Charles Cantalupo, USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks April 15, 2020
After speaking with Michael Bronner a few days ago, when he mentioned the Warscapes Corona Notebooks, I happened to prepare for the next course I was teaching – online, like here – which included reading Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” I was astonished at how unsparing it was in its analysis of power in circumstances of (pan)epidemic. A few weeks before, I had been speaking by phone with a good friend in Asmara, Eritrea, Zemhret Yohannes. One of his first comments when we started talking about the Corona virus was on how the power of the West had suddenly appeared so futile.
“The Masque of the Red Death” comes out of Poe’s direct experience of the cholera epidemic in the early 19th century. It ravaged America in 1832. It is a previous instance of a vast national and international epidemic with decimating social circumstances and numbers comparable to today’s. Poe would have witnessed it in Baltimore in 1832. He moved to New York in 1837, to Philadelphia in 1838, and went back to live in New York City in 1844.
As John Noble Wilford writes in the New York Times: "On a Sunday in July 1832, a fearful and somber crowd of New Yorkers gathered in City Hall Park...[as]...[t]he epidemic of cholera, cause unknown and prognosis dire, had reached its peak.... People of means were escaping to the country. The New York Evening Post reported, "The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city....”"
As the Times report continues: "An assistant to the painter Asher Durand described the scene near the center of the outbreak. “There is no business doing here if I except that done by Cholera, Doctors, Undertakers, Coffinmakers, &c,” he wrote. “Our bustling city now wears a most gloomy & desolate aspect.... [O]ne may take a walk up & down Broadway & scarce meet a soul.”"
Poe begins his story, “The Sphinx,” published thirteen years later in 1845, this way: "During the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him in the retirement of his cottage ornée on the banks of the Hudson. We had here around us all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music and books, we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the populous city."
As Noble further reports: "The epidemic left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city...would exceed 100,000)....The disease hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods, particularly the slum known as Five Points, where African-Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were...."
As the Times story also recounts, it wasn’t until 1883 when "the bacterium Vibrio cholerae was discovered to be the agent causing the gastrointestinal disease. But a turning point in prevention came in 1854, when a London physician, Dr. John Snow, established the connection between contaminated water and cholera...This came too late for victims of the 1832 epidemic in New York, or the one that followed in 1849. By then, the city’s population had doubled, to 500,000, and deaths by cholera rose to 5,071...New Yorkers should have suspected that the scourge was on its way. Cholera...had started spreading in 1817 from seaport to seaport...The disease struck London in 1831 and reached New York the next June. No one was prepared, not even doctors...Many victims, nearly half the cases at one hospital, died within a day of admission. After private hospitals began turning away patients, the city set up emergency public hospitals in schools and other buildings...In stark contrast, Asher Durand, who had escaped with his family to their country home in New Jersey, painted his children happily eating apples in a sunny orchard."
As Chris Semtner notes in The Poe Blog, the cholera epidemic of 1832 was not only in New York. It was worldwide. “Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens.... In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary,” and many, many more elsewhere.
Yet as Semtner also observes, “In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Heinrich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.”
He continues: "On March 29th, the night of the Mi-Carême, a masked ball was... in full swing...Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried...to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves...Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise..."
Originally published in Philadelphia’s Graham’s Magazine in 1842, Poe published a slightly revised version of “The Masque of the Red Death” in New York City’s Broadway Journal in 1845, when he was editor. Three years later, he would come down with the disease himself. As Semtner notes, he wrote to his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, on July 7, 1848, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die….” The previous week 358 New Yorkers had died of the disease. Semtner cites two more letters. Twelve days later, Poe wrote a friend that he had “barely escaped with...[his] life” from the epidemic. A month later, on August 7, Poe wrote to another friend, that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain....” Exactly two months later, on October 7, Poe died. Although not from cholera, he clearly witnessed its ravages, including within himself.
Edgar Allan Poe also witnessed the ravages of early 19th-century American politics. Suffice it here to say, he had no use, as his stories vividly testify, for chauvinist nationalist fables. His works were blessedly free of the kinds of bromides mouthed by Emerson and the transcendentalists (the "Frog-Pondians,” as he called them) and, all too often, by Whitman. But American culture for the most part has cloaked Poe, even quarantined him in “horror" (and high schools) to keep away and stay safe from him. As his peers in his own time did it, our time continues to do so, his otherwise resounding and unequaled popularity notwithstanding. Is there another writer who has a major sports franchise, in Poe’s case, a National Football League Team, the Ravens, named after one of his works? Yet this all-American passion is still another way to hide his devastating viewpoint.
Devotees of Warscapes and Corona Notebooks can benefit from some Poe reacquaintance/reeducation, since he envisioned his world a lot more like ours, even now, especially now, than might at first be thought.
Charles Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies. Born in Orange, New Jersey, he grew up in West Orange, where he attended Catholic and public schools. Cantalupo is the author of three books of poetry, three books of translations of Eritrean poetry, four books of literary criticism ranging from Thomas Hobbes to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and a memoir, Joining Africa — from Anthills to Asmara. Two of his most recent books are Where War Was – Poems and Translations from Eritrea (Mkuki na Nyota) and Non-Native Speaker: Selected and Sundry Essays (Africa World Press). He is also the co-author of the historic Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures