the decimal place." At the same time, I wondered if Barry is used to lecturing. This kind of variation seems almost like a deliberate invocation of the oral tradition. Those of you getting the audio book version might weigh in on whether it works any better spoken aloud.

    I was more disturbed by his remark that "[t]he virus that causes cowpox is called 'vaccinia,' taking its name from vaccination." Uh, dude, since the root of vaccinia is the Latin for "cow," I rather suspect it's the other way around. A small transposition, but it seems a particularly sloppy error given the ambition of the work.

  • MinglesMommy says:

    I'm trying to finish this book now. And I am so sick of reading, "Nurses were needed, needed desperately. People needed help, needed it desperately."

    I need this man to stop repeating himself and get on with it – need it ….. DESPERATELY. (Too easy, I know.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    But this was still annoying, still only annoying. #fixedthatforyou

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    This really is the oddest book, isn't it? Neither fish nor fowl. But an editor was needed, desperately needed.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    And yeah, Minglesmommy, I was starting to mutter "I'm SORRY I'm not a nurse and I CAN'T GO BACK IN TIME,so maybe you could just assume I'm grasping the need for nurses and stop trying to make me feel weirdly guilty about it?"

  • MinglesMommy says:

    @ Jen – SAME HERE. So glad it's not just me!!!!!

    So my new thoughts, now that I'm (thank you lord) getting near the end:

    - Is this fool actually suggesting that the potential mental side effects of this disease only happened to President Wilson (therefore the reason/excuse for his signing the "treaty" that I have always thought laid the path for World War II), and not others who reported these side effects?????? (See page 381, then 383 – 388.)

    - The word "POMPOUS" keeps ringing in my ears….

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