Friday, July 31, 2020

John O'Hara's pandemic story "The Doctor's Son" - If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container

The first story in Collected Stories of John O’Hara (1984) is “The Doctor’s Son” (1935), about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  Several months ago, bookish Twitterists were compiling lists of pandemic fiction, although not, as far as I can tell, reading much of it, and who can blame anyone.  But I thought there were some interesting things in this story.

O’Hara is from Pennsylvania coal country:

The mines closed down almost with the first whiff of influenza.  Men who for years had been drilling rock and had chronic miner’s asthma never had a chance against the mysterious new disease; and even younger men were keeling over, so the coal companies had to shut down the mines, leaving only maintenance men, such as pump men, in charge.  Then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed down the schools and churches, and forbade all congregating.  If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container; you couldn’t have it at the fountain in a glass. (4)

The switch from the tragic to the trivial fits the narrator, James, who is the doctor’s son of the title but who is only fifteen years old.  His father has more or less collapsed from stress and exhaustion, so a young replacement doctor has been dispatched from medical school on a temporary basis.  James, with  no school, becomes the chauffeur, driving the Model T and filling the new doctor in on mining country culture.

The use of bars as immigrant medical clinics, for example, that was interesting.  The doctor goes to the bars “where the practice of medicine was wholesale” (9), to Kelly’s to treat crowds of Irish immigrants and Wisniewski’s to handle the Poles.  The owner of the latter has the flu, but that does not mean an end to hospitality, so he is passing the bottle around:

Doctor Myers was horrified.  “You oughtn’t to do that.  You’ll give the others the flu.”

“Too late now , Doc,” he said.  “T’ree bottle now already.”

“You’ll lose all your customers, Steve,” I said.

“How ya figure dat out?” said Steve.  “Dis flu make me die, dis bottle make dem die.  Fwit!  Me and my customers all togeder in hell, so I open a place in hell.  Fwit!”  (22)

How O’Hara loves the varieties of human speech.

I should include the mask passage, in case we think we have never done this before:

Doctor Myers at first wore a mask over his nose and mouth when making calls, and so did I, but the gauze stuck to my lips and I stopped wearing it and so did the doctor.  It was too much of a nuisance to put them on and take them off every time we would go  to a place like Kelly’s, and also it was rather insulting to walk in on a group of people with a mask on your face when nobody in the group was wearing one.  (16)

A long, grim passage, when a house call to treat a family with flu uncovers something even worse, diphtheria, was the dramatic highlight for me, but the actual story is about the new doctor starting an affair with the mother of James’s girlfriend (and James is complicit, since he is the driver), which seemed a little thin, but life goes on, I know, except when it does not, even in the face of this:

This graph of the American mortality rate from infectious diseases is taken from a 1999 Center for Disease Control article, “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Control of Infectious Diseases.”


  1. let's hope the current one is also just a spike instead of a trend...

  2. Yes, let's hope. Viruses run their course eventually.

  3. Just rolling my eyes at the mask reference. Have we learned NOTHING in the last 100 years?

    1. It's hard to tell if putting an end to the use of the local bar as a medical clinic is an improvement or not. Right now, I think I'd be in favor of it!

  4. That graph suggests we have learned a lot, but in another sense of "we" and "learned," a lesson of literature is that the answer to your question is: no, we have not. What "we" think "we" know changes a lot.

    Still, doctors now keep their masks on, and in an environment of much lower risk, so that's a change.

  5. There's an interesting personal diary from the early 1900's, I believe it's called My Favorite Beau, which in one chapter deals with the Spanish flu hitting troops in basic training. The effects were vicious as it attacked these young men all pressed together in barracks, etc.

  6. The 1918 American Army stories are crazy - thousands of deaths, the influenza sweeping through the continent, and then on to the armies of Europe, in just a couple of months, no one with any idea of what to do. Healthy young men dropping dead in a few days. Horrible.