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Because the United States endured outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera during the lifetime of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and because Poe understood the appeal of gruesome subjects, it’s not surprising that he wrote about plagues more than once. What is surprising is how accurately two of his dark tales anticipated America’s polarized response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The stories begin by describing the impact of a disease. In “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), we’re told that “no pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.” In The Sphinx” (1846), we read that “the very air … seemed … redolent with death.”
Both stories are about people who retreat from centers of contagion and then show how their escape plans work out. But this is where the similarities end. “The Sphinx,” in which the narrator becomes obsessed with the disease and exaggerates its impact, models how right-wing politicians and media personalities see the shutdown and distancing policies as extreme.
“The Masque” — in which a prince and his “lighthearted” friends (let’s call them the 0.01 percent) retreat to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys” and pass their time partying — is an allegory of privilege and inequality that models the progressive critique of America during the pandemic.
Because he expects the worst, “The Sphinx” narrator gazes out a window and mistakes an insect wriggling up a spider’s web close to his eye for a gigantic monster coming for him over a distant hill. Terrified, he faints and falls to the floor. When President Donald Trump and Fox News hosts suggested that the coronavirus was either a hoax or no worse than the flu, they were implying that seeing it as a monstrous threat that required a national response was out of proportion to the danger we faced.
Because the prince and his friends seek to escape the overwhelming threat facing everyone in their country, their doom (oh yes, they all die) underscores the immoral inequality that separates rich from poor, aristocrats from commoners. Or, in the lexicon of Bernie Sanders, Democrats and MSNBC news hosts, the oligarchic “millionaires and billionaires” who monopolize wealth and power and think they can escape the global dangers that face humanity.
Seeing clearly and assessing threat levels accurately is Poe’s theme in “The Sphinx.” A sense of how important this is to crafting and implementing effective policies is undoubtedly contributing to the widely shared disapproval of the president’s misleading comments during his daily briefings. The oversized impact of the pandemic on African Americans and other disadvantaged groups is providing a new argument in favor of universal health care.
Poe was in general not a didactic writer; in fact, he criticized stories and poems that sought to inculcate virtue and convey the truth. But the subject of the plague — with its built-in moral and religious frames — drew him to deviate from his general art-for-art’s-sake practice. In these tales about epidemics, his themes are pointed and direct: when dealing with the plague, first understand its severity and, second, make common cause with the rest of humanity.
Neither denial nor selfishness will help because the danger is real and we are all in this together.
Paul Lewis is an English professor at Boston College, the immediate past president of the Poe Studies Association and the author of “A Is For Asteroids, Z Is for Zombies: A Bedtime Book about the Coming Apocalypse.”