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Learning to Deal with the Coronavirus Through Literature

In uncertain times, we search for assurances. The humanities, including stories about coping with past plagues, provide a powerful reference to how things can be made right again.

In launching Governing's new editorial focus earlier this year, we aimed to not only report the news shaping the future of states and localities but to help place current events in a broader historical context. In this regard, we are excited to announce that Clay Jenkinson has agreed to join us as editor-at-large.

I've known Clay for more than twenty years. He's a noted humanities scholar with deep expertise in Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, and the history of the U.S. Constitution. Clay's interests are broad -- the future of rural America, the making of the atomic bomb, Charles Dickens, the history of exploration, space technology, Thoreau's Walden and much more. 

Among other duties for us, we've asked Clay to write on contemporary events from his perspective as a humanities scholar. We call his column "The Future in Context." In this inaugural essay, Clay explores what the humanities can bring to our understanding of the Coronavirus pandemic.    

Dennis McKenna, Editor-in-Chief 

In his 2017 book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Harari argued that plagues are now largely a thing of the past. “Both the incidence and impact of epidemics have gone down dramatically in the last few decades,” he wrote. “This miracle is due to the unprecedented achievements of twentieth-century medicine, which has provided us with vaccinations, antibiotics, improved hygiene and a much better medical literature.” 

Harari noted that after widespread initial panic, the outbreaks of SARS (2002-2003) and Ebola (2014), were quickly contained. Fewer than 1,000 died of SARS and not more than 11,000 of Ebola, mostly in Africa. Even HIV AIDS (1980s), which killed 30 million people worldwide, has ceased to be fatal in most cases thanks to the work of scientists. If Harari is right, science will find a way to defeat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) sooner than we think, with far fewer casualties than many epidemiologists predict. Time will tell. Harari’s wild optimism may turn out to be fatuous. It is more likely that he will have been right.

If people engage in social distancing and self-quarantining in the next weeks and months, there will be more time to read. Those fat 19th-century novels got read because there was less going on back then. Most people I know routinely lament that they have too little time to read, virtually none to sit down for an evening to read a classic of European or American literature. 

Here’s our chance. If you want simply to escape you can turn to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, George Eliot, or Melville. If this lasts long enough, there is even Proust! If you want to try to put the coronavirus epidemic in a historical and literary context, there is a wealth of great books to choose from. Many of them are now available free or nearly so online. The digital revolution may prove to be one of the best things in this time of uncertainty, disruption, and social panic.

Here are three of the best books about plagues. They are all highly readable, gripping, and topical. You will find yourself nodding again and again as you compare how individuals and communities responded and what is going on all around you. In fact, at times you will be so disturbed that you will have to put the book down for a while and go wash your hands like Lady Macbeth. 

The best book ever written about pandemics is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1772, 57 years after the Great Plague of London in 1665. Concerned that a plague decimating Marseilles in the south of France might find its way into the British Isles, Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year as a warning. The 1665 Great Plague of London had killed an estimated 20 percent of the city’s population. Defoe provides a brilliant account of a community’s response to the arrival of a pandemic. Some flee, especially the wealthy and the privileged. Others hunker down and hoard whatever they can. Some live in stubborn denial until the plague reaches their own street or house. Con men, quacks, and charlatans appear out of nowhere to take advantage of the panicked population. Desperate people do desperate things: murder their own children, commit suicide and strike out at those who are thought to be responsible for introducing the virus. 

Eventually something like martial law is imposed to prevent the spread of the virus. Houses in London were literally boarded up in 1665, with warning marks on the doors and windows, while armed guards stood on every street to prevent people from visiting or leaving the houses where the disease had been concentrated.  

Stephen King’s The Stand was published in 1978. In the book, when a strain of influenza deliberately concocted by the U.S. Army as a biological weapon gets out of a secret underground laboratory, it spreads within weeks to every corner of the planet, eventually killing 99.4 percent of the world’s population. The handful of survivors wind up fighting an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in Las Vegas. The Stand, King’s fourth novel and still his longest, eventually descends into a kind of post-atomic silliness, but his extremely detailed account of how a plague spreads is utterly fascinating and accurate. 

When some scientists project that the coronavirus will eventually infect 150 million Americans, they are envisioning the scenario in The Stand, where one person infects two others, then 10, soon 250 and, within what appears to be a nanosecond, almost everyone everywhere, thanks to modern transport systems, the concentration of hundreds of millions of people in urban centers and the failure of governments at every level to react in a timely fashion. King takes time to humanize the carriers of the disease. They are people just like you and I, and in most cases, they don’t know they are carrying the virus until it is too late for themselves and others. 

King’s interests were twofold: how an advanced civilization actually collapses when calamity outdistances science’s capacity to deal with it; and how global civilization (and think how much more global it is today than in 1978) makes the spread of pandemics inevitable.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was completed in 1353. It consists of 100 short tales told by a group of seven young women and three men who have self-quarantined themselves for two weeks in a villa outside of Florence, Italy, to escape the Black Death of 1348. To while away their time in isolation, the 10 refugees agree to tell each other stories. Today we have television, including Netflix and Amazon Prime, to get us through periods of enforced cocooning, but in the late Middle Ages the oral tradition of storytelling provided much the same combination of entertainment and escapism. 

The tales of the Decameron are witty, often erotic, bawdy, irreverent and sometimes hilarious. In other words, it is worth reading the Decameron no matter what is going on in the wider world. Boccaccio’s masterpiece is thought by literary historians to have lain the foundations for the rise of vernacular (as opposed to Latin) literature in Europe. The Decameron is a masterwork of early Italian prose. The best recent translation is by Wayne A. Rebhorn in the Norton Critical Edition (2015). 

When the world appears to be collapsing all around us, we search for assurances: that we will get through this, that this is not the first time that this has happened, that the world is fundamentally orderly no matter how chaotic it may temporarily seem, that life must go on, that there are things we can do to assert at least partial control over the nightmare of the unseen. Boccaccio’s refugees tell stories to make the time of quarantine go faster, but they also tell stories because by its very nature narrative is reassuring. 

Stories have what Aristotle called beginning, middle, and end. Crises get resolved. Things start small, spin out of control, reach a climax, and then they calm down again. Humans are a storytelling animal. Each of us will have stories to tell one, five, and 40 years from now about the Pandemic of 2020, as we have stories to tell of 9/11, Vietnam and the Challenger disaster in 1986. Athletes will tell their children of the year the Final Four tournament was canceled. Stat sheets of the NBA and the NHL will contain asterisks for the year the season was canceled in late stride. 

Reading the Decameron teaches us that human nature is everywhere and always the same, that crisis brings out the best and worst of humanity, that every mountebank must be balanced against a Florence Nightingale or Dr. Benjamin Rush who perform selflessly in spite of real and present dangers. The Decameron reminds us that one of the best coping mechanisms humans have is laughter, the best medicine, as the Readers Digest used to put it and as Norman Cousins explained in his Anatomy of an Illness.

From all of this literature what can we conclude? First and most important, humans are extraordinarily resilient. The Black Plague of the fourteenth century killed as many as one in four of all Europeans, but eventually it ran its course, and the social structure knitted itself back together. In fact, some historians believe that the European Renaissance was hastened and intensified by the disruptions of the pandemic. Labor shortages led to higher wages. The belief that disease was a visitation of God’s wrath could not stand up against the gargantuan death counts. Survivors refocused their lives and many decided to seek pleasures on earth and not wait for the promise of a next world. Instead of producing a deepening religiosity, the havoc of the plague emboldened reason and humanism.

Second, while advanced epidemiology and the incredible capacity of post-17th-century science gives us an advantage over every previous pandemic in human history, the “medieval” methods of containment are still extremely important: quarantine where necessary, social distancing, diffusion of urban populations wherever possible, avoidance of body contact (hugging, kissing, holding hands), and government-enforced curtailing of social mobility. These coping mechanisms cannot cure the disease, but they can slow its spread and can save literally millions of lives. 

Third, just as Boccaccio’s Decameron inaugurated a new phase in vernacular Italian and European culture, we can expect the novel coronavirus to inspire a wide range of cultural activity, and perhaps even new cultural forms. Plagues bring out the worst but also the best in humanity, often side by side.

Fourth, the thin veneer of civilization breaks down fast in crisis. While these plagues bring out the best in some individuals, they also unleash the worst in masses, particularly in urban settings. Thomas Jefferson may have been right to believe that the only way to create a republic was to diffuse the American population more or less evenly across the landscape. Urban population density lends itself to infectious disease, mob rule, a restless proletariat and the rise of demagogues. In each of these great books, during disasters, societies must contend with the “Lord of the Flies” response of the most aggressive members of the community. Once food and gas start to disappear in a big way from American life, the knives will come out.

One more recommendation for your leisure reading. In 1623 the greatest preacher in England, John Donne, fell ill from an undiagnosed and nearly fatal disease, probably restless fever. He survived, and a year later he published one of the most fascinating disease books, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Donne’s illness became a metaphor for life itself. Donne’s Meditation XVII includes one of the most famous passages in English literature, “for whom the bell tolls.” Donne has two points to make. First, the one thing that unites all of humanity is the commonality of death. If you really understand life, the death notice for someone else (today an obituary, then a tolling church bell) is actually about you. Don’t kid yourself. Second, we are all in this together and we must find ways to unite and reconcile and commiserate and cooperate if we want to make the best of both the good and bad of life. Here is the key passage: 

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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