There was a refrain we had at my old bookstore, whenever we had to figure out where to put merchandise meant to appeal to kids or women and someone suggested a display at the end of the history aisle. "Forget it. That stuff's all for dads and grads." Like all stereotypes, it's unfair. Many women are excellent historians, and many kids get into history. My own experience can attest to this. My mom's a historian, and I begged for tales of Napoleon at the dinner table. But funnily enough, she was also the first person who made cracks to me similar to the one above. As a response to this narrow demographic focus, many recent popular histories broaden narratives to try to draw in other readers. In a review of John Kelly's The Great Mortality, I referred to this as the "Tuchmanization of history," after Barbara Tuchman, whose excellent histories garnered tremendous popular attention from practically everybody, and which are lovingly repackaged every decade or so. I mention Kelly's book, because its popularity and success might have rushed Molly Caldwell Crosby's The American Plague to print.
This may seem negative, but rest assured I don't want to discourage you. The American Plague is a smart and entertaining book, and it's the sort of book that we hope for, from popular history. It startles the reader and tells a corking story, one that should get that reader looking for more. But it does have a few troubles. For one thing, it tells two corking stories in the guise of one. The book is both about yellow fever and the devastating epidemic in the city of Memphis, Tennessee in 1878, and also about the U.S. Army surgeons who, decades later on the island of Cuba, ultimately determined how the fever spread.
The first part is lushly beautiful and gruesome. Crosby echoes some of Kelly's style in The Great Mortality by taking the reader on a kind of 19th Century Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous tour of Memphis. We encounter a thriving city with an abundant cultural life, civic traditions, lavish theaters and a diverse population. The passage works as an engrossing, creeping counterpoint to the death that you know must come. These people are full of life and breath, dancing on the thrilling edge of the possible, entirely unaware of the horrors that await them.
Crosby renders the horrors with appropriate gore. One simply cannot have epidemiological history without boils and flux. This is the book equivalent of the moment in a show like Forensics Files where the narrator says, "The childless, thirtysomething professional couple was found in a pool of their own blood, the walls decorated with runes and symbols only the killer could understand." In 1878, 75% of the population of Memphis was wiped out by yellow fever. It collapsed all civic function; the city went bankrupt. Poised to become a booming pearl of the south, Memphis became a municipal corpse—or coma patient—for years. It's titillating stuff, but it illustrates the casual yet comprehensive viciousness of disease.
This was the fright of yellow fever: that it could wreak total destruction on a city, and no one had any idea how. This topic informs the rest of Crosby's book, as she profiles Army physician Walter Reed—for whom the famous hospital is named. Along with his enterprising colleagues, Reed travels to Cuba during the Spanish-American war to not only tend to servicemen but also to observe how yellow fever spreads throughout Cuba, which was particularly susceptible to regular outbreaks.
There, these men construct an experimental hospital, locking subjects into controlled areas along with things physicians then considered vectors for the disease. Some were put in locked rooms with sheets befouled by people who'd had the disease. Others were locked up with other waste products. Many of them experiment on themselves or allow their colleagues to experiment on them. Crosby tells this part of the story with a smart pace and a very good eye for the human element, for the characters that make the narrative fun and touching. These are the good guys, and you can't wait for them to win and dread seeing them fall ill.
Here the book raises interesting questions about medical ethics and about what people or animals deserve to be subjects in studies involving such potential damage. Anecdotally, it makes for good fodder for debate. Other parts of the book stand on shakier ground, though. Crosby makes the case that yellow fever—which probably originated in Africa—is America's punishment for the slave trade. While this is at least conceptually workable, it ignores the historical spread of yellow fever on other continents, irrespective of the slave trade. It's a little too deterministic and moral, like saying that cholera outbreaks in London in the 19th century represent a moral failure of the upper class to defend the rights to life of the lower classes. It's an easy call to make in a world of modern science, but of course these people didn't live in that world.
Yet if what you get from a book are high-minded philosophical quibbles—especially about epidemiology and public health—it's probably succeeded. The rightness or wrongness of these things are rewarding conversations that live on, after you finish the book. As it is, the only real downside to Crosby's narrative is that it feels as if it were cleaved in two. This is what I meant by my suspicion that a publisher perhaps rushed it to print, to capitalize on the success of Kelly's Great Mortality. The initial look at Memphis provides a vibrant trip through the wayback machine, to look at a Gilded Age city about to be destroyed. Later, Reed and his colleagues' studies provide a whodunnit that also asks some questions about medical experimentation. The two don't quite link up.
Still, because it's a popular history and meant to be a ripping look at a disease, one that should spur you on to read more fully, it does a commendable job. To ask for more risks producing something more academic, less immediately accessible to popular audiences broader than fussy old dads and busy college students. If the two stories don't exactly jell into one focused examination, let us agree to think of that as a bonus. It's a two-for-one read.