Lost Legacies: Tb, Literature And The Arts

Tuberculosis is a central theme for the opera La Boheme, the novel Angela's Ashes. TB has claimed the lives of many famous artists, notably in the field of literature.

Death and dying are universal literary and artistic themes. Yet tuberculosis, or TB, which has claimed the lives of many acclaimed writers, has received little attention as a part of these themes. Dare one ask, " Is the historic prevalence of this affliction among writers only coincidence? Are there common threads of experience among them that increased their susceptibility to the disease?. Are such questions even relevant?"

Some excellent works have taken up the theme or setting of tuberculosis. The great opera, "La Boheme", is an example. Then there is the brilliant work of Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence and Katharine Mansfield, the last two among those who were afflicted and died of the disease. More recently, we have the popular "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt.

Considering TB has been the most devastating and intractable of diseases to afflict humans, going back at least 5000 years, the body of work is relatively slim. Wars and other violence by humans upon humans has more often been selected as a subject, perhaps because TB lacks the intense drama of the latter, or perhaps because little in the way of lessons for mankind can be drawn from its course.

Apart from the literary works on the subject is the roll call of writers who have actually succumbed to this deadly scourge. Undoubtedly there are many more, who chose not to write about the subject, some famous and many not-so famous. Beyond writings on the subject itself, a harping question must be, "What work has been left unwritten due to this damnable disease?"

The history of the Bronte family is a poignant suggestion of potentials lost. Between 1825 and 1855, eight members of the Bronte family died from tuberculosis, including Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, the authors of "Jane Eyre", "Wuthering Heights", and "Agnes Grey," respectively. Their well water has been blamed because, history suggests, its source ran under a nearby cemetery. This may have been the case, but an argument could also be made that the infectious nature of TB and the family members' close proximity to each other may have been the culprit. At bottom, one of the great English literary families was lost.

The poet, John Keats, died in 1821. His works, written in a brief period of four years, continue to be read, enjoyed, studied, and quoted. His contribution, given another twenty years, may have been profound.

In 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson. His book, "Treasure Island", ranks as classic with "Alice In Wonderland," a romantic adventure with a moral edge, for young readers today as thrilling as for readers when the book was first published. Who doesn't remember with a little fondness one of the first anti-heros, the villain with a twinkle in his eye, Long John Silver?

Stephen Crane, who died in 1900 at the age of twenty-eight, left as his legacy a slim but powerful collection of fiction and poetry. "The Red Badge of Courage", the American Civil War seen through the eyes of an eighteen year old, stands as one of the most perceptive and sensitive literary works on the subject of war, the Civil War particularly.

TB has not been a respecter of international borders. Iin 1904, the disease claimed Anton Chekhov, a giant in Russian literature because of the universality and accessibility of his work. To have lost his future may perhaps be akin to losing Shakespeare after his third play.

Another European writer, like Crane, who wrote pivotal work in his little time, was Franz Kafka, who died in 1924. Dark and complex though it is, Kafka's writing has profoundly influenced the perspectives and subjects of countless authors who have followed and, indeed, many who are writing today.

In the same year, 1924, TB also took the English writer, D.H. Lawrence. Like most of these writers, he worked throughout most stages of his illness. Yet, as Lawrence put flesh on the bones of human relationships in his fiction, TB was withering the flesh from his own.

A year earlier, TB claimed Katharine Mansfield at age thirty-four. Her mastery of the short story form continues to provide example for writers and can be compared favorably with any short stories written in the English language to date.

Finally, fifty years ago, in 1950, the English writer, George Orwell died. His writings, most known of which are "Animal Farm" and "1984" were more accepted in America than England, but his thesis on totalitarianism has retained household familiarity in the entire industrialized world.

Artists other than writers have not been immune. Polish composer, Frederick Chopin, was a victim in 1849. Paul Gauguin, the artist, may also have been a victim. Truly this is a scant list which could be expanded if records were available.

In response to the earlier questions, none of this suggests tuberculosis is an occupational hazard of writing, nor any other of the arts. But writers use words - they have documented the pressures of the illness on their daily round. They did so in journals and letters. We know of Chopin in part because he wrote many letters, some of which were preserved. We do not know as much about other composers, nor of painters and sculptors.

Writing has always been a tenuous way to make a living, and literature, as such, has always been at best only a niche market. No surprise is it, then, that many writers of earlier times had poor diets, inadequate or crowded housing, and the stress of economic pressures. All these factors have been confirmed by medical researchers to increase vulnerability to TB. On the other hand, its infectious nature makes everyone vulnerable. Milieu factors may be said to exacerbate the condition, at the least increasing risk of exposure.

This brief roll call stops fifty years ago, about the time antibiotics began to dramatically reduce the incidence of TB. But now medical authorities confirm that the world faces a resurgence. New strains of the bacillus, drug resistant strains have been identified. To that add weakened immune systems, especially among people who are HIV. To that can also be added rapidly deteriorating social conditions in the industrialized world.

Sometimes to look back is really to look forward. Perhaps TB doesn't yet rate as a universal literary theme in its own right but it does seem to have a very secure hold on our human condition. Its day may not be far off.

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