In this world “turned up-side-down”, Bristow shows how Americans used a range of narratives to make sense of their suffering. Some emphasised their helplessness before this scourge, whereas others drew on martial metaphors to express the heroism and commonality of their struggle.
However, while the pandemic disrupted the most basic patterns of American life, it did not lead to significant social change. Instead, in America, as in Britain, the pandemic seems to have reinforced the status quo, leaving barely a ripple in public memory.
This conundrum has long baffled social historians. Previous writers have pointed variously to the timing of the pandemic in the midst of a world war; influenza's rapid onset and equally rapid departure (the three main waves of the pandemic were concentrated over 11 months from April, 1918, to March, 1919); and to the difficulty of grasping death on such a scale—influenza killed 675 000 Americans; worldwide the death toll was an unimaginable 50 million.
To these explanations Bristow adds the insight that by 1918, a recent series of epidemics, including in 1915—16, had resulted in the “domestication” of influenza in America, making it familiar and unthreatening.
However, she argues the key reason was that the pandemic challenged triumphalist narratives about the advance of American medicine in the Progressive Era. In the brave postwar world of rising standards of hygiene and health, medical science's failure to confront the challenge of the 1918—19 influenza pandemic was not a story doctors wished to commemorate. Instead, the pain and suffering of patients was erased from public discourse, leaving it to individual families to carry on the “quiet process of remembering”.My parents were babies during the Spanish flu pandemic, but I never heard them or my grandparents ever mention it, at least in personal terms. To my knowledge, no one on either side of my family fell ill from flu. But it must have been terrifying to young families.