Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Cholera Years

The Cholera Years. Rosenberg, Charles E. The University of Chicago, 1962.

Human nature, without probing, settles into the path of least resistance. In Rosenberg’s The Cholera Years, cholera probes individuals to make abnormal decisions with abnormal information. Each person develops his limited choices based on trust, knowledge, experience, and personal resources. Collective choices expose the backbone of the evolving American culture of the 19th century.

Cholera afflicted the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. The second incident of 1849 duplicates the failures of the first. Each epidemic begins with headline deaths in Europe; strangled with complacency, the American public failed to implement a cohesive defense. Quarantines, religious gestures, archaic medicine, and ineffective government actions plagued the first two epidemics.

Lacking notable results, government, science, and religion institute ineffective, half-hearted efforts to prevent the spread of cholera. Government, being politically motivated, sways its allegiance between science and religion, depending on the leader and constituency. Headline text and public panics of impending epidemics sparked dormant municipal boards of health to become active. These boards were politically appointees, mostly laymen (20), whose defense “consisted almost entirely of enforcing quarantine” (19) and city-wide cleaning. When initializing the city-wide clean up, efforts that “represented the best medical opinion at the time” (23), boards lose fortitude quickly. Eventually, only the least despicable areas are treated with more than a layer of quicklime. Due to the political nature of these boards, “premature diagnosis of an epidemic disease would mean severe loss the city’s business” (19). Government entities are ineffective in pursuing actions if they provide marginal results.

Medical practitioners dismantle their respective status in society from 1832 to 1849. Ironically, “few physicians were able to admit . . . that they could do nothing for a well developed case of cholera” (67). Physicians apply poisons as treatment, and apply them liberally: “calomel, a chalky mercury compound” is applied until gums become suppurated (66). Slaves and those in poverty severely distrust medicine; “one such practitioner, hearing that cholera impaired ‘nervous sensibility,’ poured boiling water on the legs of a Negro man” (60). Government deregulation of the medical practice allow many without practical knowledge to become licensed physicians (155), and many citizens resort to “do it yourself medicine” (71).

Christianity fills governmental and medical voids of knowledge and action. Evangelicals, seeking to commandeer public action, request government to impose “fast days” (47). Fanatic Christians see cholera as the gardener that separates the weeds from the wheat. Cholera demonstrates “to man the power of the Lord” (43). Religion fills the void of scientific knowledge and government action because it has a cause and a cure: the Lord. Formalized Christianity loses significance as the 19th century progresses, but harsh rhetoric continues. In the end, survivorship bias shapes each person’s reason he lives.

The vicious seemed merely to have been hardened in their depravity, though the spiritually minded Christian was confirmed in his faith (39).

In 1866, government equips its actions with science and the two provide results. “Physicians had tried to cure cholera; 1866 had shown them their duty was to prevent it” (212). A quick sanitization of an infected person’s excrements halts the spread. New York City’s Board of Health mobilizes teams with a cause and preventative measure. Due to this containment, cholera, which was “a rod in the hand of God” (43), is now an explainable, preventable disease.

Rosenberg exposes many of the cultural norms prevalent in modern America: quarantining of classes, distrust of cities, political and commercial motivations of government, individualism, and “not in my back yard” protectionism (NIMBY). American cities have places for everyone, and each person is supposed to stay in his respective space. In 19th century New York, the poor had Five Points; when the wealthy with resources left the city, the poor remained on Orange Street. American cities are quarantined by economic status, cultural origins, skin color, and religion. Christianity grounds the distrust of cities. A city is a breeding ground for sin, each a modern Sodom. To purge the earth, God’s new sulfur is cholera. Individualistic outlooks and a strong internal locus of control stagnate community effort in helping victims. Cause for cholera is attributed to the victim, “as a very general rule, when a man gets sick it is his own fault” (150). Therefore, to contract cholera is considered a learning and growth experience. Lastly, a NIMBY mentality pushes 19th century communities to perform irrational acts of protectionism. When cholera hospitals were erected, “neighbors resorted to everything from humble petitions to arson in their efforts to have them removed” (94).

Rosenberg’s loudest statement in The Cholera Years is against the current treatment of poverty. Euphemistically chiding religion and government over the cholera outbreak serves as an indictment of the modern treatment of poverty: “the vice, filth, and ignorance that bred poverty nurtured cholera as well” (133). The author’s indictment is not of the 19th century conditions, but of current conditions. “Millions for defense was a national boast. Yet, charged a committee of the New York State Legislature, Americans ‘grudge the cost of protection against a destroyer more fearful than any mortal foe’” (145). Christianity has had two millennia to stop poverty, and failed. The United States will only overcome poverty with science and prevention.

Rosenberg’s writing is redundant, with slicing antecedents of sarcasm and the macabre. A sarcastic tone reflects the absurd thoughts of the day: “by mid-October, the medically sophisticated had already begun to notice forerunners of cholera in the atmosphere” (102). Macabre scenes depict the dehumanization of the dead: “Three bodies, one male, two female, lay on the floor, a few rags separating them from the decaying earthen floor” (106). Before the revelation of the cause, Rosenberg’s writing feels redundant, almost ten times over. This redundancy enhances the reader's cathartic experience as the author reveals the method of prevention.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

Rosenberg is great. I kind of wish he would do a full-revision of this book as his method of interpretation has grown a lot since then.

The New-York Historical Society did an exhibit on the cholera epidemic of '32, some of it is online