Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative

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Duke University Press
Publish Date

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About the Author

Priscilla Wald is Professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form and the editor of the journal American Literature, both also published by Duke University Press.


"Contagious is a magnificent book, notable for its prose, its expansiveness, its courage, and its creativity."--Rita Charon, founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center
"Priscilla Wald stunningly demonstrates how epidemics are forms of cultural autobiography, telescoping stories of outbreak and contagion that are reflected in our myths, symbols, archetypes, and social networks. Beautifully written and passionately argued, Contagious is required reading for those interested in learning how our diseases shape the ways we think about ourselves and our relationships and how our desires to be close to other people overlap with our anxieties about being infected by them."--Jonathan Michel Metzl, author of Prozac on the Couch: Prescribing Gender in the Era of Wonder Drugs
"Rippling across the span of the twentieth century, Priscilla Wald's book traces the trajectories of 'outbreak narratives, ' stories about the spread and conquest of contagious diseases. With beautifully crafted prose, Wald shows how the scientific and fictional, social and microbial intermingle as outbreak narratives confront an essential paradox, that human connectedness both imperils and saves us. Contagious is essential reading for science studies, for the field of literature and medicine, and indeed for anyone interested in the social, discursive, and cultural implications of epidemiology."--N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los Angeles
"Contagious is an informative, enjoyable, and well-researched interdisciplinary work that bridges literary analysis with medical history and goes a long way in explaining our fascination with outbreak narratives. The numerous popular narratives in television and film act as more than examples; they are important ways in which the outbreak narrative establishes a cultural foothold in popular imagination."
--Shayne Pepper "Journal of Popular Culture "
"[S]uperb. . . . A model of impressive broadbased interdisciplinary research that draws on popular culture (the novel, film, science journalism, and hygiene manuals), sociology and information theory, bacteriology and virology, and the history of public health, Wald's book traces with great clarity the complex cultural logic of what she calls the "outbreak narrative" across the long twentieth century."--Kathleen Woodward "MLQ "
"Wald has made a substantial contribution in terms of uniting theoretical insights from such fields as mythology, literature, and film studies, and applying them to the history of infectious disease epidemiology. In doing so, she makes a strong case for the importance of both the cultural critic and of interdisciplinary thinking in the preparation for future outbreaks of global disease."--Richard McKay "Medical History "
"Wald is at her best when probing the literary and historical roots of today's conventions, homing in on particular moments in the past. She is superb, for instance, in recalling how an immigrant Irish cook named Mary Mallon was deemed a typhoid carrier, recast as the notorious Typhoid Mary, and banished to an island off the Bronx."--Amanda Schaffer "Bookforum "
"Wald powerfully shows not only that narrative is, in effect, the essence of epidemiology, but also that all people in every aspect of their lives make sense of the world through unarticulated structures of narrative. Articulating them, as she has done, shines a bright light outward on a scary world of shadowy threats and inward on ourselves."
--David S. Barnes "Journal of American History "
"Wald describes how the circulation of ideas and attitudes about contagious diseases led people to form social groups and eventually social cultures. Her book is filled with an exceptionally thorough review of varied pieces of information from journalism and films, as well as from real-life scientific events, that will help readers glean perspectives of how disease and outbreak narratives can shape the way people think about their societies and how they relate to others in the face of danger and infection risks. . . . In our interconnected and borderless world, outbreak narratives can endanger or save us."--Suok Kai Chew "New England Journal of Medicine "