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A Journal of the Plague Year

Greg Ventre
This article's title is borrowed from a writer who knew something about isolation, or at least knew how to write about it. The famous English novelist, journalist, and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe's book, "A Journal of the Plague Year," was published in 1722 and is one man’s account of what came to be called “The Great Plague,” an outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665. It was the last such outbreak in that city. We know Defoe as the author of "Robinson Crusoe" (1719), the classic shipwreck novel that, while also being a bit of an adventure tale, explores the ideas of isolation, self-reliance, loneliness, and man’s need for friendship and companionship. Amazingly, I read that this book is second only to the bible as the most translated book ever published. Defoe also witnessed a severely destructive storm in London in 1703. His account of it in “The Great Storm” (1704) is widely held as an example of the beginnings of modern journalism. Defoe was prolific in many different forms of writing.

“Plague Year” was somewhat controversial at the time of its appearance and remains difficult to classify. Is it history? Historical fiction? Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665 and likely based the book on the experiences of his uncle, Henry Foe, who was a saddler living in the Whitechapel District in the East End of London. Defoe goes to great lengths to lend an air of factual truth to his account, giving descriptions of the impact of the disease in various neighborhoods, statistics, and anecdotes by the narrator. Another first-hand contemporaneous account appears in the “Diary of Samuel Pepys” (1825), and other various tales of the outbreak. Academics have debated both the classification and the accuracy of the work over the ensuing centuries.

That does not concern me as much right now as does the notion of journaling during times of separation. I became interested in the literature of the plague in graduate school at NYU. A fantastic teacher, historian, and noted medievalist, Norman Cantor, got me interested in the topic. A prolific writer himself, Cantor was noted for his accessible style and narrative quality, which made him unique among his frothy and verbose contemporaries in the field. He made his mark with “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” (1963), which remains a classic. Cantor’s book on the plague, “In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Created” (2001), is an example of how history can best be written. As you can see, Cantor had a long career. It was during one of his seminars that I became interested in how people react in times of distress and catastrophe and, more particularly, how they chronicle it.

Of course, when we speak of the plague, we are most often talking about the significant outbreak of bubonic plague in the 14th century: the Black Death. There have been many other outbreaks over the centuries—including the one Defoe wrote about in the 17th century—and they all feature eyewitness accounts. Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1353), for example, is a collection of novellas by people who were self-isolating in a villa outside Florence, Italy, to outlast the 1348 outbreak. The themes of the stories—commercial life, the vanity of man, the so-called “wheel of fortune” that spins human fate—show a glimpse of pre-Renaissance humanistic and temporal values. Chaucer wrote "Canterbury Tales" (1387-1400) during the plague outbreak, and many scholars think it a direct product of the experience as the story’s travelers tell their tales while stopping at an inn on their way to visit the healing shrine of St. Thomas Beckett. There are even modern mystery series that take place during the plague years. It is a well-documented and deeply analyzed topic. The origins, biology, spread, reaction, religious responses, political, social, economic, and demographic ramifications have all been voluminously studied.

A more modern take can be found in the novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus, another writer who knew something about isolation, or perhaps more accurately, alienation. Writing in 1947, in the immediate wake of the post-war environment, Camus writes about the outbreak of a pathogen in the town of Oran, in his native Algeria. Slowly, his protagonist feels like an exile—a recurring theme for Camus—in his village. The past becomes a memory, and the present is the only concern as patterns of everyday life evaporate. The hero Reiux is, appropriately, a doctor. He goes about his rounds despite the chaos around him. Yet, this is a redemptive work. Rieux reflects, “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Historically, pestilence is as common as war, yet we remain surprised when one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rears up and devastates us. How are we cataloging and recording our lives during this current pandemic? Unlike Robinson Crusoe, we are never truly alone. We may not be in the immediate physical presence of another person. Still, we can live stream reports, use technology to keep us connected and inundate ourselves with news and information. Our problem lies not with getting information but, instead, with understanding what information is worth having.

Unlike our historical predecessors, who knew little beyond their villages or immediate proximities, and were effectively helpless against a relentless killer, we have instant access to the world. Their habits and beliefs were ineffective, and more tragically, enabled the spread of the disease. We get expert advice immediately, but we must determine its value. We also have a vast array of distractions to keep our minds occupied and our spirits up, and, even as thousands die, we are relatively confident we will defeat this virus. Despite all this, it still unnerves us. Imagine living in the 14th or 17th century and facing a faceless killer.

I hope that you are keeping some personal records of these extraordinary times as well. It will be a "where were you when" time to look back on to be sure, but it is more than 9/11. More than Katrina, it is worldwide. We will have a collective experience to share with all humanity. Now that a Bronx Zoo tiger has been infected, this may well be our hour to save the world. As Camus’ hero remarks, “…it helps men to rise above themselves.”
An independent school serving students from age 2 through grade 12 in Howard County, Maryland.