TL;DR: Several scholars have investigated the relationship between the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on modernist writers including T. S. Eliot. Most such analysis has taken place in the past 25 years. The most visibly prolific researcher on this subject is Dr. Elizabeth Outka at the University of Richmond. She proposes that the pandemic influenced The Waste Land in multiple ways, but the influence may be overshadowed by, or confused for, the influence of the recent war.
Dr. Elizabeth Outka, professor of English at the University of Richmond (Virginia, USA), studies early twentieth-century literature through the lens of culture and contemporary events.
In a 2014 article, "'Wood for the Coffins Ran Out': Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic," she discusses the effects of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on the writings of four authors. That article's abstract is here:
The article examines the relationships between the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, World War I, and modernism. Particular focus is given to literary depictions of death, trauma, mourning, and corpses. Details on accounts of the epidemic by writers Katherine Anne Porter and Thomas Wolfe, and on the novel "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf and the poem "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot are presented.
In the article, she notes that the pandemic is overshadowed by World War I in literature and literary discussion. In the background section, she describes the progression of the pandemic's three waves and how the growing death toll affected people away from the war front, who had largely been shielded from reminders of death because the war dead were not brought home.
Having provided the background, she considers Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, both of which prominently feature influenza. She then addresses Woolf, who initially downplayed the pandemic. Finally, she writes about Eliot's The Waste Land, written in 1922, three years after Eliot and his wife caught and recovered from influenza. She comments that the 1918-1919 strain of influenza often left its survivors with mental and nervous aftereffects, and that Eliot himself remarked that his mind did not seem right.
She quotes a section of the poem:
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again! (Eliot, 1922, lines 71-75)
She explains that this passage applies equally well to the recent war as to the influenza pandemic:
On a broader level, no one knew, in 1922, whether the flu would return, as virulent as ever, or whether another war with Germany would unfold. More corpses were always possible. Eliot here participates in a kind of modernist mourning/anti-mourning: he records the desire to push the dead away, to bury grief and move on, and at the same time he insists that the memory of these bodies will always return. (Outka, 2014, p. 956)
She concludes by reiterating that there is a dearth of analysis of the effect of the influenza pandemic on modernist writing.
In 2019, Outka published Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature, which expands the ideas of "Wood for the Coffins" into a full-length book. Chapter 5 of this book, titled "A Wasteland of Influenza," centers on T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. She draws on Eliot's letters to his family during the 1918-1922 period, and she observes how the death surrounding him, both globally and personally (his aunt and his father died within a month of each other), affected his mental state and his writing.
Outka herself summarizes this chapter thusly:
I divide my pandemic reading of The Waste Land into two sections. In "Outbreak," I read the poem as a record of the sensory experiences of acute infection, including the reality-bending delirium, the fever, the dehydration, and the threat of drowning. I move, in "Aftermath," to the ways the poem evocatively captures three widespread experiences that came in the pandemic's wake: death, reflected in the bones, corpses, rats, and insecure burials; viral resurrections, including perpetual states of living death and barren tropes of sacrificial renewal; and finally, the arrival of silence and the breakdown of communication in the face of so much suffering. Throughout my reading, I remain attentive to the many influences that shape these elements, including the war, and I do not propose that the pandemic is the key to all mythologies, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase. I do, however, argue that the miasmic residue of the pandemic experience infuses every part of the poem, in ways we have been missing all along. (Outka, 2019a, p. 145)
Outka has also written related articles for popular publications and literary magazines such as The Conversation and The Paris Review.
The poem itself is available from Project Gutenberg. Outka's 2014 article may require an academic subscription, but I was able to access Outka's 2019 book through my public library's subscription to ProQuest Ebook Central.
Other scholars in the past 25 years have also studied the connection between the influenza pandemic and The Waste Land:
Goldstein (2018) also addresses the effect of the pandemic on the literature of T. S. Eliot and others, but I was not able to access this book.
Buttram (1995), a doctoral dissertation, delves deeply into the specifics of the ailments of Eliot and his family in the 1917-1922 period and how his health affected his writing.
Woods (2007), another dissertation, promises to be a goldmine of primary source material (if you can find it), with its abstract claiming:
This dissertation presents, in publication date order, the 167 articles published by T. S. Eliot from 1915 to 1922, most of which have never been reprinted. They include literary criticism, book reviews, poetry, philosophical essays, humorous dialogues, and other items. This edition includes annotations, which translate foreign language passages, note sources of quotations, record changes made to the original article in any reprints overseen by Eliot, and provide other information.
- If you're interested in comparisons of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic with today's COVID-19 pandemic and how they intersect with literature, there are some more articles in the references below:
- Nichols et al. (2020) is a roundtable discussion of six scholars that includes Dr. Outka.
- Hovanec (2011) examines several authors of the early twentieth century, but mentions Eliot only in passing.
Buttram, C. (1995). T. S. Eliot and the human body: The corporeal concerns of his life, prose, and poetry (Order No. 9533522) [Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
Eliot, T. S. (1922). The Waste Land. https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/1321
Goldstein, B. (2018). The world broke in two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the year that changed literature. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hovanec, C. (2011). Of bodies, families, and communities: Refiguring the 1918 influenza pandemic. Literature and Medicine, 29(1), 161-81. https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2011.0314
Nichols, C. M., Bristow, N., Ewing, E. T., Gabriel, J. M., Montoya, B. C., & Outka, E. (2020). “Reconsidering the 1918–19 Influenza Pandemic in the Age of COVID-19”. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 19(4), 642-672. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537781420000377
Outka, E. (2014). "Wood for the Coffins Ran Out": Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic. Modernism/Modernity, 21(4), 937-960. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2014.0099
Outka, E. (2019a). Viral modernism: The influenza pandemic and interwar literature. Columbia University Press.
Outka, E. (2019b, October 28). Zombie flu: How the 1919 influenza pandemic fueled the rise of the living dead. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/zombie-flu-how-the-1919-influenza-pandemic-fueled-the-rise-of-the-living-dead-123960
Outka, E. (2020, April 8). How pandemics seep into literature. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/04/08/how-pandemics-seep-into-literature/
Woods, R. J. (2007). "Prufrock" to "The Waste Land": T. S. Eliot's periodical publications, 1915–1922 (Order No. 3255920). [Doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.