Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The chief protagonist of this pseudo-biography—subtitled Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever—is a deadly disease against which humans have struggled helplessly for centuries. Supporting roles are played by familiar enemies such as smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, and influenza, as well as by historical curiosities such as the mysterious English sweating fever. Several classes of people are pitted against these inhuman foes: early medical historians who observed the ravages of diseases at first hand and recorded descriptions of what they could not understand or control; scientific researchers who gradually tracked diseases to their hiding places in insects and rodents, accumulating knowledge sometimes at the cost of their own lives; and untold millions of victims.

Hans Zinsser begins Rats, Lice, and History by exploring such issues as the theory and practice of biographical writing in his day and the relationship between art and science in order to prepare the way for his own biography of the life cycle of a disease organism and the history of its impact on human affairs. He views typhus fever as a “protoplasmic continuity” and generally avoids anthropomorphism except for the sake of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor. After a short, digressive chapter critical of modernist poetry, he reviews the...

(The entire section is 497 words.)