How Writers of Old Lived through Past Pandemics

I can make it through.
You can make it too.
” — Bob Dylan

Pro tip: If you want to feel better about the coronavirus pandemic, don’t talk to an evolutionary biologist…in the basement of a parking structure…on a rainy day. Like I did.

It was a revealing talk, though somewhat depressing. The basic summary: We may be living with the effects of this virus for the next ten years in some aspects (restrictions on airplane flight, no work conferences, no rock concerts, less sporting events, no cruises). And some of these changes could last decades or more, that is essentially “forever” for those of us now walking the face of the Earth. That is, unless we get a vaccine (unlikely) or therapeutics (more likely, but not much). On the bright side, at least we won’t have to go to any more lifeless work conferences…Eh!?

With all of this, what’s a writer to do? Give up? Despair? No! A thousand times no. Life and human civilization will go on, perhaps even thrive, but not exactly in the way we thought it might as recently as New Year’s.

To give you a little perspective, I want to put aside our grim (realist?) biologist and explore how writers of the past dealt with the pandemics of their time. How did they react? Did they stay productive? Did they survive? So, I did some original research and here are some of the gems I came up with. I am listing them below in close to chronological order.

  1. Marcus Aurelius. Not a happy story, but he did write during a pandemic and it was some good stuff. Marcus lived during a smallpox (apparently) pandemic later known as the Antonine Plague. The book of his private thoughts, Meditations, was lost for some time before becoming a touchstone of Stoic philosophy. He apparently died from the plague (though that’s not clear from my little research). It seems he was writing Meditations right up to the end.
  2. Procopius. Procopius, a Byzantine Greek writer, lived through the Plague of Justinian and wrote the salacious Secret History about Justinian, the Empress Theodora, and the general Belisarius. It’s supposed to be a good read for those into court intrigue.
  3. John Wycliffe. More a church reformer than a writer, but I included him. Wycliffe lived through the Black Death and struggled with what it meant. He was responsible for Wycliffe’s Bible, a translation of the Bible into the vernacular, which helped lay the foundation for the Reformation in England.
  4. Boccaccio and Petrarch. Here are two well-known examples of dudes who fled the plague, in this case, the Black Death again. Boccaccio’s Decameron is literally people chilling at a villa to escape the plague and telling one another stories to pass the time (sound familiar?). A little later, Petrarch in his old age fled to Venice to avoid the plague.
  5. Montaigne. When the plague came to France, Michel made the super-privilegey maneuver of moving back to his Dad’s CASTLE. (Well-played there). But hey! He used the opportunity to create a WHOLE NEW LITERARY GENRE, the essay. As Wikipedia says “Locked up in his library, which contained a collection of some 1,500 works, he began work on his Essais (“Essays”), first published in 1580.” Not bad work if you can get it.
  6. Chris Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. These two–Don’t get me started! Carousing, drinking, spying, knocking about Elizabethan London. Writing surrealist, occult, erotic trash! Putting on their plays until the plague shut down the theaters and threw them out of work. Well, with the theaters closed there was only one thing to do: Go home and write. I can’t think of two writers I’d rather go back in a time machine to hang out with.
  7. Shakespeare. They said he wrote King Lear during one of the many plagues of the Elizabethan era. But did he really?
  8. Daniel Defoe. Defoe lived through the Great Plague of London as a child and later wrote about it in A Journal of the Plague Year.
  9. Thomas Wolfe and Willa Cather. Apparently, in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Cather’s One of Ours the 1918 influenza epidemic plays a key role.
  10. Katherine Anne Porter. This is the most amazing story in the whole list. Not only did she live through a pandemic and write about it–she caught the disease and lived. It’s a trifecta of Badassery!!! She caught influenza in the 1918 pandemic and was on the point of death and lost her hair. It grew back white and never returned to its normal color. But she made it through. Her Pale Horse, Pale Rider takes on the influenza epidemic.

So, what’s the point of all this? It’s simply this: For writers, pandemics are nothing new. For centuries, writers have had to deal with them. Writing takes time, a lack of distractions, and solitude. It’s an art form almost naturally given to self-isolation (unlike say, movie making or music). Back in the day, if you were lucky enough to get a little money, food, ink and paper, you could write. Today, it’s much the same. Only now, it’s electricity and the Internet.

So, like I said earlier, I hope you take it easy, focus on your own mental and physical health. And take care of your family, friends and the wider community. But when and if you’re ready–just realize the great writers of the past also faced pandemics and, in most cases, they triumphed.

Take care out there. Until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing.


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