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The Cover
October 12, 2005

Self-portrait After the Spanish Influenza

JAMA. 2005;294(14):1733. doi:10.1001/jama.294.14.1733

In his immensely readable and highly informative account of the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 (Barry J. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York, NY: Viking Penguin; 2004), New Orleans writer John Barry takes special note of how seldom fiction writers of the 1920s and 1930s mentioned the epidemic, even when it had directly affected their personal lives. Mary McCarthy, for example, who was just six years old when she lost both her parents to influenza within hours of each other, wrote about the world of an orphan, but not about the circumstances that made her one. Likewise, John Dos Passos, who was 22 when he became seriously ill, rarely mentioned in his novels the devastation and upheaval the disease caused. Nor did Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, all novelists of the current scene, have much to say about it. Only Katherine Anne Porter, who, as Barry recounts, came so close to dying in her late twenties that her obituary had already been set in type, left an idea of what life was like during that time. Her 1939 short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider has become famous for its interweaving of World War I and influenza themes in the tragic lives of a young victim of illness and her soldier fiancé. But if literary accounts are rare, even rarer are paintings. One of the few is a self-portrait painted by the 55-year-old Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) as he was recovering from influenza in the winter and spring of 1919.

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