​‘Rethinking Modernism Through A Pandemic Lens’ Virtual Lecture

Elizabeth Outka, a former member of the Sewanee English Department and now a professor of English at the University of Richmond, will give a talk at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 10.

“What Rough Beast? Rethinking Modernism through a Pandemic Lens” will draw on the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming” to showcase the surprising ways interwar literature encoded the conditions of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.

That pandemic killed 50-100 million people worldwide, with the United States losing more people in the outbreak than it did in all the 20th- and 21st-century wars combined. Arriving just as the First World War was drawing to a close, the pandemic brought a non-human, invisible horror into every community, shifting enemies, threats, and targets, and changing the calculus of risk and blame between soldiers and civilians.

Until recently, the viral tragedy has been largely hidden, drowned out by its overwhelming scope, by the broader ways outbreaks of disease are often silenced, and by the way the human-inflicted violence consumed the literary and cultural attention. If we know what to look for, though—if we recover the sights and sounds of the pandemic, and its widespread devastation and impact—the outbreak emerges as a catastrophe as influential as World War I, a spectral trauma haunting both the literature and the culture.

The talk explores the sensory and affective history of the pandemic and then turns to Yeats’ poem to investigate how its meaning shifts when we better understand the societal and individual context in which it was written.

The talk will be given on Zoom. Find the link here: https://new.sewanee.edu/programs-of-study/english/...