"Wood for the Coffins Ran Out": Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic
Here’s what we already know—during the First World War, soldiers and civilians often had remarkably different experiences of the war corpse. Dead bodies were omnipresent on the front line and in the trenches, an inescapable constant for the living soldier. As critic Allyson Booth notes, “Trench soldiers . . . inhabited worlds constructed, literally, of corpses.”1 In Britain and America, however, such corpses were strangely absent; unlike in previous conflicts, bodies were not returned. This dichotomy underscores some of our central assumptions about the differences between the front line and the home front: in the trenches, dead bodies and the ever-present danger of becoming one; at home, the often haunting absence of bodies to mourn, though this mourning occurred in a place of relative safety. These assumptions miss, however, the sudden erosion of these distinctions in 1918, for in the autumn of that year, 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.”2 The influenza pandemic of 1918, which stretched its deathly fingers into 1919, was the most lethal plague in human history, killing somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people worldwide in an astonishingly condensed period.3 Yet despite inflicting five to ten times more causalities than the First World War, the flu was, for a time at least, seemingly forgotten. British and American literature rarely dwells on it, almost no memorials were built to mark its destruction, and until the last ten years, few historians had told its story; it certainly makes few appearances in modernist studies today.4
Copyright © 2014 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Modernism/modernity 21:4 (2014), 937-960.
Please note that downloads of the article are for private/personal use only.
Outka, Elizabeth. ""Wood for the Coffins Ran Out": Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic." Modernism/modernity 21, no. 4 (2014): 937-960. doi:10.1353/mod.2014.0099.