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Grievability, COVID-19, and the Modernists’ Pandemic

Transmission electron microscopic image
Fig. 1. Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots. PHIL #23354: CDC/ Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin, 2020.

For the past five years, I have been immersed in research on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic and the unexpected ways it weaves its way into modernism. My book on the topic came out last October, about two months before a worrisome new illness began to emerge in Wuhan, China.[1] We all want our research to be relevant, to be able to articulate the critical “so what” question we struggle to answer in grant requests and cover letters. But the sudden thrust into an actual version of the sensory and affective climate I’ve been studying for so long has been surreal and unsettling, like a B movie where an author awakes to find her work has come to life. Even as we expose troubling elisions and injustices within the works we analyze, we may still use theory as a buffer between us and the world, and the past as a shield against our present realities. When a radio program recently approached me about an interview on Viral Modernism, they said that their listeners had been overwhelmed by COVID-19 coverage and would find it comforting to hear about a pandemic safely in the distance. I understood what they meant, even if patterns of viral and human behavior threaten to make the past the present.

Grievable Lives, Grievable Deaths

Despite the unsettling echoes, the research also prepared me in surprising ways, offering a road map through the jarring reality shifts of our pandemic’s early days. As the months wore on, I found that Judith Butler’s concept of grievability began to echo through every news report on COVID-19, granting an essential lens through which to see this moment and some of its terrible implications. In my book, I had adapted her theory to help explain why the First World War dominates the cultural memory of the modernist era, rather than the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, even though the pandemic killed far more people. In Frames of War, Butler posits how governments during wartime may deem certain lives less grievable and then use this calculation to justify various political ends. This process, she details, involves constructing a frame that cordons off a particular reality, a demarcation between those whose suffering matters and those whose suffering is discarded:

The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality. . . . Although framing cannot always contain what it seeks to make visible or readable, it remains structured by the aim of instrumentalizing certain versions of reality. This means that the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out . . . [The] frame seeks to institute an interdiction on mourning: there is no destruction, and there is no loss.[2]

We see such processes working against various groups throughout the First World War, such as the way troops from India or workers from China were positioned by British commanders as more disposable, creating an encapsulated and seemingly normalized frame in which their lives and deaths didn’t register in the same ways as white British soldiers.

The war itself also became a framing device, one that obscured the other mass tragedy that unfolded as the battles ended. The death and suffering brought by the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic—which infected 500 million people, killed between 50 and 100 million of them, and in which the United States lost more people than it did in all the wars of the twentieth- and twenty-first century combined—didn’t count in the way the First World War did. The war was what seemed real, and war deaths were what seemed important. Flu deaths were difficult to spin into stories of victory or needful sacrifices. The disease suggested bodily vulnerability and weakness, not a masculine power struggle or a larger political goal. Its source was invisible, amoral, uncontrolled, yet the agent was influenza, something that seemed like an ordinary and familiar antagonist. Amid the war’s dominance and visibility, the pandemic’s catastrophe became a shadow trauma, its deaths less grievable. Within modernist studies, we often still operate within this inherited frame. I had been teaching Mrs Dalloway for years before I thought to connect Clarissa’s influenza to the era’s second mass death event.   

The Framing of Grievable Lives in COVID-19

Our own pandemic moment is different, of course; we did not begin at the tail end of the worst war our era had ever seen. We will remember COVID-19, but it remains to be seen how it filters into cultural memory or whether we will use this experience for constructive ends, most obviously by preparing better for the next outbreak. What saturates our screens every day, though, is the glaring evidence of the insidious frames that are structuring our pandemic, of realities being created or reinforced that shape what suffering and deaths we see, what lives are deemed grievable, and what lives are not.

These frames operate on multiple levels. In the United States, the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan were marked in much of the media largely by indifference—worrisome, but a crisis happening elsewhere, often blithely framed and dismissed as a failure of authoritarian government or less advanced medical facilities. As the virus spread and pandemic conditions began to emerge, the sense grew that we should do something, but it largely took the form of protecting ourselves: since the virus could come here, we had to act. While it is abundantly clear that countries did need to act, and more decisively and dramatically than they often did, that self-protective focus ignores not only how a virus undoes borders, but also how such solipsism obscures the loss and suffering experienced elsewhere, when it subtly or overtly suggests a reality where other lives are less grievable.

It’s not just governments who make grievability calculations; most of us make them too. As the virus spread, another element of grievability quickly emerged, one that intersected in troubling ways with a subtle blaming of the vulnerable. Those most at risk, we were told, were the elderly, those with weakened immunity, and those with certain pre-existing conditions—which is certainly vital information. The way this information was presented and absorbed, however, often carried the air of “so you don’t need to worry,” or “so THAT’S a relief.” These attitudes rightly prompted a host of responses from people in those groups pointing out how damaging and cruel such dismissals are.

The troubling sigh of relief when someone believes they are not in a threat category is often prompted by fear, as people seek to establish buffers between themselves and their mortality. And fear may morph into victim blaming, into assumptions that health and even age are somehow a matter of personal responsibility: perhaps those who are infected simply made bad choices. Something related is at work when we hear someone has died of lung cancer and ask, “was she a smoker?” None of this is to say that personal choices don’t matter: right now, we should all wear masks, wash our hands, avoid crowds, and socially distance—but those steps are not always open to all, nor do they provide complete protection or mean that those who get sick are to blame. Anxious, uncertain, scared of death for ourselves and our loved ones, the reflex can be to make other deaths more distant, other lives less grievable; if she smoked, wasn’t it her fault? If they have pre-existing conditions, shouldn’t they have taken better care? And perhaps the elderly are ready to die, or their loss is not as tragic, since they have already lived? These thoughts, often not fully conscious or articulated, may problematically frame what we see. 

Racism, Grievability, and COVID-19

COVID-19 is highlighting ever more monstrous forms of these impulses and their repercussions. Every day, more data reveals a stark racial and economic divide in COVID-19 deaths and infections in the United States and the United Kingdom. Black and brown people in those countries are dying at significantly higher rates than whites. Low-wage workers, who are often unable to self-isolate or work from home, are at much greater risk for both exposure and job loss. A recent study revealed that 80% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia are African Americans. That figure is an indictment. As Ibram X. Kendi observes in his searing article in The Atlantic, “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus,” such monstrous statistics are not the result of personal choices made by the sick. Embedded in these numbers are centuries of unequal treatment, of discriminatory legal systems, of unequal access to health care, housing, employment, education, and more.

That these deaths and these statistics are in danger of being ignored or forgotten is tied to a government or culture’s pre-existing frame in which certain groups have already been deemed ungrievable. Butler describes the insidious assumptions that may underlie this process: “ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed” (Frames of War, xix).  Lives, she notes, “cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” (1).  If we substitute “pandemic,” for “war,” the statement still applies: long-standing patterns of blaming the poor, the elderly, and the sick for their conditions, of dismissing minority populations as responsible for their own suffering, are woven into the move now to pretend that the pandemic is not still raging, that these deaths don’t reflect on or affect whatever “us” is in power. The manifold ways in which low-wage workers and minority populations (and the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions, though in different ways) have often been relegated to a “lost and destroyed” zone simultaneously puts them at greater risk and positions them as less grievable.  

The Modernist Pandemic

Issues surrounding grievability infused the pandemic the modernists experienced as well, echoing some of the inequalities, indifference, and blind spots we see today. For many writers and artists, the pandemic lay outside the frame of reality, its deaths a deflating foil to the war’s more important losses. In 1918, William Faulkner’s military training had been delayed due to the flu quarantine, and before he could get deployed, as he lamented, “the whole thing was over.”[3] Robert Graves suggested an influenza death would be humiliating after the war; struck with his own serious case, he wrote “Having come through the War, I refused to die of influenza.”[4] Ernest Hemingway relegated the pandemic to an afterthought one of the few times he mentioned it; in To Have and Have Not, he killed off the wife of a dissolute minor character in the outbreak. Willa Cather, who did write of the pandemic in One of Ours, praised in her letters the “glorious part” that those who died in the war (“God’s soldiers”) would play in the afterlife, and lamented that “more of our boys have died [of the flu] in camp at home than have been killed in France.”[5] Her main character in One of Ours echoes this sentiment on his way to war; those who died in the pandemic, he thinks, “were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise.”[6] Certainly many, including Cather herself, came to see the war as also a vast and senseless waste of life, but the war and its deaths were still framed as both grievable and important. 

Interior of Red Cross House.
Fig. 2. Interior of Red Cross House at U.S. General Hospital during influenza epidemic, New Haven, Connecticut (ca. 1918). Library of Congress, digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Public domain CC0 image. ID: 2301123. 

Racism, Grievability, and the Influenza Pandemic

As I researched my book, I saw the extent to which perceived grievability is governed by what is left out, by the silences and gaps in knowledge, by lost voices. So many people who might have written about the flu died in the outbreak, or were so weakened that simply surviving became a full-time job. The experiences of minority populations, of recent immigrants, of the economically disadvantaged are not well represented in the interwar anglophone literary archive, for a range of reasons—in particular how time and space to write and access to publishing were governed by a host of economic, legal, and health care access issues that themselves reflected centuries of discriminatory practices. For writers already exposing and fighting racial and economic inequalities, the pandemic may also not have registered as significant; although Nella Larson nursed flu patients 24/7 during the outbreak, she turned to other issues in her fiction.[7]

Like COVID-19, the influenza virus hit different populations with varying degrees of severity, often spreading more quickly in crowded areas, and in the United States, devasting indigenous nations. It’s possible, as researcher and physician Vanessa Northington Gamble reports, that black populations in the United States suffered fewer fatalities in the influenza pandemic, though the reasons are unclear, and given the lack of reporting and research more generally on minority communities, caution is warranted. What is clear, however, as Gamble describes, are the widespread racist assumptions embedded in medical literature and research at the time, descriptions that echo in depressingly familiar ways today. Black American lives had, when the 1918 pandemic struck, already been deemed less grievable by the prevailing white culture, their poorer health blamed on inherent weakness and their own behavior. Gamble cites, for example, how a statistician for Prudential Life Insurance had earlier argued against offering policies to black communities because “the excessive mortality rates in African Americans were due ‘not to the conditions of life, but [to] race traits and tendencies.’” As Gamble observes, he viewed “immorality, general intemperance, and congenital poverty as race traits.” W. E. B. Du Bois countered such claims, pointing out that the higher mortality rates were in fact “an index of social conditions” and that “improved sanitary conditions, improved education, and better economic opportunities” were the solutions.[8] A similar blame game is going on right now, as the very title of Kendi’s article exposes.

Uneven Visions of Grievability

The flu literature I studied also reveals how perceptions of grievability and the awareness of suffering may be uneven within the same observer. People may be acutely aware of the invisibility of one group while missing how another is left out of the frame. In Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa—recovering from her bout with influenza that has damaged her heart—brings to visibility the pandemic’s long-term costs and the ways this suffering has been hidden along gendered lines. Clarissa knows that as an aging, middle-aged woman, she has become largely invisible to many. Her own poor health is seen by herself and others as a weakness, interfering with men of action whose important masculine pursuits are disrupted by wives who must “be taken to the seaside. . .to recover from influenza.”[9] Even in the broader critical conversation on the novel, the fact that the two central characters are parallel survivors of the two big mass death events of the early twentieth century is often missed; Clarissa’s illness isn’t typically seen in historical terms in the way that the war veteran Septimus Smith’s mental health often is. Woolf represents this very invisibility and yet also makes Clarissa’s body visible and central, the lingering traces of her illness echoing throughout the novel.

At the same time, Woolf reveals Clarissa as notoriously blind to the suffering of many others. She laments that her husband can no longer see her as anything but a weakened patient (“He would go on saying ‘An hour’s complete rest after luncheon’ to the end of time, because a doctor had ordered it once”), but in the next thought she notes that he was already off to help protect “the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?” whom, as her husband had told her “over and over,” had been “hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice.” Clarissa cannot even keep the countries straight, the genocide ungrievable to her, for “no, she could feel nothing” (Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 117).  Clarissa’s own upper-middle-class privilege is on display here, and this attitude—alongside the gendered ways her own body and illness are perceived—reflect the inherent political nature of grievability.

Modernism in the Time of COVID-19

How, then, might modernism help reveal the issues of grievability amidst COVID-19? How might these works allow us to ask, as Butler urges us to do, “about the conditions under which it becomes possible to apprehend a life or set of lives as precarious, and those that make it less possible, or indeed impossible” (Frames of War, 2)? The modernist era may help reveal both the blind spots we have inherited and the tools we need to effect change. Awareness of how and why the pandemic has dropped out of cultural memory (both at the time and within modernist studies) might help us to see what our own frames often leave out. The silences and the residues of pandemic suffering may alert us to precarious lives that both the authors and we ourselves may have missed and allow us to uncover how such lacunae are formed. Modernist writers also offer other tools, like how to read for atmosphere, for the widespread and the amorphous, for the subterranean forces that extract costs from bodies and minds and communities, costs that might arise from a global pandemic, systemic racism, environmental degradation, and more.  The response to the modernist pandemic may show how, in our current moment, we can get ourselves, our students, and our leaders to interrogate the ways existing frames determine recognition—and how we might change those frames.


[1] Elizabeth Outka, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[2] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), xiii.

[3] Ruth Winchester Ware, “Thomas Wolfe’s 1918 Flu Story: The Death of Ben in the Context of Other Literary Narratives of the Pandemic,” The Thomas Wolfe Review, 33 (2009): 69–70; William Faulkner, letter to mother, 7 Nov. 1918, repr. in Thinking of Home: William Faulkner’s Letters to his Mother and Father, 1918-1925, ed. James Watson (New York: Norton, 2000), 104.

[4] Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That (1929; repr. New York: Doubleday, 1985), 285.

[5] Letters from Cather to Frances Smith Cather, 11 Nov. 1918; and to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, 3 Dec. 1918 in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (New York: Knopf, 2013): 260–261, 264.

[6] Willa Cather, One of Ours (New York: Knopf, 1922), 319.

[7] George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 119.

[8] Quoted in Gamble, 115; the statistician is Frederick Hoffman, Race Traits and the Tendencies of the American Negro (New York: American Economic Association, 1896), 5, 311–12; W. E. B. Du Bois from The Health and Physique of the Negro American (Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press, 1906), 76, 89–90.

[9] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925; repr. New York: Harvest, 2005), 103.  I discuss Woolf and the pandemic at length in Viral Modernism, as well as T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Cather, William Maxwell, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Anne Porter, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. P. Lovecraft.