Reading large chunks of the encyclopedia on a nightly basis can really skew a kid's brain. I remember the encyclopedia phases I went through... First mythology, then (in order) the human body, medieval Europe, all things botanical, paleontology, microscopic organisms... and then poets. Poets are weird people. Real weird people.

All the good ones either get wasting diseases or kill themselves.

When I was seven years old, I decided that consumption was the way to go. I planned to somehow contract tuberculosis at the age of sixteen, be shipped off to Switzerland, and live with a bunch of young, lily-white, dying poets. I pictured myself seated outdoors on a chaise lounge in Lucerne, dressed head-to-toe in white linen, my hair long and black and silky. Next to me was my beautiful golden-haired lover, a pasty Adonis whose metaphors brought tears to my eyes. In my mind we sat hand in hand, contemplating the gorgeous countryside and our impending deaths. Occasionally we would cough, turn our heads, and discreetly spit blood into stiffly starched white handkerchiefs.
As I lay on my deathbed he rhapsodized about how I would never grow old; my body would die before my mind would. My beauty would never wilt. Soon after he would join me.

Later I decided that being a poet would be no fun. I'd have to be depressed and pale and dead if anyone was going to read what I wrote. I would be a race car driver instead.

But now, when I occasionally sit around wearing all black, pretending I am some kind of Lenore-esque chick, I blame those encyclopedias.

Well, you certainly weren’t the first.

For over half a century, from the 1820s to the 1880s, tuberculosis was seen as a terribly romantic affliction, a disease of fragility and spiritual purity. Consumptives were delicate creatures with bright and sensitive minds: they were Keats and Shelley, Thoreau and Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederic Chopin, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Sidney Lanier. The disease was supposed to awaken a certain transcendent passion in people, even as their bodies wasted away. There was even a term for this phenomenon, spes phthisica (spes= hope; phthisis = tuberculosis). The Goncourt brothers provide us with a particularly ludicrous example of this sort of thinking in Madame Gervaisais (1869):

In contrast to the diseases of the crude, baser organs of the body which clog and soil the mind, the imagination, and the very humors of the sick as though with corrupt matter, phthisis [tuberculosis], this illness of the lofty and noble parts of the human being, calls forth in the patient a state of elevation, tenderness and love, a new urge to see the good, the beautiful, and the ideal in everything, a state of human sublimity which seems almost not to be of this earth.

Many of the physical features tuberculosis caused came to be romanticized and seen as beautiful: the extreme thinness, the hollow cheeks and gaunt face, the shiny eyes, the pale anemic skin, against which the flushed cheeks of a constant, low-grade fever stood out vividly. Descriptions of the tubercular from this time period are sometimes simply ridiculous. Take this bit from a (supposedly factual) article about the experiences of a practicing physician:

She was wasted almost to a shadow,- attenuated to nearly ethereal delicacy and transparency… Perfectly motionless and statuelike lay that fair creature, breathing so imperceptibly that a rose-bud might have slept on her lips unfluttered.

Or how about this, from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette:

What I saw was the shadow of a royal Vashti: a queen, fair as the day once, turned pale now like twilight, and wasted like wax in flame… She stood, not dressed, but draped in pale antique folds, long and regular like sculpture. A background and entourage and flooring of deepest crimson threw her out, white like alabaster—like silver: rather, be it said, like Death.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë also tossed in a bit of this herself: “She was rather thin, but young, and fresh-complexioned, and her eyes sparkled as bright as diamonds.” What I find really interesting about this is that not only did Emily and Charlotte Brontë both eventually die of consumption, so did their brother Branwell, their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, and possibly their mother, too: they grew up with the cost of tuberculosis, with the basic and unattractive pain of losing a loved one. Surely the Brontë sisters knew better than to paint such enticing pictures of what was, ultimately, an unpleasant and grave diagnosis. But then, perhaps they needed these images of the disease even more than most.

Which leads us to the point of all this: these images existed because people needed them. They were a way of making sense of what, by the middle of the 19th century, was an epidemic of massive proportion. Estimates of the incidence of tuberculosis in the late 18th and early-to-mid 19th centuries run as high as 1 in 4 people in America and parts of Europe. Unlike the periodic outbreaks of diseases like plague and cholera that Europeans were used to, the wave of a tuberculosis epidemic is generally spread out across several centuries, gradually swelling and retreating over decades. As such, it’s a lot harder to recognize as an epidemic disease at all when you’re in the thick of it. People didn’t realize they were at the crest of a consumptive plague, but they did realize that large numbers of people from all walks of life were suffering, over long periods of time, from a deadly ailment. Turning that ailment into something like a positive personality trait made it easier to cope with. It was easier to see untimely death as a spiritual triumph, rather than as a meaningless waste of potential. It was easier to see loved ones as beautiful with their slenderness and pale complexion, rather than concentrating on the hacking and the night sweats and the hemorrhaging. It was easier to die in virtue and dignity than to simply die in pain.

The glorification of tuberculosis did not last forever, however. As the 19th century drew to a close, tuberculosis began to recede in prevalence. At the same time, the germ theory of disease was growing in popularity and transforming both medicine and public health. During the romantic period, people hadn’t seen tuberculosis as an illness that passed from person to person; instead, it was thought to be a constitutional and hereditary condition. But in 1882, Robert Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacilli, showing once and for all that consumption was simply a vicious little microbe. This brought a whole new dimension to ideas about the tubercular: suddenly, whatever else consumptives were, they were also a potential threat, the source of a contagion that could spread. Ironically, it was as tuberculosis as an infectious disease was becoming less and less prevalent that people became more and more scared of it, instituting all sorts of sanitary reforms to keep it in check. And gradually, even the image of the transcendent consumptive died its tragic death.


Sources:

Caldwell, Mark. The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption 1862-1954. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Daniel, Thomas M. Captain of Death: The Story of Tuberculosis. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

Harrison, Mark. Disease and the Modern World Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Morens, David M. "At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art." Emerging Infectious Diseases 8.11(2002).

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