Elizabeth Outka is Professor of English at the University of Richmond, where she teaches modernism and contemporary literature. She is the author of Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (Columbia University Press, 2020) and Consuming Traditions: Modernity, Modernism, and the Commodified Authentic (Oxford University Press, 2009).
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. 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.