Spring 2022 Undergraduate English Courses

359:351 Literature and Medicine

01  MW4  2:00-3:20 PM  CAC   08293  MILLER, R.  /  JURECIC   HH-A4

The Literary Uses of Epidemics, Plagues, and Pandemics

Epidemics have long inspired stories. Soon after the bubonic plague reached Florence in 1348, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, where ten characters sheltering outside the city pass the time by holding a story competition. In the 1660s in London, Daniel Defoe was inspired to write Journal of the Plague Year, which appeared to be a witness’s detailed account of living through the Great Plague of London. Katherine Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider tells the story of two lovers who both get sick during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In The Last Man, Mary Shelley imagines the life of the sole survivor of a global plague in England in 2100. And Stephen King’s epic, The Stand, imagined life after the accidental release of highly contagious and lethal form of influenza from a biological weapons lab, resulting in the death of 99.6% of the world’s population.

All of us are now in the unusual position of being able to read and reflect on novels about epidemics, plagues, and pandemics from the vantage point of people who have lived through multiple waves of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, in this team-taught course, we want to explore the literary and political significance of epidemics, plagues, and pandemics. We will consider numerous examples of stories that have contagions are their center, in order to consider how the medical facts of virality get used and transformed by narrative.

Readings may include The Plague (Albert Camus); “Mask of the Red Death” (Edgar Allan Poe); Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell); Angels in America (Tony Kuschner); Severance (Ling Ma); and a long-form essay about vaccination, On Immunity (Eula Biss).

We are both writing teachers so expect to write regularly in class. There will also be two short papers, and a final project (which may be multimedia.)