"With cholera or with typhoid we will use a dose of organisms that will produce disease in 25 or 30 percent of the control [unvaccinated] population."
Dr. Richard Hornick, University of Maryland
Maryland House of Correction, Study of Cholera and Typhoid Fever (1971)
The literature of epidemics is a literature of escape because literary artists are paid by a ruling class whose response, whenever possible, is to flee danger. We take Edgar Allan Poe as an example. He wrote "The Masque of the Red Death" in 1842. The year is important and in a minute we'll return to it.
The story goes like this. Prince Prospero believed he could seal himself off from the infections of a fatal pestilence ("the Red Death") by gathering a thousand courtiers behind the lofty walls of a gothic abbey. "The external world would take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think." The story is full of atmospherics. All the appliances of voluptuous pleasure were arranged in seven differently colored rooms for a long, hermetic life of bizarre, decadent Beauty. Only the hourly chimes of the ebony clock silenced the musicians and disturbed the evolutions of the dancers. It was an assembly of phantasms. The macabre, sensuous scene is interrupted by a mummer, the Red Death, who enters the apartments and murders Prospero. "He had come like a thief in the night," writes Poe quoting of Revelations.
Is Poe writing about a pestilence? if so, why is it a red pestilence unless he is also writing about the working-class revolution of the time? and why does he associate the pestilence with the classic statement of European millenarianism?
Some real history may help us. "Cholera was the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century," just as yellow fever and smallpox had been of the previous two, writes Charles Rosenberg in The Cholera Years (1962). The pandemic that shook Poe's generation was the cholera that spread from the east through Europe and then to American cities between 1831 and 1832.
The cholera originated in Bengal (1817) where its spread was assisted by the pattern of British commerce and military movement. Indeed, the lizard talk of the Indian villagers recognized that the cosmic imbalance suggested by the epidemic was the result of deities (Sitala, Mariyamma, Ola Bibi) angered by the disturbances of British imperialism. A ritual exchange of food (chickens, chapathis) between villages designed to propitiate the capricious displeasure of these female deities established a network of communication that was opaque to British eyes. The oppressed begin to define "health" in its own terms.
Such lines of communication were an essential part to the First War of Indian Independence, or the Great Mutiny of 1857. So, if Indian "superstition" was largely ineffectual against the water-borne virus of the cholera, the same "folk-lore" helped to form the infrastructure against the British macroparasites who in any case carried the virus back to European and north American cities.
Poe in 1831 was dismissed from West Point (cutting classes, refusing to attend church, disobeying orders) and went to live in Baltimore where his circumstances of life were penurious, and he would have been alive to the rumours and fears of cholera which then, as at any time in modern history, were designed to repress sexuality, to encourage racism, and to establish a pathology of the class relation (workers are sick, rulers are healthy).
The U.S. press considered, as indeed did medical opinion, that cholera was the result of an intemperate and dissolute life. The newspapers reported that of 1,400"lewd women in Paris" 1,300 had died of cholera. It was considered the "poor man's plague," by some with a note of pity, and by others with a note of satisfaction - the purpose of cholera was "to drain off the filth and scum which contaminate and defile human society." In Baltimore, specifically it was reported that the majority of cholera victims were the "most worthless" sort. To suffer from cholera was "socially inexcusable." "The Irish and Negroes seemed its foreordained victims" and in many cities the case rate was double for Afro-Americans. Physicians experimented upon the slaves of the South and the slum-dwellers of the North. Racial medicine was created in the first half of this century. Those suffering from cholera and the communities to which they belonged were not merely passive victims. They had their active notions of justice and social therapeutics, becoming thieves in the night. New York suffered an epidemic of B and Es. Physicians and city officials were attacked and brutally beaten.
The N.Y. Evening Post of 23 July 1832 published an interesting account of the infamous Five Points area of Manhatten:
"The Five Points ... are inhabited by a race of beings of all colors, ages, sexes, and nations, though generally of but one condition, and that ... almost of the violent brute. With such a crew, inhabiting the most populous and central portion of the city, when may we be considered secure from pestilence. Be the air pure from Heaven, their breath could contaminate it, and infect it with disease."
The very breath of the working class was deadly!
The working class was most dangerous precisely where it was least divided by gender, race, or age. Further-more the particular working class of Five Points was strategically vital to international trade since it provided the labor pool for the Hudson River docks, wharfs, and quays. It was here that the international circulation of value reached one of its most sensitive and dense concentrations. Hence, selective genocide was contemplated and effected under the guise of "natural law."
The purposes of this were not lost upon the working class. At the time of the 1831 cholera epidemic "the belief spread across Europe that the rich, under the influence of Malthusian ideas, were deliberately spreading the disease to reduce the population," as Norman Longmate has written (King Cholera: The Biography of a Disease , p.4).
The 1830s were also characterized by the mechanization of production in factories. In turn, these required a concentration of men, women, and children. Huge numbers of people were removed to the crammed quarters, so squalid, so fetid, that is called "urbanization" in Manchester, Liverpool, New York, and Boston. These were "the Hungry Forties." In addition to the trade unions and the mass political parties that were formed, another social dynamics was established: on the one hand the quarantine of urban communities and their planned isolation (called "slums"), and on the other hand the dangerous cultures of alcohol, thievery, and desperation.
Charles Marks, the young revolutionary, wrote in 1844 that
"the cheat, thief, swindler, beggar, and unemployed; the starving, wretched and criminal workingman -these are figures who do not exist for political economy but only for other eyes, those of the doctor, the judge, the grave digger, and bumbailiff, &c.; such figures are specters outside its domain. For it, therefore, the worker's needs are but the one need - to maintain him whilst he is working in so far as may be necessary to prevent the race of laborers from dying out."
It was necessary to produce a new kind of worker, "as a mentally and physically dehumanized being."
The same year Poe published "The Masque of the Red Death," in England, the Poor Law Commissioner, Edwin Chadwick, published the blue print of the "public health" movement, The Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. It was designed to regulate and preserve the urban proletariat for it, like the plantation slaves, needed to be carefully reproduced. It suggested in its attention to the municipal water supply (underground sewage disposal, introduction of the water closet) a 'hydraulics' of urban class relations, and it advanced the movement, begun by Bentham, for the incarceration of the ill, the sick, and the diseased; what Michel Foucault would call the establishment of "the clinical gaze."
As for the structure of the industrial cities, the developments of the 1830s and 1840s introduced what we may name after their most famous personifications, the "Holmes-Watson Style." Sherlock Holmes, the ace detective with his deductive method, and Dr. Watson, the complacent physician with his conventional pieties, summarize the twin organization against the urban proletariat of the 19th century - police and sanitation - for those decades saw not only the hydraulic control of the working-class via the "public health movement" but also the establishment of the armed-cop-on-the-beat in the new police forces arrayed against the industrial proletariat.
Together they destroy homeopathic medicine (whose base had been the family farm), and they adopt urban "reform" to manage disease which thus ceases to be endemic and becomes what Evan Stark has called "endopolic," or intrinsic to the city. By the end of the century capital was beginning to plan the life-cycle of the urban masses by immigration, social, educational, and urban policy, and in doing this, even as it congratulated itself on its successes, it realized that its victories over diseases limited its macroparasitical powers. Hitler wrote, "To me the giant city seemed the embodiment of racial descecration." Mark Twain expressed the result:
"It has been discovered that the majority of the most useful and fatal diseases are caused by microbes of various breeds; very well, they have learned how to render the efforts of these microbes innocuous. As a result, yellow fever, black plague, cholera, diptheria, and nearly every valuable distemper we had are become but entertainments for the idle hour, and are of no more value to the State than is the stomach ache."