Influenza, 1918

We were recently researching the history of the mayors of Webster Groves, and happened to come across a proclamation by Mayor R. M. B. Tidd, dated October 11, 1918, urging against all ‘public gatherings, picture shows and public entertainments during the existence of this emergency.’ He also asked churches and societies to suspend congregating. The emergency was, of course, the quickly growing influenza pandemic of 1918.

Webster Groves was likely following the lead of the City of St. Louis, which is cited as a model case for how to handle such an outbreak. St. Louis Health Commissioner Max C. Starkloff, in coordination with Mayor Henry Kiel, instituted a series of business, school, church, and entertainment closures—many of which were highly unpopular—but all of which saved lives and lessened the impact of the disease. These lasted from early October 1918 until January 1919.

We found articles in the Webster News Times about the library being closed, first on October 10, 1918, with the terse message, ‘The Library will be closed until further notice, by order of the Board of Health.’ This would have been the public library housed in and managed by the Monday Club of Webster Groves. A notice on November 25 then states, ‘It is hoped that all books will be returned to the Library promptly that they may be fumigated by the city. The Library is opened for receiving such books at the usual hours.’

It is not until November 29 that another article states, ‘At last the oft-repeated question “When will the Library be open” has been answered.” After six weeks of mandatory closure, the Library had opened on November 21. All the books had been fumigated, and were ‘ready for the enjoyment of the many friends of the Library.’

This is just another example of how local history, when seen in the proper perspective, reflects national, even international history. Webster Groves, and Webster Groves Public Library, were directly impacted by the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918, and took steps to lessen its impact.

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Les Miserables–Capitulation

I have given up trying to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was a little over halfway through the book, and I simply couldn’t take it any more. Some part of me cared about Jean Valjean and Cosette, hoping things worked out well for them, but not nearly enough to slog through any more of Hugo’s lengthy digressions on French history, Parisian society, the Benedictine rule, or anything else. Les Miserables is not a book—it’s a lifestyle, and I had enough of it.

To those who love the book, I am truly sorry. It just wasn’t for me. I am reminded of something I read years ago in the book Great Books by David Denby. He was writing about the Great Books course at Columbia University. For many years, he wrote, the final exam for the course contained this essay question: What is your least favorite book we read this semester, and what is the flaw in your character that made it so?

Perhaps I am too impatient, too much a creature of the 21st century, and not willing to allow for the narrative expansiveness of long novels like Les Miserables. I do like for stories to be more focused. If Jean Valjean is being chased by the detective Javert and a platoon of police officers, I expect that chase to take fewer than five chapters—especially when the chapters include lengthy descriptions of buildings passed along the way.

Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons was the most popular and influential poem in England in the 18th century. It influenced literature and music—Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons was based on it—and countless paintings and sculptures, not to mention bits of decorative bric-a-brac were modeled on scenes in the poem. But who has heard of it today? Thomson’s poem is largely unreadable to a modern audience, too much of that ‘O Muse, do speak to me!’ and other stilted locutions.

Perhaps books like Les Miserables are the same. Or perhaps it just wasn’t to my taste. At any rate, I have moved on, and I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am now going to read Honore Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I like Balzac, and I hope I like it.