To deal with pandemics, read about them. That’s my advice.
The 1918 pandemic did not inspire much literature of its own. World War I sucked up all the paper and ink with such greats as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front (1928) and Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms (1929). Upstaged by the Great War, it took longer for pandemic novels to roll off the presses. Willa Cather’s One Of Ours (1922) was an exception. Cather did cover the pandemic from a distance but the war was the main story in her book.
A few blogs back, Think in the Morning put up some comments on Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). Porter’s lengthy short story also covered both the war and the pandemic but the influenza took center stage. Our focus here will be on the hauntingly heartbreaking short novel They Came Like Swallows (1937) by William Maxwell. Maxwell explores the intricacies of family relationships and the complications that follow the pandemic when it arrives seemingly randomly with merciless effect.
The novel takes its name from the beautiful poem, Coole Park by W. B. Yeats.
I meditate upon a swallow’s flight,
Upon a aged woman and her house,
A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night
Although that western cloud is luminous,
Great works constructed there in nature’s spite
For scholars and for poets after us,
Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,
A dance-like glory that those walls begot.
There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the Muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well Set and excellent company.
They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.
Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.
The woman of “powerful character” in Maxwell’s book is Elizabeth Morison who was based upon his own mother. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 is narrated by Peter Morrison (“Bunny”), 8 years old and hopelessly dependent on his mother who calls him her “angel child.” Peter still sleeps with his doll, Araminta Culpepper even though he was “somewhat past the age when boys are supposed to play with dolls.” Part 2 is narrated by the older brother Robert.
Robert was thirteen and very trying. More so, it seemed to Bunny, than most people. He wouldn’t go to bed and he wouldn’t get up. He hated to bathe or be kissed or practice his music lesson. He left the light burning in the basement. He refused to eat oysters or squash. He wouldn’t get up on cold mornings and close the window. He spread his soldiers all over the carpet in the living-room and when it came time to pick them up he was never there; he had gone off to help somebody dig a cave. And likely as not he would come home late for dinner,his clothes covered with mud, his knuckles skinned, his hair full of leaves and sticks, and a hole in his brand-new sweater. There was no time (no time that Bunny could remember) when Robert had not made him cry at least once between morning and night.
There was one more thing about Robert, his affliction.
Years ago, when Bunny was no more than a baby, and such a thin baby that he had to be carried on a pillow—Robert was hurt. Bunny knew only what he had been told. How Robert hopped onto the back end of a buggy and was run over. And they had to take his leg off, five inches above the knee.
Elizabeth’s sister Irene had made it clear “from the very beginning” that Robert “had been her favorite.” After he lost his leg, it was Irene who went up to Chicago and came back with a set of “beautiful soldiers, the cavalrymen,” for Robert.
The final section of the novel is narrated James Morison. The father comes off as distant and severe.
Ever since that time he had been trying to make a place for his father within his own arranged existence—and always unsuccessfully. His father was not the kind of man who could be fit into anybody’s arrangement except his own. He was too big, for one thing. His voice was too loud. He was too broad in the shoulder, and he smelled of cigars.
Foreshadowed early in the novel is the fact that Elizabeth is what holds the family together, especially for Bunny.
If his mother were not there to protect him from whatever was unpleasant—from the weather and from Robert and from his father—what would he do? Whatever would become of him in a world where there was neither warmth nor comfort nor love?
In the very first pages there is a scene where James Morison sits in his chair and reads the Sunday paper aloud expecting “everybody to listen.” This is the dark moment when the influenza enters the story, seemingly benign but lurking about from this point on until it works its evil throughout.
“What is Spanish influenza?… Is it something new?… Does it come from Spain?… The disease now occurring in this country and called ‘Spanish influenza’ resembles a very contagious kind of ‘cold’ accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, back, or other parts of the body, and a feeling of severe sickness. In most of the cases the symptoms disappear after three or four days, the patient rapidly recovering. Some of the patients, however, develop pneumonia, or inflammation of the ear, or meningitis, and many of these complicated cases die. Whether this so-called ‘Spanish influenza’ is identical with the epidemic of earlier years is not known.…”
We are trained to see the trauma of war but not the trauma of the pandemic. War is manly and heroic. There seems to be a noble purpose to death in war although often there is not. Death from disease comes with a stigma that it is in some way the victim’s fault and not worthy of deep consideration. Nothing could be further from the case. War is the result of human failure. Something like a pandemic and the death that results is often considered ‘an act of God’ with no purpose other than ending the suffering of the victim. Nothing heroic, nothing to celebrate.
In the third section of the novel James’s mother visits to console him after he returns from the hospital where Elizabeth has died. But, her presence is not consoling. It brings out emotions in James he didn’t know he had, feelings that make him uncomfortable.
“James,” she said solemnly, “she is gone to a better place, where she’ll always be happy. Fourteen years ago your father died—in March. And it doesn’t seem like any time at all.…” Neither does what happened night before last, James wanted to say to her. He wasonly two rooms down the hall at the hospital, and Thursday night, when she was worse, he lay awake all night, listening. The gas-light came through the transom and cut a rectangular hole in the ceiling. It was through that hole that the sound of her desperate suffocated breathing came to him. “You don’t know, I said to Clara [James’s sister], how many times I get down on my knees and thank God for taking him, for not letting him suffer.” She allowed Wilfred [James’s brother-in-law] to help with her coat. “Every few days he’d have a spell of very bad pain. Then we’d have to give him morphine.…” When Bunny stopped weeping and turned to look at her, James separated him from his coat and mittens. “Sophie [the German maid] is out in the kitchen,” he said. “Why don’t you go out and say hello to her.” There was no point in a child’s knowing these things. “I’d been waiting for him to go,” his mother said as they went into the library. “I’d been expecting it ever since he stopped eating. That’s what carried him along, the doctor said—a good appetite. And he’d lost so much flesh.…” With his eyes James begged Wilfred to take her away, but Wilfred was unable or unwilling. He sat down in the largest chair and crossed one knee over the other permanently.
It is these uncomfortable feelings that come to the forefront in Maxwell’s human story. The feelings of Bunny for his mother, of Robert for the bad deck he’d been dealt, of James for his wife and family all complicated by survivor’s guilt and the feeling of irrevocable loss. It is the realization that, as Katherine Porter said of her bout with the Spanish flu: “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered.” Maxwell himself said something very similar about his mother’s death upon which he based his novel: “My childhood came to an end at that moment,” he later wrote. “The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.”
A great novel makes you feel (in the words of David Foster Wallace) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” That is what They Came Like Swallows does. In today’s pandemic we see every day on the television screen the numbers of infected, the numbers who have died, we hear about testing, we hear unthinking unfeeling lies from our President, we hear complicated details from scientists and doctors but what we don’t hear enough of is “what it is to be a fucking human being.” That is why you need to thank William Maxwell for writing this book, thank him by reading it.