AUGUST 20, 2020 — The COVID-19 pandemic has urged transformation in our society. For a select group of college seniors, though, it will provide an opportunity to learn how plagues have inspired the best literary minds.
Undergraduates at UTSA will be the first to enroll in a new fall course: The Literature of Pestilence. The seminar will examine how plagues are represented in texts from the ancient Greek era to the present. Offered through the Department of English in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, the class is the brain child of professor Steven G. Kellman and has already reached its maximum student capacity.
“We will ask the tough questions: Could pandemics teach us about literary art?” said Kellman. “Will we see the particular characteristics that plague narratives have in common that distinguish them from other forms of storytelling? What is it to be alive—together and alone?”
This course is an example of how UTSA adapts to the extraordinary current moment.
Viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, arthropods and other potential vectors of infection have accompanied our species throughout recorded history. Epidemics and pandemics have wiped out large swaths of the population at least as far back as 430 B.C.E., when a devastating plague caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War, as chronicled by the historian Thucydides. Between 541 and 542 C.E., what came to be called the Justinian Plague wiped out 40% to 50% of the population of Europe. Even more deadly was the Black Death, the bubonic plague that claimed up to 200 million lives between 1347 and 1351.
And there is of course the current moment, when the global death toll from COVID-19 is over 750,000 and mounting.
This is not a course in epidemiology, although learning something from the hard sciences might be an incidental benefit. This course is an example of how UTSA adapts to the extraordinary current moment. Literature of pestilence is an explicit lesson in human humility, according to Kellman. It forces the student to consider fundamental issues of personal and social identity. It poses the ethical question, How does one behave in a pandemic? In the literary world as in the sciences, dire situations have produced the greatest innovation.
The Art of Pestilence
Some of the works that Kellman will be using in his fall semester course.
John Keats wrote his most enduring poems as he lay dying of tuberculosis. And it follows that much of the world’s greatest literature—by Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Kafka, among many others—is inspired by the fact that the inevitability of death forces us to define life. In that respect the literature of pestilence is a more concentrated instance of what the best writers (for example, Shakespeare creating King Lear while in quarantine from the plague) are always doing.
“And yet it is not intended to be entirely grim,” added Kellman. “The imminence of extinction often inspires wit or mirth.”
Kellman specializes in comparative literature at UTSA, where he has taught since 1976. He was twice awarded the President’s Distinguished Achievement Award in Recognition of Research Excellence (1991 and 2006) and has also received the campuswide teaching award (1986).
He has served four terms on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. And is also the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W.W. Norton, 2005), which was honored with the 2005 New York Society Library Award for Biography.