Reading Opinion Essay: Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001)

The two things that most appealed to me about Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana were not directly related to her narrative, but involved background information that I could relate to on a personal level. The first was the fact that Fenn spent several years working as an automobile mechanic after “a brief stint in graduate school.”[1] This biographical information gave me hope that I, after my own brief stint in graduate school and a twenty-year military career, will be able to carve out a place of my own as a historian. The other fact about Fenn’s work that really spoke to me was her realization that she had stumbled upon a “stunning” story, one that had not been explored by previous historians, and “that [she] was on to something big.”[2] It was fascinating to learn that, as Joseph Ellis pointed out, “only recently—and this is rather remarkable—have [historians] recognized that the American Revolution occurred within a virulent smallpox epidemic of continental scope that claimed about 100,000 lives.”[3] I imagine that I am not at all unlike other budding historians who, while realizing that much of the biggest stories have already been told, still hold out hope that we may come across something that the world does not yet know.

Compared to the other texts we are studying for this course, Fenn’s book approached the subject of the Revolutionary War from the most unorthodox angle. I do not recall Tuchman even mentioning smallpox in her narrative, and Ferling, in A Leap in the Dark, only briefly discussed diseases in general, and did not mention smallpox specifically, among the soldiers of the Continental army.[4] Ferling did write about smallpox in Almost a Miracle, but again only in a cursory manner.[5] This is perfectly understandable considering Fenn was still an auto mechanic when Tuchman published her work, while Ferling’s earlier book was released shortly after Pox Americana. It is also clear that while Tuchman and Ferling both approached the American Revolution from a much wider angle, Fenn chose to emphasize a very narrow aspect of the conflict. Her close-focus made for a refreshing change of pace from the other general histories we have read, while simultaneously providing me with much information of which I was previously unaware.

I found Fenn’s narrative to be well-researched and thoroughly sourced, and she did a good job overall of presenting fairly technical medical information in a format that was easy to understand. The first chapter, for example, provided a very good overview of Variola, and Fenn was able to avoid overly complex medical jargon and descriptions while fully explaining the virus and its mechanisms. I was a little concerned, however, that Fenn’s single-minded focus on smallpox may have caused her in some cases to be too quick to blame Variola when other diseases may have had as much or more to do with the incidents she described. In discussing the fate of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment on Gwynn’s Island, for example, I felt that Fenn may have extrapolated the extent of smallpox infection a bit too far. She admitted that “[o]nly a few details survive from the Gwynn’s Island affair.”[6] Fenn’s subsequent description of the events relied heavily on quotes from participants, and almost all of them mentioned, in addition to smallpox, “rotten Fevers,” “an epidemic Fever,” “malignant disorders,” and “a dreadful fever.” It seemed to me, however, that Fenn blamed Variola almost exclusively for the horrible casualties suffered by the regiment, this in spite of the primary evidence she presented. While I obviously did not have access to Fenn’s sources, I was not convinced by Fenn’s own account that smallpox was the only, or perhaps even the primary, disease to cause suffering for Dunmore’s troops.

From a stylistic standpoint, I found Pox Americana to be rather uneven. There were sections that were very easy and enjoyable to read, while in other portions the prose seemed clunky and overly wordy. Although this made for difficult reading at times, I have found a silver lining in such writing: I pay much more attention to the mechanics and style of the historians I read, hoping to emulate the best writing and avoid the mistakes of the poorer prose. The more I read and study historical narratives, the more like second nature this habit becomes.

Through a lot of hard work and painstaking research (and at least a little luck, I am fairly certain), Elizabeth Fenn produced a thoroughly informative narrative about a little-known subject. It is significant, I believe, that the above-mentioned smallpox references by Ellis and Ferling cited Fenn’s work as the only source on the subject. With a lot of hard work and a little luck of my own, and armed with the writing skills I continue to learn from historians such as Fenn, perhaps one day my work will be the authoritative source on a subject.

[1] Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), ix.

[2] Ibid., x.

[3] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 86.

[4] Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine, 1984), 127-231; John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 218

[5] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 206.

[6] Fenn, Pox Americana, 58.

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