Thomas Albrecht lectures in class


In the course Writing About the Plague, English professor Thomas Albrecht leads students in a literary exploration of pandemic experiences.

Above: Thomas Albrecht teaches a seminar about literature of plagues for the third time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. (Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano)

The idea of a course called Writing About the Plague came to me sometime in spring 2020, during the very early weeks of COVID. These were the weeks of being locked down in our homes. The days of wiping down mail and packages, of “Stay home, New Orleans!” public service announcements, of banners thanking essential workers. Tulane had moved to all-virtual instruction for the remainder of the spring semester, and my 7-year-old daughter was completing first grade on a laptop computer.

My initial idea was to spend some of my time in lockdown reading or rereading what certain writers I love, writers in whose writings I have sometimes found wisdom, had written about plagues and living in times of plague. Plagues have been part of human experience since the earliest days of writing. They play important roles in Homer’s Iliad (written down around 700 B.C.E.), the Biblical Book of Exodus (written down between 600 and 400 B.C.E.), and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (first performed around 429 B.C.E.).

My subsequent idea was that if reading what these writers had written about plagues was proving meaningful to me, was helping me make sense of an uncertain and scary time, it might prove meaningful and helpful to my students as well. I remembered the frightened, befuddled expressions on my students’ faces in our final in-person class meetings in March, just before we were all sent home. I knew I was scheduled to teach a senior special topics seminar in the Department of English in the fall, though like everyone else at the time I had no idea what the fall 2020 semester at Tulane would be like. I contacted my department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies and asked her to change my fall course topic to Writing About the Plague.

I spent the summer of 2020 a bit like the young protagonists of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, who escape the 1348 “Black Death” bubonic plague in Florence by isolating themselves in a countryside Palazzo and pass the days telling themselves stories that are full of life. My family left New Orleans, we rented a house in rural New England, barely saw anyone, and I spent my time reading writings about plague. This reading was for me an antidote to COVID and worrying about COVID, much like the wonderful, vibrant stories in The Decameron were an antidote to the Black Death for the young people telling and hearing them. 

female student in discussion in Professor Albrecht's class

Under these strange, isolating circumstances, what brought the students and me together across the various physical and mental barriers separating us was our shared readings and discussions about plagues.

Besides this antidotal purpose, the aim of my summer reading was to assemble a syllabus for Writing About the Plague. I read a wide assortment of literary works from different places and periods. I read Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic Romantic novel The Last Man; Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which I found strangely apposite to American COVID politics in 2020; Alexander Pushkin’s play A Feast in the Time of Plague; Thomas Mann’s elegiac novella Death in Venice; Albert Camus’ allegorical novel The Plague; Susan Sontag’s critical essay Illness as Metaphor; Tony Kushner’s millennial drama Angels in America; Ling Ma’s eerily prescient science fiction novel Severance; among many others. I reread Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, remembering that I had seen the phrase “Love in the Time of COVID” written in large letters on a classroom blackboard as I walked out of my campus building for the last time in March. 

As I initially conceived it, Writing About the Plague would have two complementary aims. Firstly, it would prompt the students to examine how select writers have described, and made sense of, plagues and the experience of living with plagues. In the Western tradition, plagues are originally seen as punishments for individual or collective sins. Writers present plagues as divine scourges, or as human projections of divine agency, in ancient works like the Iliad and Oedipus the King. And they do so in our own time, for instance, in Kushner’s Angels in America, or in Sontag’s essay about the 1980s AIDS epidemic, AIDS and Its Metaphors. In early modern texts like Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional memoir of the 1665-66 “Great Plague” in London, traditional religious interpretations of plagues coexist and compete with newly emerging scientific interpretations. According to Sontag, a similar tension between supernatural and natural etiologies still characterizes our present-day thinking about pandemic illnesses.

The second aim of the course was for the students to analyze how plagues in Western literature have often served as metaphors or allegories for something else. Camus’ novel The Plague is frequently and famously read as an allegory about Nazism or totalitarianism; Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” appears to be an allegory about political irresponsibility; Mann’s Death in Venice treats cholera as a metaphor for the danger of devoting one’s life to the singular pursuit of beauty and art.

Person with a Tulane sweatshirt reviews their notes in Albrecht's class

The readings I had chosen were complex and demanding, and ... they managed to pull us away from our doom-scrolling and navel-gazing.

Under these strange, isolating circumstances, what brought the students and me together across the various physical and mental barriers separating us was our shared readings and discussions about plagues. The readings I had chosen were complex and demanding, and that fall they managed to pull us away from our doom-scrolling and navel-gazing. They jolted us into alertness, into paying attention to larger things beyond our isolated and socially distanced confines, things that lay outside of our solipsistic pandemical selves.

The literary works we read together gave my students a lens through which to reflect critically on COVID and on their individual and collective experiences of it. The students noted many unexpected parallels, for instance, between how early modern Londoners responded to the 1665 plague in Defoe’s novel and how the country and the world were responding to COVID in 2020. Aware of commonplace attributions in Western literature of plagues to foreign, usually non-Western sources, they drew connections to anti-Asian violence in America, and to the use of phrases like “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” by American commentators and politicians. And they heard in our pandemic echoes of Sontag’s thesis that Western culture has consistently metaphorized and politicized large-scale illnesses, their causes and treatments. 

In fall 2022, I taught Writing About the Plague for the third and perhaps final time. Two years after the course’s first inception, the spring and fall semesters of 2020 and the early months of the pandemic are quickly receding in our memories. New urgencies have come to the fore, older urgencies have reasserted themselves, and it may be time for me to find a new seminar topic. But like Boccaccio’s young women and men, I am grateful that in the difficult time of plague, my students and I found meaning and life, joy and thought in some of the great stories that writers have told about plagues.

Thomas Albrecht is professor and chair of the Tulane University Department of English.