The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City
By Jeanette Keith
(Bloomsbury Press, Hardcover, 9781608192229, 272pp.)
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
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While the American South had grown to expect a yellow fever breakout almost annually, the 1878 epidemic was without question the worst ever. Moving up the Mississippi River in the late summer, in the span of just a few months the fever killed more than eighteen thousand people. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, was particularly hard hit: Of the approximately twenty thousand who didn't flee the city, seventeen thousand contracted the fever, and more than five thousand died-the equivalent of a million New Yorkers dying in an epidemic today.
Fever Season chronicles the drama in Memphis from the outbreak in August until the disease ran its course in late October. The story that Jeanette Keith uncovered is a profound-and never more relevant-account of how a catastrophe inspired reactions both heroic and cowardly. Some ministers, politicians, and police fled their constituents, while prostitutes and the poor risked their lives to nurse the sick. Using the vivid, anguished accounts and diaries of those who chose to stay and those who were left behind, Fever Season depicts the events of that summer and fall. In its pages we meet people of great courage and compassion, many of whom died for having those virtues. We also learn how a disaster can shape the future of a city.
Originally trained as a journalist, Jeanette Keith obtained her Ph.D. in history from Vanderbilt University in 1990 and is currently professor of history at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. She is the author of several books, including Country People in the New South and the award-winning Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight.
“Fascinating—and potentially instructive—to today’s reader … an unqualified success.”—Boston Globe
"Testifies to a fact worth bearing in mind in the future. ‘Epidemics strip away social pretensions,’ Keith writes, ‘and show us for what we are…'"--Laura Miller, Salon
“This is rewarding history.”—Jim Landers, The Dallas Morning News
“A highly rewarding and essential telling of a story that captivated late-19th century America and did much to reshape Memphis history.... Keith…warns the reader up front that there is no happy ending to the story she tells.... Good for her, because this story is so important and riveting that it needs no tidy, triumphant, Hollywood-style conclusion.”—Tom Charlier, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
“[A] vivid, novelistic account of [Memphis] during its worst hours…. Fever Season reminds us of what it takes for human beings - regardless of politics, class, job description or skin color - to preserve dignity and save lives. Even a brief season of such courage should never be forgotten.”—Gina Webb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Using a rich collection of letters, newspapers, and diaries, Keith intertwines the lives of prominent figures and ordinary citizens who faced the chaos … succeeds in creating a vivid image of the Memphis of 1878”—The Lancet
"Macabre and fascinating reading… Keith's fine history is a reminder, though, that we will have other plagues, and they will not be merely city-wide, and we will find them as incomprehensible and frightening as Memphis did, and we will again be surprised at who turns hero and who turns coward.”—Rob Hardy, The Dispatch (Columbus, MS)
“Keith delivers a rewarding must-read for both history and public health buffs.”—Publishers Weekly(starred review)
"Keith does not exaggerate its historical significance but delivers an admirable account of a Southern city doing its best to deal with a frightening, incomprehensible epidemic."—Kirkus Reviews
"Journalist-historian Keith’s account of the yellow-fever epidemic that raced through Memphis, Tennessee, in 1879 ably portrays both the honors and the dishonors earned during that terrifying three-month period as the illness hit two-thirds of the Memphis population, killing more than one-fourth (more than 5,000). Using the prisms of time and firsthand accounts, she lays bare many of the systemic problems—politics, racism, greed, and lingering Civil War resentment—that failed to protect the health and safety of all Memphians. A good place to conduct business, the city proved a poor place to live. As in any crisis, there were many unsung and unexpected heroes as well as a number of ignoble cowards who abandoned civic posts, religious congregations, and even their own families to save themselves. Sadly, though it is true that many lessons were learned and ultimately Memphis became a far better place to live, recent global crises elsewhere have demonstrated that some lessons never sink in."—Donna Chavez, Booklist.com
“Jeanette Keith’s compelling account of one of nineteenth-century America’s worst disasters vividly illustrates how noble, and how ignoble, human beings can be in a crisis. This is a masterful work of narrative history—gracefully written, richly informative, and deeply thoughtful. It should be read by everyone interested in America’s past and everyone who has ever wondered what it is like to experience utter catastrophe.”—Stephen V. Ash, Professor of History, University of Tennessee, author of Firebrand of Liberty
“Bravo! Jeanette Keith is an exceptional writer who takes us on a voyage through the trauma of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. Her insights draw a vivid picture of how important it is to understand that individuals can make a huge difference in the everyday life of a city and its future. The late nineteenth-century was a time of dramatic change in a United States reshaped by war, economic turmoil, complexities of ethnic and racial diversity, as well as high unemployment, and globalization. There is much to learn from this story that could help with today’s similar cornucopia of challenges.”—Kriste Lindemeyer, Dean of the Rutgers-Camden Faculty of Arts and Sciences, author of The Greatest Generation Grows Up