Previously on Think in the Morning

Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Katherine Anne Porter’s Classic Story of the 1918 Pandemic

William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows

The 1918 Pandemic And Willa Cather’s One Of Ours


Then, under the terrible light which fell directly and brutally upon the bed alone, he saw Ben. And in that moment of searing recognition he saw, what they had all seen, that Ben was dying.  Ben’s long thin body lay three-quarters covered by the bedding; its gaunt outline was bitterly twisted below the covers, in an attitude of struggle and torture. It seemed not to belong to him, it was somehow distorted and detached as if it belonged to a beheaded criminal. And the sallow yellow of his face had turned grey: out of this granite tint of death, lit by two red flags of fever, the stiff black furze of a three-day beard was growing. The beard was somehow horrible; it recalled the corrupt vitality of hair, which can grow from a rotting corpse. And Ben’s thin lips were lifted, in a constant grimace of torture and strangulation, above his white somehow dead-looking teeth, as inch by inch he gasped a thread of air into his lungs. And the sound of this gasping—loud, hoarse, rapid, unbelievable, filling the room, and orchestrating every moment in it—gave to the scene its final note of horror. Ben lay upon the bed below them, drenched in light, like some enormous insect on a naturalist’s table, fighting, while they looked at him, to save with his poor wasted body the life that no one could save for him. It was monstrous, brutal.   Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel


Think in the Morning continues with our ongoing discussion about literature and the 1918 Pandemic, in particular Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel.  In his preface to the book, Maxwell Perkins said of Thomas Wolfe: “He had one book to write about a vast, sprawling, turbulent land—America—as perceived by Eugene Gant (Wolfe’s autobiographical character).  It’s true that Look Homeward Angel is a massive book, Whitmanesque in scope and prose, a Bildungsroman in style.  Wolfe was primarily an autobiographical author compulsive in his need to put down everything he saw and experienced.  The difficulty of writing and editing and publishing such a book is the subject of the movie GENIUS.  In the movie Colin Firth plays Wolfe’s editor and friend Maxwell Perkins, Jude Law plays Wolfe and Nicole Kidman plays Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s mistress, patron and muse. A brief biography of Wolfe can be found at  The Thomas Wolfe Society has considerably more information.  Thomas Wolfe’s star has faded in comparison to his contemporaries such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.  His wide-ranging approach is not in vogue given the concise modernism of many of today’s novels (although if a David Foster Wallace fan club can form around Infinite Jest, one can imagine a similar fervor for Look Homeward Angel where the writing though laborious at times is also quite beautiful in a poetic). Some have been put off by what Gaither Stewart calls an “inbred racism” but I agree with Stewart that this was “not a racism based on racial hatred, but a society of two separate races symbolized by the two water fountains, one for “white”, one for “colored”, that once stood on Pack Square near his (Wolfe’s) house.”  Racism was an integral part of the world of Wolfe’s time.  Wolfe’s story I Have A Thing To Tell You should dispel any ideas that he was a racist in his heart.  One last thing before we plunge into Wolfe’s description, the impact of the pandemic on his family, his entire work (novels, short stories, writings) is available in a single electronic format for only $1.99.  It is an amazing bargain I’m happy to have in my collection.

Look Homeward Angel is one of the few novels written by an author who experienced the 1918 Pandemic first hand and was moved to write about it.  Of the authors we’ve discussed so far, Wolfe more than any other captures the pit in the stomach, the terror in the brain, the helplessness and futility, the waiting and watching and worry as death’s cold blanket covers the body of someone you love.  What does it mean?  Does it mean anything?  These are the questions Wolfe (Eugene Gant in the book) earnestly explores.  Midway through the book Eugene’s brother Ben, who is considering going to Canada to join in the war against Germany, visits a doctor to find out if he is healthy enough.  He cries out to Dr. Coker:  “Where do we come from? Where do we go to? What the hell is it all about?”  These are very personal questions for Wolfe and they come to the forefront after Ben dies from the Spanish flu.  The author writes in the chapter where he describes his brother Ben’s death: “We can believe in the nothingness of life, we can believe in the nothingness of death and of life after death—but who can believe in the nothingness of Ben?”

Death permeates Look Homeward Angel.  Eliza Gant’s first child, who would have been Eugene’s oldest sister, dies at twenty months of cholera.  Ben’s twin brother Grover dies of typhoid at age twelve, a subject so painful for Wolfe that he revisited it chapter five of Look Homeward and later in a touching short story The Lost Boy.  Chapter thirty-five in Look Homeward is Wolfe’s classic description of brother Ben’s death.  Alfred W. Crosby says Wolfe “succeeded as well as anyone ever has in catching the moment of a loved one’s death, when those who love him realize that he is gone, and that all the power in the universe cannot retrieve or replace the deceased”  America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918

We need novels like this, not to provide answers, facts, history, but to tell actual human stories of life and a death.  Statistics are impersonal and are easy to ignore.


“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”  Stalin


Grover, Ben’s twin, was “the gentlest and saddest of the boys.”  He dies of typhoid at age twelve and mother Eliza shrieks to her husband: “He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone!”  Eugene’s older sister Helen wakes him from a deep sleep (he was only five at the time): 


“Do you want to see Grover?” she whispered. “He’s on the cooling board.” He wondered what a cooling board was; the house was full of menace. She bore him out into the dimly lighted hall, and carried him to the room at the front of the house. Behind the door he heard low voices. Quietly she opened it; the light blazed brightly on the bed. Eugene looked, horror swarmed like poison through his blood. Behind the little wasted shell that lay there he remembered suddenly the warm brown face, the soft eyes, that once had peered down at him: like one who has been mad, and suddenly recovers reason, he remembered that forgotten face he had not seen in weeks, that strange bright loneliness that would not return. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.   Look Homeward Angel, Chapter 5


Personal narratives and fiction far surpass statistics in their ability to document and help us remember the human aspects of pandemics.  Sadly few authors of note felt compelled to write these stories.  [Bryan Alexander’s blog Reading For The Pandemic is a wide list of writings on this subject.]  War and not pandemics became the inspiration for most novels at the time.  It took Katherine Anne Porter over a decade before she could write her account in Pale Horse, Pale Rider.  It took William Maxwell over two decades before he published They Came Like Swallows.  Willa Cather’s One Like Ours came faster, only a few years after the pandemic but it focused more on the Great War.  Wolfe published Look Homeward Angel in 1929 but he worked on it for several years before that.


The faces soon wear a bluish cast; a distressing cough brings up blood-stained sputum. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood. This picture was painted on my memory cells at the division hospital, Camp Devens, in 1918, when the deadly influenza demonstrated the inferiority of human inventions in the destruction of human life.   Victor C. Vaughan, A Doctor’s Memories


Even before the current COVID crisis, some authors revisited the subject of pandemics,  for example Thomas Mullen (The Last Town On Earth, 2006) who investigated the “ethical capacity to feel the pain of others” and The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman expected out at the end of July this year.

We will conclude with a few quotes and comments on Look Homeward Angel.  Eugene is urgently beckoned home from college because his brother Ben is sick and dying.

By four o’clock it was apparent that death was near. Ben had brief periods of consciousness, unconsciousness, and delirium—but most of the time he was delirious. His breathing was easier, he hummed snatches of popular songs, some old and forgotten, called up now from the lost and secret adyta of his childhood; but always he returned, in his quiet humming voice, to a popular song of war-time—cheap, sentimental, but now tragically moving: “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight,”



Helen entered the darkening room.

The fear had gone out of his eyes: above his gasping he looked gravely at her, scowling, with the old puzzled child’s stare. Then, in a moment of fluttering consciousness, he recognised her. He grinned beautifully, with the thin swift flicker of his mouth. “Hello, Helen! It’s Helen!” he cried eagerly. She came from the room with a writhen and contorted face, holding the sobs that shook her until she was half-way down the stairs.


The family begins to argue. Eliza, Ben’s mother, still can’t believe that he is about to die.  William Oliver Gant, Ben’s father focuses as usual only on himself pleading that the whole experience is killing him.  But, ultimately they all come to recognize the gravity of the situation.


Then, over the ugly clamour of their dissension, over the rasp and snarl of their nerves, they heard the low mutter of Ben’s expiring breath. The light had been re-shaded: he lay, like his own shadow, in all his fierce grey lonely beauty. And as they looked and saw his bright eyes already blurred with death, and saw the feeble beating flutter of his poor thin breast, the strange wonder, the dark rich miracle of his life surged over them its enormous loveliness. They grew quiet and calm, they plunged below all the splintered wreckage of their lives, they drew together in a superb communion of love and valiance, beyond horror and confusion, beyond death.


The converge on the doctor hoping for a miracle cure:


“Is there nothing more you can do? Have you tried everything? I mean—everything?”


Her voice was prayerful and low. Coker turned toward her slowly, taking the cigar between his big stained fingers. Then, gently, with his weary yellow smile, he answered: “Everything. Not all the king’s horses, not all the doctors and nurses in theworld, can help him now.”

“How long have you known this?” she said.

“For two days,” he answered. “From the beginning.” He was silent for a moment. “For ten years!” he went on with growing energy. “Since I first saw him, at three in the morning, in the Greasy Spoon, with a doughnut in one hand and a cigarette in the other. My dear, dear girl,” he said gently, as she tried to speak, “we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back.”


As it become apparent that death is near, Wolfe describes the scene in vivid detail:


The only sound in the room now was the low rattling mutter of Ben’s breath. He no longer gasped; he no longer gave signs of consciousness or struggle. His eyes were almost closed; their grey flicker was dulled, coated with the sheen of insensibility and death. He lay quietly upon his back, very straight, without sign of pain, and with a curious upturned thrust of his sharp thin face. His mouth was firmly shut. Already, save for the feeble mutter of his breath, he seemed to be dead—he seemed detached, no part of the ugly mechanism of that sound which came to remind them of the terrible chemistry of flesh, to mock at illusion, at all belief in the strange passage and continuance of life.

 He was dead, save for the slow running down of the worn-out machine, save for that dreadful mutter within him of which he was no part. He was dead.

 But in their enormous silence wonder grew. They remembered the strange flitting loneliness of his life, they thought of a thousand forgotten acts and moments—and always there was something that now seemed unearthly and strange: he walked through their lives like a shadow—they looked now upon his grey deserted shell with a thrill of awful recognition, as one who remembers a forgotten and enchanted word, or as men who look upon a corpse and see for the first time a departed god.


Chapter 35 of Look Homeward Angel is an unforgettable example of the power of fiction to bring home the terror and pain of death during a pandemic.  At the end of the book Wolfe brings back Ben in a bizarre vision experienced by Eugene as he is about to leave his home forever to move on with his life.  Eugene finds himself outside his father’s shop, a stone-cutting business that produces gravestones and other items.  Eugene encounters Ben in a what seems like a vision.


“Ghost! Ghost!” 

“Fool,” said Ben again, “I tell you I am not a ghost.”

“Then, what are you?” said Eugene with strong excitement. “You are dead, Ben.” In a moment, more quietly, he added: “Or do men die?”

“How should I know,” said Ben.


The two brothers banter back and forth until Eugene asks the question that really troubles him.


“What happens, Ben? What really happens?” said Eugene. “Can you remember some of the same things that I do? I have forgotten the old faces. Where are they, Ben? What were their names? I forget the names of people I knew for years. I get their faces mixed. I get their heads stuck on other people’s bodies. I think one man has said what another said. And I forget—forget. There is something I have lost and have forgotten. I can’t remember, Ben.” 

“What do you want to remember?” said Ben.


Here Wolfe returns to the opening sentence of the book.


A stone, a leaf, an unfound door. And the forgotten faces.

Then Eugene said: “I have eaten and drunk the earth, I have been lost and beaten, and I will go no more.”

“Fool,” said Ben, “what do you want to find?”

“Myself, and an end to hunger, and the happy land,” he answered. “For I believe in harbours at the end. O Ben, brother, and ghost, and stranger, you who could never speak, give me an answer now!”

Then, as he thought, Ben said: “There is no happy land. There is no end to hunger.”


The novel is as massive and complex as Thomas Wolfe himself.  He gives us much and some of what he gives resonates today in the this fog of miasma that surrounds and chokes us like all the pandemics of the past and those yet to come.  It is not an easy read but it is in our opinion an essential read and one that will change those bold enough to read it through.