In the May/June 2022 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article highlights poems about the influenza pandemic that appeared in U.S. newspapers in 1918 and 1919, and that today can be found online in Chronicling America. The article suggests that students’ analysis of these poems can provide insights
into not only the contributors’ views on the flu, but also into the role newspaper poetry played in the discussion of public events in the early twentieth century.
The article notes that students today might be surprised to see how prevalent poetry was in the newspapers of the 1910s. Poems could be found on a newspaper’s front page, in the religion section, alongside the comics, or collected in a weekly poetry feature, possibly one that even occupied a page of its own. Although many newspaper poems addressed the timeless poetic themes of love and loss, a great number dealt with the news of the day, providing serious reflection or satirical takes on current events.
In 1918 and 1919, the influenza pandemic swept through the United States, with three major waves of illness and death striking the country months apart. The nation’s preoccupation with the disease found its way into newspapers in many non-news features, including local information on flu-stricken individuals and families, advertisements for health products, and poems about the flu.
The article highlights newspaper poems that take a wide range of approaches to the pandemic. One poem titled “That Flu Stuff” takes a humorous approach to a potentially grim topic, providing a long list of symptoms, from a stomach ache to bad skin to wanting to sleep at night, that a weary doctor might interpret as the flu. Another, “The Battle of the Flu,” is a mock-heroic ballad that purports to tell the tale of a confrontation between elected officials in two Idaho towns over whether one town’s quarantine ordinances were legal. A widely-reprinted poem sometimes titled “The Goldarned Flu” is written in the voice of a long-suffering flu patient, and ends with “Some call it Flu–I call it H–l.”
The article provides prompts for analysis of these pandemic poems, as well as avenues for further investigation. Teachers might ask students to consider:
- What did the people who published these poems in their newspapers assume about their readers?
- What did they believe was and was not an appropriate topic for a newspaper poem to address?
- What perspectives are represented in these poems and which are not?
Students might also identify parallels between the type of commentary on current events that appears in newspaper poems from a century ago and similar commentary today. Ask them: What are the venues in which satire, critique, and community-based expressions of humorous solidarity—rhyming or otherwise—can be found in the early 21st century?
If you check out this article in Social Education and try the activities with your students, please take a moment and let us know what they discovered.
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