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Okay, admittedly, I'm a book freak, a history geek, a policy wonk and a politics junkie, but to me there is just nothing more exciting than when an author finds a new angle on an old story, one that makes us reexamine everything we think we know about the subject. Even if we eventually return to our original understanding of events, the process of rethinking them from new perspectives can't help but be edifying. Such is the case with the surprisingly timely and absolutely fascinating Pox Americana by George Washington University professor Elizabeth A. Fenn.
Ms Fenn, whose own life story--including dropping out of academics for nearly a decade and working as an auto mechanic--sounds nearly as interesting as her book, noticed the periodic recurrence of mentions of smallpox when she was doing research for an undergraduate essay on Indians in the Hudson Bay fur trade. She thought little of it at the time, but when, years later, she read the great novel The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono, which recounts the flight of a young nobleman through a cholera stricken countryside, her interest was rekindled. She set out to reconstruct the path and effects of the near forgotten smallpox outbreak whose bare outlines she had perceived those years earlier. The result is necessarily somewhat speculative--Native Americans were after all a prehistoric people, so accounts of their encounters with smallpox are awfully sketchy--but is nonetheless a remarkable portrait of a massive epidemic occurring precisely during the years of the American Revolution. This previously underappreciated epidemic clearly influenced such events as the disastrous American attack on Quebec and must have devastated Indian populations. In addition, Ms Fenn has found several surprising ways in which the outbreak may have influenced history, perhaps the most interesting of which is the way in which it slaughtered a regiment of escaped slaves raised by the British to fight the Colonists. Blacks, who like the Indians had no prior exposure to the disease and thus no resistance, proved incredibly susceptible to it and so this potentially havoc-wreaking strategy was abandoned. Imagine how different things might have been had a successful black unit served as an example for the rest of the slave population.
In the end it is difficult to draw many firm conclusions about the extent to which smallpox shaped the Revolution or subsequent American history, for instance the Indians were probably doomed no matter the size of their population and the Canadian expedition was probably an overreach for a nascent country still battling for its own independence. But it's quite an incredible story, particularly because it has received so little attention in the past, but also because Ms Fenn shows us the Founding Fathers resorting to then novel techniques like quarantine and inoculation just to try and hold the new nation and its armed forces together. She can have had little idea when she began writing that the threat of smallpox would return to haunt us all (as it has, with the speculation that terrorists may possess the Variola virus), but the fact that the specter has resurfaced makes her account of the hidden history of this previous American battle with the disease all the more compelling.
-Elizabeth Fenn : Assistant Professor of History (George Washington University)
-BOOK SITE : Pox Americana (FSB Associates)
-PROFILE : This College Professor Can Fix Your Engine, Too (Emily Eakin, September 8, 2001, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Pox Americana (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Pox Americana (Alan Taylor, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of Pox Americana (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)