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A Guardian article from summer 2020, "The Covid novels are arriving. And they'll be a warning to future generations" by Laura Spinney, includes some discussion of the (apparently minimal) impact of the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic on European and North American literature. It says, however, that:

It can also be argued that the 1918 flu did find its way into Anglophone literature, just not explicitly. It’s there, perhaps, in a certain anxiety, a pessimism and melancholy that infuse the literature of the 1920s – in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), for example, parts of which he wrote in London at the height of the pandemic.

Is this supposed connection, between the tone of "The Waste Land" and the context of an ongoing pandemic, analysed by any literary critics? Or is it just a non-expert guess, marked as such by the weasel word "perhaps"?

Did the ongoing pandemic influence the style of "The Waste Land"?

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    I know it's hard to prove a negative, but a thorough search through academic literature about "The Waste Land" with zero relevant results would be an acceptable answer here.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 21 '20 at 9:53
  • @Randal'Thor You have multiple questions here. 1) Is the connection analysed by any literary critics? This is a simple yes/no. 2) Did the ongoing pandemic influence the style of "The Waste Land"? How much of an answer do you want here? I can answer 1) with yes, someone has written an entire book about it, but for 2), how much of the book do you want summarized?
    – shoover
    Dec 23 '20 at 4:50
  • 1
    @shoover If there's an entire book about the connection, then I assume there was an influence. So a good answer would say yes, maybe summarise the book in a paragraph or two, and cite/link to it for further reading; a really good answer could quote/summarise some choice passages from the book with specific parts of "The Waste Land" which show this influence and how/why they can be argued to show it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 23 '20 at 5:48
  • In the light of Shoover's answer, I wonder what you are/were looking for. (1) Is there evidence from Eliot's biography (e.g. his many letters) that the Spanish flu influenced The Waste Land? (That was what my original comment responded to.) (2) Can critics read The Waste Land in the light of the pandemic? Yes, and htis does not required any relevant evidence from Eliot's biography.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 24 '20 at 14:06
  • @Tsundoku Basically I wanted to know if that remark in the Guardian article was just a throwaway remark by a non-expert or if it was supported by any existing scholarly studies or other evidence such as Eliot letters. I didn't want to restrict the potential types of evidence, e.g. commentary from Eliot himself, serious studies by critics, compelling evidence from the poem itself, ...
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 24 '20 at 18:13
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+100

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.

References

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.

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Evidence that a certain event influenced a specific literary work that does not explicitly mention that event requires that two conditions are fulfilled:

  1. The event took place before the literary work was completed.
  2. Ideally, there is biographical information, such as letters or diary entries, that mention the influence of the event on the work in question.

This may sound obvious, but without these conditions being met, the presumed influence is a matter of interpretation, hence strictly hypothetical. A claim about influence bases solely on interpretation does not have the same force as a claim that meets the two conditions mentioned above. For example, it is possible to provide a Marxist interpretaton of Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud [1], which was first published in 1807. Such an interpretation would not count as evidence of Marx's influence on Wordsworth; it would not meet the two conditions mentioned above because Marx was born in 1818, a decade after the poem's publication.

For these reasons, I have gone through The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 1: 1898-1922 to see what the author's private writings have to say about the "Spanish influenza". The book's introduction, by Valerie Eliot, quotes a private paper that T. S. Eliot wrote in the 1960 and that comments, among other things, on his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood:

To her the marriage brought no happiness ... to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.

The issues that most frequently cause Eliot worries during World War I are his wife's health and his financial situation. During the early years of his marriage, almost every other letter that mentions Vivien also mentions illness or other health issues (neuralgia, migraine, stomach trouble, influenza, etc.). Eliot also received financial support from his parents until some time after the end of World War I. (For an example during the war: in a letter dated 22 November 1917, Vivien explains in detail to her mother-in-law on what sort of clothes for T. S. Eliot she has spent the money that Charlotte Eliot had sent her; the letter even says, "I enclose receipts.")

Another source of stress for T. S. Eliot was the preparations for his teaching jobs. On 21 March 1917 he writes to Charlotte Eliot Smith that

under war conditions it is impossible to make an all-year-round living by writing and lecturing.

For this reason, he is happy about getting an introduction to Lloyds Bank that same month. He would not want to return to school teaching again; "it is altogether too exhausting" (letter to J. H. Woods, 23 March 1917). But the salary at the bank is not high enough to make him independent, so Eliot teaches evening classes in English literature to working class people. These also cost him a lot of time and energy. However, Eliot's health improves after he starts working at the bank (Vivien's letter to Charlotte C. Eliot dated 8 April 1917).

Where do the letters of T. S. Eliot or his wife mention influenza?

  • Vivien's letter to Charlotte C. Eliot, 8 March 1917:

    Tom sleeps about 7 or 8 hours — he did not get over that influenza for weeks — in fact, I can say that it is only for the last 5 or 6 days that he has seemed like himself.

  • Vivien's letter to Charlotte C. Eliot, 22 October 1917:

    You see, after I got back from Bosham, I had only been at home a week when I got a very severe attack of influenza, from a germ. The doctor said there was a slight epidemic of it just then, and you know what I am when influenza is about!

  • T. S. Eliot to his mother, 6 February 1918:

    I have not only been very busy and tired, but a slight touch of influenza made it impossible for me to do anything for several days.

  • T. S. Eliot to his mother, 7 July 1918:

    We have been living on quietly and trying to escape the "Spanish influenza" so called. A good many men — and women — have been away from the office lately, with that curious malady, and as a result I have had more to do, helping out.

  • Vivien to Henry Eliot, 21.11.1918:

    On the morning I was to go and have this done [i.e. a tooth extracted] Tom started to have the flu, so I went with a heavy heart. He has not been very bad, so far, I am glad to say. I think we took it in time - he is up, but not out, today. Tom takes cold very much more easily than I do. Most of my colds are caughy from him.

  • T. S. Eliot to his mother, 8 December 1918:

    First Vivien had her tooth out and I at the same time had a light attack of what I think must have been influenza, as it left me so very weak afterwards. As soon as I was out again V. caught it in earnest from a friend, was in bed for over a week, and has not been out of doors yet. (...) Today I thought I was going to have influenza again, having all the symptoms including a splitting head. However, it has quite left me this evening, (...).

  • Vivien to Charlotte C. Eliot, 15.12.1918:

    Tom started with influenza, and although he had it extremely slightly it left him very weak. I got it about a week later, and had such a persistent fever that I was kept in bed for a week, and indoors for a fortnight.

  • T. S. Eliot to Henry Eliot, 27.02.1919:

    There has been a great deal of pneumonic influenza about and if one of us got it he would have to go to a hospital. (...)

  • T. S. Eliot to his mother, 27.02.1919:

    I had a little bit of a collapse and did not go out on Monday, (...). We were afraid it might be influenza at first, but it appears to have been only exhaustion.

  • T. S. Eliot to his mother, 23.04.1919:

    Vivien unfortunately came down with a mild attack of influenza and was in bed the whole time. She is much better now, but weak.

Colds and coughs are also mentioned in letters that don't mention influenza, i.e. on 22.11.1917, 30.12.1917, 16.07.1919, 03.09.1919 (bronchitis) and 16.12.1919 (bronchial cold). However, the above quotes are all that is said about influenza in the letters, i.e. the letters do not continue discussing the disease after the quoted passage, nor do other letters discuss it. When shoover writes, presumably based on Elizabeth Outka's publications, that Eliot's aunt and father died within a month of each other, one should add that Aunt Marian died of "a haemorrhage in the brain", not flu (Eliot's letter to his mother dated 29.12.1918). The cause of his father's death is not mentioned in the letters and is not mentioned in the footnote on page 267 in Valerie Eliot's edition of the letters.

When on 7 November 1918 T. S. Eliot writes about why 1918 has been the most exhausting year he has ever known, the reasons he gives are (1) Vivien's health, (2) material discomforts, which are mainly due to the war, and (3) his failure to get into government work (for the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army or Intelligence). Influenza is not mentioned in that letter.

In her paper “Wood for the Coffins Ran Out”: Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic (Modernism/modernity, 21.4, November 2014), Elizabeth Outka writes that

in the autumn of that year [1918], dead bodies were suddenly everywhere in Britain, in America, and across the globe; some neighborhoods had streets so full of corpses that no one was left alive to bury them. Death came swiftly and with such little warning that mass graves had to be prepared, and as one witness wrote, “Wood for the coffins ran out.”

In T. S. Eliot's correspondence from the years 1915—1919, however, these dead are no more visible than the victims of World War I.

In her article How Pandemics Seep into Literature (The Paris Review, 8 April 2020), Outka writes that

T. S. Eliot, who along with his wife caught the flu during the pandemic, felt weighed down by what he termed the “domestic influenza” of his health and home life, and his worries that his mind had been affected by his illness.

I have not been able to find this confirmed in the correspondence up to the end of 1919.


[1] This example is not hypothetical. See for example, A Marxist Interpretation of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" on the YouTube channel "The Nature of Writing".

Source:

  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 1: 1898-1922. Edited by Valerie Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
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  • Another brilliant answer, from a different and perhaps more objective viewpoint than shoover's. It's going to be difficult to choose one to accept, but (with 5 minutes left until the bounty expires) I'm going to make a snap decision and award shoover the bounty. Don't get me wrong, this answer is better from the viewpoint of "did the pandemic actually influence the Waste Land", but I was also asking "has the pandemic been interpreted as influencing the Waste Land (by anyone other than a non-expert journalist)". Interpretation may be less objective, but still interesting!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 1 at 9:58
  • @verbose I don't claim that The Waste Land was not influenced by the Spanish influenza. What I claim is that his correspondence does not provide evidence in one direction or the other, which is an entirely different position.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 1 at 12:40
  • ah. Thanks! Deleted my comment
    – verbose
    Jan 1 at 12:40

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