This section explores some of writing spawned by the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s. Many of the writers express a distaste for the effects of city on the morality of its citizens, and more pertinantly how Philadelphians responded to the fever. As a counterbalance to this fear, there is a determination, especially in the non-imaginative writing, to work to prevent such an event in the future. The sources range from the Charles Brockden Brown's long, somber, and didactic novel Arthur Mervyn , Or Memoirs of the Year 1793 to Philip Freneau's irreverent Poem "Pestilence." As well, ordinary citizens penned responses to the devastation they encountered, sometime in order to avoid further visitations of the fever. Thus the petition to Philadelphia's City Councils stands for the literature of (re) action, and provides a direct link to the building of the Water Works. Other writers sought to capitalize on the plague by somewhat more sensationalistic methods. Newspaperman Mathew Carey's A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia. . ." with the subsequent addition "List of names of Persons Buries in the Several Graveyards of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia from August 1st, to November 9th, 1793 went through several editions, was translated into French, Dutch, and German, and certainly boosted the author's publishing career--though it also was, and is, a valuable source of information about the summer of 1793. (Powell, 301). Interest in these works lies in both the variety of, and motives for, expression, as well as the evident power the fever had on the imagination.
The Evils of pestilence by which this city has lately been afflicted will probably form an era in its history. The schemes of reformation and improvement to which they will give birth, or, if no efforts of human wisdom can avail to avert the periodical visitations of this calamity, the change in manners and population which they will produce, will be in the highest degree, memorable. They have already supplied new and copious materials for reflection to the physician and political economist. They have not been less fertile of instruction to the moral observer, to whom they has furnished new displays of the influence of human passions and motives.
---Charles Brockden Brown
From the "Preface" to Arthur Mervyn , Or Memoirs of the Year 1793
The social disruption caused by the pestilence was nothing new for Charles Brockden Brown, or for his generation of 'revolution babies.' However, Brown suffered the contingencies of the time more than many. Born in 1771, Brown lived through the war in a Philadelphia run by the British, in a city where his Quaker father was accused of treason for being a pacifist. The elder Brown later lost his business and was exiled to Virginia after he was charged with spying. This early instability in his life had an impact on Brown's writing. Critic Jay Fliegelman has noted that most of Brown's major works "turn on violent disruption: a loss of physical, familial and psychological security" (xiii). And if these literary disruptions mirrored his own life, then Philadelphia remained as the appropriate backdrop to the turmoil.
Living in the city during the summer of 1793, Brown saw the evidence of the fever first hand, though he was able flee by September of that year. He began working on Mervyn two years later, referring to it as his "Philadelphia novel" (450). This description is apt, for as critics have noted "the city itself takes on nearly the aspect of a character whose conditions generate the actions of most of the other characters, and whose contagions infect all" (Grabo, 450). Brown pins the hopes and failures of his characters on their relation to the city, both as it exists specifically and generally. As the narrator muses I wondered at the contrariety that exists between the scenes of the city and the country; and fostered. . .the resolution to avoid those seats of depravity and danger" (154). He thus counters the 'enlightened optimism' and demystifying practicality so prevalent among Philadelphia's learned class.
The reader gets a sense of the "morbid constitution" of the city's atmosphere, one that contrasts directly with the country's cleanliness. As one character explains to the protagonist "If you pass Schuylkill before nightfall, it will be sufficient" (160) to escape the city's poisonous air. That river, the eventual site of the Water Works, marks a boundary between the depravity of a diseased city and the salvation of the country. However, less morbid and mysterious minds than Brown's would find the Schuylkill river a site invested with salvation, not only as a flight from the city but redemption of the city, a redemption gained by recognizing the benefits of harnessing one force of nature to overcome another. For Brown's narrator, nature mostly represents a retreat from one type of darkness to another. When he debates whether or not to help victims of the disease, when his heart is the "seat of commiseration and horror." (134), he escapes; "I shrouded myself in the gloom of the neighboring forest, or lost myself in the maze of rocks and dells."(134) Nature offers no answers, peace, or redemption.
Brockden Brown's is a dark take on Jeffersonian pastoral agrarianism, one that shows the wrath of Nature let loose upon the city. Yet it speaks to the promise of the city as well: the young narrator's father forces off the family farm and he make his way in the unfamiliar metropolis. There he finds that "compared with the pigmy dimensions of my father's wooden hovel, the buildings before me were of gigantic loftiness." (34) The perils and promises of the city are as ambiguous as the title character's 'true' motivations. "The Rustic who frequent the market are. . .exempt from the disease; in consequence perhaps, of limiting their continuance in the city" (134) The rustic is free, but also free of duty towards his fellow. Later the narrator asks: "What motivation. . .could induce an human being to inflict wanton injury?"(35) The plague, and the 'city', both bring in to question the 'motivations' of one's fellows, though do not always offer answers. And as we will see in Carey's writing, in 1793 charity towards one's 'brother' was sometimes--though not always-- in short supply.
Hot, dry winds forever blowing, Dead men to the grave-yards going: Constant hearses, Funeral verses; Oh! what plagues--there is no knowing!
Priests retreating from their pulpits!-- Some in hot, and some in cold fits In bad temper, Off they scamper, Leaving us--unhappy culprits!
Doctors raving and disputing, death's pale army still recruiting-- What a pother One with t'other! Some a-writing, some a-shooting.
Nature's poisons here collected, Water, earth, and air infected-- O, what a pity, Such a City, Was in such a place erected! ---Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793
When Philip Freneau published this poem he was already noted poet, one who, in his undergraduate years at Princeton, had published proto-romantic poems such as "The Power of Fancy" and collaborated with H. H. Brackenridge on the nationalistic "The Rising Glory of America." In 1791, under the patronage of Thomas Jefferson, then Washington's Secretary of State, he was appointed as a translator for the State department. He quickly became embroiled in factionalist politics when he established The National Gazette a mouthpiece for Jefferson's brand of Liberal democracy. In the bi-weekly paper Freneau, along with James Madison and Brackenridge, viciously attacked Washington and Hamilton's federalist policies. Though Freneau was generally cautious in his direct criticisms of the president, he was less careful in his portrayals of Hamilton and John Adams. By the time he published the darkly comic "Pestilence" in 1793, Freneau was on shaky ground both politically and financially; Jefferson was leaving his post and Freneau had veered too far in supporting certain 'anti-American' French diplomats. In addition, his poem was hardly well received; so in the fall of that year he had resigned from the State Department and closed his paper.
However, his literary fame would continue to grow, eventually earning him the epithet "Father of American Poetry." In this sense he also parallels Brockden Brown, the "Father of the American Novel." But while Brown kept his darker view of nature, evident in portrayals of the fever, Freneau would return to a more positive view. However, in 'Pestilence' he presents an anti pastoral, anti-urban, and necessarily anti-social vision of the world. In later poems such as "On the Religion of Nature," nature is a power "ever bless'd" that "scatters through a smiling land/Abundant products of the year." This romantic view certainly revises his portrayal of "Water, earth, and air infected." Freneau has a bleaker vision of nature, or at least man's understanding of it. In the last stanza of Pestilence" he blames humanity for picking "such a place" to erect not just a city, but the nation's capitol. The fact that the District of Columbia was built on the same low-lying humid marsh-land (the type of environment conducive to the spread of the disease) only adds the dark humors of Freneau's poem.
Then it came to pass that a pestilence fell on the city, Presaged by wondrous signs, and mostly by flocks of wild pigeons, Darkening the sun with their flight, with naught in their craws but an acorn And as the tides of the sea arise in the month of Sep- tember, Flooding some silver stream, till it spreads to a lake in the meadow, So death flooded life, and, o'erflowing its natural mar- gin, Spread to a brackish lake the silver stream of exist- ence. Wealth had no power to bribe, nor beauty to charm, the oppressor; But all perished alike beneath the scourge of his anger;--(94)
By the time this poem was published in 1847 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was well on his way to becoming the most revered American poet of the nineteenth century. He was one of the gentile 'schoolroom poets', a Boston Brahmin and professor at Harvard, who was liked by everyone from Hawthorne (though reviled by Poe) to school children. Here, Longfellow uses the subject of the fever as a backdrop in his Evangeline, published in 1847. In this long poem, Longfellow transports the reader from the "forest primeval" of "murmuring pines and hemlocks" (9) of Nova Scotia to "lonely and wretched roofs in the crowded lanes of the city' (93) Nature is awry with 'supernatural' signs in the air and vengeance on the ground Here in the city, Evangeline encounters her long sought but fever wracked father, who when he passes away returns to "green acadian meadows." And though he returns to the pastoral, he and his daughter lie "unknown and un-noticed" in a city grave yard. It is in some sense a condemnation of the dehumanizing, anti-natural urban existence, a view that actually follows Brockden Brown's depiction of "loneliness and silence' of the fever deaths.
A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia.
Mathew Carey was quick to document, and to capitalize on, the effects of the yellow fever epidemic. On November 14, 1793, he published his first Short Account of the Malignant Fever , and by the end of the month and published two more editions. In each edition he added and revised information; of special interest was the List of the Names of Persons Buried in Several Graveyards. . . This roll call of the dead fascinated and horrified--Carey named over four thousand victims of the pestilence, and his was an incomplete list, missing many of the poor, but also some of better known, including Dolly Todd's child.(Powell, 301) [This young Quaker woman was also widowed by the plague, and as a consequence was free to accept congressman James Madison's proposal of marriage the following year.] Carey's book expanded with each edition and was published in England, Holland, Germany, and France where it received much attention. It's author would build on this publishing success, creating a mini Bible-publishing empire and continuing to write himself, especially on political and economic themes. The excerpts below depict a prosperous, almost hubristic city, and one that though it prided itself on it "brotherly love" found all " 'mild charities for social life' ..suppressed for regards to self" (Carey, viii).
Extravagance, in various shapes, was gradually eradicating the plain and wholesome habits of the city. And though it were presumption to scan the decrees of heaven, yet few I believe, will pretend to decry, that something was wanting to humble the pride of a city, which was running on in full career, to the goal of prodigality and dissipation. (11-12)
Let those, then, who have remained, regard their long absent friends, as if preserved from death by their flight, and rejoice at their return in health and safety--let those who have been absent, acknowledge the exertions of those who maintained their ground. Let us all unite in the utmost vigilance to prevent the return of the fell destroyer, by the most scrupulous attention to cleaning and purifying our scourged city--and let us join in thanksgiving to that Supreme Being, who has, in his own time, stayed the avenging storm, ready to devour us, after it had laughed to scorn all human efforts.
Philadelphia's committee system of government carried through from its colonial past. This form of government was instituted by the Provincial Assembly, which sought to bypass the Municipal Corporation by creating a number of independent commissions. These committees were formed from elected officials, and were charged with basic city maintenance tasks. The Assembly first created the Board of Assessors who sought to raise funds for the corporation's debt repayment, and to pave streets. Other early committees were charged with lighting the streets, and helping the poor. During the plague of 1793 a "Committee of Health" formed spontaneously and worked quickly to stem looting, borrow money in order to pay for the transportation of the sick, and commandeer Bush Hill mansion as a hospital for the sick. Philadelphians were noted for their many charitable organizations; however, the ultimate solution was beyond the scope of charity. It required the planning, funds, and authority of the city government. The citizens' petition to their elected leaders served as one more catalyst (after four major outbreaks of fever in the past ten years) for finding a solution to the problem by authorizing the government to spend whatever funds necessary.
WHILE the sufferings and distress of our city, occasioned by the late contagious sickness, continues fresh in our memory--while in the short period of four years we cannot have wholly forgotten a former affliction of the like kind--nor the numbers of our friends, relatives and neighbors, whom we have to lament, as the mournful victims of both visitations--and finally, while we are devoutly to acknowledge that kind Providence, which spared our own lives from the shafts of mortality which flew thick around us, and hath restored our city to its useful state of health and prosperity." (41)
It is this great work we hope the Corporation will consider it as their duty to take the lead, not only as particularly interested--but as having the means in their power.--For it seems demonstrable, that the loss of the city in a single visitation of this contagious disease (if it could be prevented or greatly allayed by cleanliness and a copious supply of water, not to mention the use of water for preventing or subduing the devastation of fire) is more perhaps than the capital necessary to insure such a supply in perpetuity. ..(42)
And in the Report to the Select and Common Councils on the Progress and State of the Water Works" 24th, Nov, 1799 the city Corporation responds:
However various opinion may be on the political character of the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, his great merit as a natural philosopher, and his penetrating discernment between cause and effect, are universally admitted. It is well known to the public that in his judgement, several years ago, there was a growing necessity for some other supply of water, than yielded from the pumps and wells sunk in the streets of the city. Time, reflection and more particular observation, have produced a more general agreement in his position, and repeated affliction from the ravage of epidemic or contagious disease, rendered a copious supply of more wholesome water, in the estimation of many, indispensable to the health and preservation of the city.
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