This title story in John Edgar Wideman’s second collection of short stories is a horrifying fictional account of a historical event, the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, killing more than four thousand people, an estimated one-tenth of the city’s population. The story is told in an episodic montage of narrative voices that demand the reader’s close attention, each voice revealing a distinct point of view. Knowledge of the historical event would enhance the reader’s appreciation of the story but is not essential to its understanding.
The primary narrative position is that of an actual historical figure, Richard Allen, a former slave who bought his own freedom and that of his wife and educated himself, rising to leadership in the black community as founder of the first African American church. Allen speaks at times in first-person stream of consciousness and also, in one instance, in an actual letter from his memoirs. Central to the story is a narrative voice commenting on the events out of an omniscient view of world history. Among other voices are those of a slave in the hold of a ship, a clinician describing the medical phenomena of the disease, a physician of the time (perhaps Benjamin Rush himself), a Jewish immigrant dying from the fever, and three voices speaking from the 1980’s.
The complex interplay of these voices builds a dense layer of episodes that portray the city and its citizens in the throes of disaster. At the time, it was not known that yellow fever is caused by a virus transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. After yellow fever breaks out, the...
(The entire section is 675 words.)