The Reading Room: A review of ‘The Spanish Flu…’


The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, 1918

Ryan A. Davis. Published by Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Hardcover, 255 pages. ISBN 978-1-137-33920-1


This book is unusual in that it deals with a subject that is scarcely found among international literature in the English language, the great influenza pandemic of 1918, or Spanish Flu, so-named perhaps inappropriately after the country. Davis’s work is also uncommon in terms of its cultural historical design, as the author has chosen to look at the epidemic as a discourse made from “the collection of news stories, reports, origin, facts and figures about the epidemic”, the Spanish Flu discourse – SFD hereafter – that he dissects through text analysis. It is true that this pandemic has minimal presence in art, either visual or written, as the author correctly maintains, and that the most common historical studies to date on that episode come from the field of social history, strongly linked to demographical data and to social epidemiology, in essence those which prioritized the material changes brought about by the epidemic. Davis chooses a different path, looking at the collective experience of influenza in 1918 Spain as a cultural trauma, as much as it dealt with a threat to the [hegemonic] cultural identity of the nation that he found articulated in SFD. It is also quite an ambitious endeavour, as the author seeks to evidence “the crucial role narratives play in the human condition”. This particular narrative is well constructed, fluent and clear. Reading Davis’s book is a rewarding, and intriguing, experience.

The Introduction is densely written and painstakingly explanatory in terms of the author’s sources of inspiration. No fewer than 126 footnotes illustrate his task, footnotes that not only account for bibliographical identification but which in many cases include lengthy informative paragraphs. There is where Davis identifies his main primary sources and gives a succinct account of the principal concepts that frame his work. Chapters 1-3 contain a chronological presentation of the appearance and evolution of the two waves – Spring and Autumn – of the 1918 Flu on Spanish soil, an elaboration of the measures taken at the time, as well as reflections on public opinion as well as those of experts. The author follows the birth and development of SFD, coupled to epidemiological differences between the two waves. The first wave appeared in the capital and extended to the periphery, and appeared to be relatively milder despite high levels of morbidity. The second wave, on the other hand, was a comparatively malignant variant judging from the number of deaths associated with it. It appeared first at the French border and in the provinces. Differences between the waves added to the general confusion about the disease. The SFD privileges the collective experience over the individual one (in fact, the use of the scant private sources preserved from Spain is merely ornamental), which is structured as a plot, with a beginning and an ending (p.30-33). This main argument persists throughout the book, within a variety of contexts, including biological, social and cultural. The author displays an impressive ingenuity, and expertise, sharing and discussing these various themes, supported by a comprehensive bibliography.

A “Tale of two States”, the title of the third chapter, correctly introduces one of the inner conflicts that Davis finds in SFD: the confrontation between “epidemic” and “healthy” as the story of “two Spains”, which reflected the struggle for modernization that pervaded fin-de-siècle Spain following the end of its colonies, lost in war to the USA. This is a conflict well known to Spanish scholars, the seedbed of most social, economic and political developments in the history of 20th century Spain, and as such it has been visited many times throughout the last 40 years. Davis’s work delivers a new dimension to this issue, primarily due to its particular focus on the cultural representations of the experience of the disease, which are elaborated in the following two chapters.

In chapter four, “Figuring out the Epidemic”, an accurate path through popular drama, zarzuela (the Spanish type of musical operetta) and certain pictorial representations or cartoons within SFD take readers to Don Juan, an icon for the Flu epidemic under the guise of a “Naples soldier” – the name journalists gave to the illness – taken from a character from the zarzuela “La canción del olvido”, which Davis suggests provided a template for making sense of the epidemic (p.123). Chapter five, “Visualizing the Spanish Flu Nation”, begins with a scrupulous analysis of cartoons published at the time on the subject of the epidemic, introduced by a useful reflection on the importance of cartoonists of the era, underlining the contrast between surface and depth peculiar to this art form and hence suited to expressing the ambiguity of the disease (p.139). Davis follows this with a description and analysis of images gathered by two groups, those that depict the monster of the flu (as a bisexual creature) and those, which represent Spaniards as potential sufferers (overwhelmingly as a white middle aged man of means). The text, framed within representations of epidemics – bisexuality and monsters – is particularly rich in terms of identifying social and cultural associations: the role of women, the fears of the well-to-do in a rapidly changing environment, the newly evolving sports of football, and traditional bullfighting. It is in these final two chapters of the book that the author is at his best, sharing his understanding as he combines elements of a diverse nature within a wealth of metaphors and analogies.

The conclusion comments briefly on the unnoticed third wave of the pandemic, in early 1919, overshadowed by political happenings of the time, including Post-War Peace Treaty discussions and new awakenings of political tensions between central and peripheral Spain. Davis proceeds to focus on the final metaphor in Metchnikoff’s immunity theory. To the author, who has previously made extensive use of another biology-related analogy (membrane = border), the immunity theory metaphor serves to encompass the entirety of the entity of the Spanish Flu in so far as it includes an embodied identity, an external threat and a menace of destruction of identity. The plot that can be followed within the SFD comprises two components, a heroic and a sacrificial one, following Paul Hogan’s terminology (2009) on the role of universal narrative prototypes in emplotting nationalism. Much remains unexplained about the epidemic. It was associated with extraordinarily high mortality rates, and reasons for differences between the first and the second wave in terms of geographic spread remain unclear to the medical world. In addition, disputes over etiology remain unresolved. A contradictory discourse, the SFD, did not serve to alleviate the confusion surrounding the epidemic, as it simultaneously appeared to both soothe and incite fear, as well as on the one hand defending the values upheld by modernity while on the other hand resorting to old paradigms.

We thus find contradictory messages everywhere. It is hardly unsurprising that the author’s final call is to pay more attention to the stories that we tell. I have but one objection: the focus of the SFD, linked to mostly Madrid-based literature and newspapers, and thus largely a product of the learned classes, which is indeed acknowledged by the author, should have included some degree of scepticism on its explanatory power and collective relevance.

As we approach the centenary anniversary of the great Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, one of the greatest single killers in modern history, it is likely that the output of studies on the subject will increase exponentially, adding to renewed medical interest in viruses as respiratory pathogens responsible for outbreaks such as the 2002-2003 SARS and the 2009 H1N1 Influenza pandemics, as well as new insights resulting from ongoing research worldwide. When the horizon of the history of Influenza has been enlarged by these new developments, the contribution of cultural studies such as Davis’s will continue to take us closer to a fuller understanding of epidemics and pandemics in general.

Esteban Rodríguez-Ocaña

Dpt. History of Science. University of Granada, Spain

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