Are Pandemics Followed by Eras of Festivities and Cultural Broadening?

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Are Pandemics Followed by Eras of Festivities and Cultural Broadening?

By Ted Gioia

It’s a strange curio of history that during the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, politicians at the federal and state level were obsessed with the completely unrelated issue of prohibiting the sale of alcohol. In 1918, fifteen states voted for Prohibition, and 30 more joined their ranks in 1919. More US citizens died from the flu in this period than in combat during the entirety of World War I, but the political establishment was worried about soldiers returning home from combat and—horrors!—drinking a beer.

The movement was so intense that eventually only two states (Connecticut and Rhode Island) refrained from approving Prohibition, which was ratified as a constitutional amendment in January 1919, and put into enforcement with the passage of the Volstead Act on October 28.

But the strange part of the story is that the 1920s are now famous as the Jazz Age, an era marked by partying, dancing, boisterous music, and excessive drinking. In just New York City alone, you could buy booze at at least 20,000 locations, despite the ban. Alcohol consumption in the US had been falling during the pandemic, when it was legal, but soon started increasing after it was prohibited.

A whole cultural unloosening was underway in those post-pandemic years. During that period, a new kind of woman, known as the flapper, captured the public’s imagination, with short skirts, progressive attitudes and freewheeling moves on the dance floor. A range of new artistic movements arrived on the scene—Dada, Surrealism, stream-of-consciousness, etc.—each with its own new twist, but all in agreement that the time had come to reject existing rules and constraints. Eventually this new cultural attitude of liberation forced the repeal of Prohibition, but long before that gained legal sanction in 1933, the moralizing attitudes that had imposed the booze ban were widely seen as outmoded.

As we rise out of our own lengthy pandemic, it’s worth asking whether we are also about to embark on a new era of partying and cultural expansion. 

In fact, we already see signs of this. In Las Vegas, sidewalks and casinos are packed. “I can't believe there are this many people out,” one tourist told a news reporter. "I couldn't even get into the Bellagio parking lot….It was filled to capacity." Festival operators in Britain have been surprised by a similar enthusiasm for revelry with customers snapping up tickets after the government announced a timetable for ending lockdown. “Fans are ready to make up for lost time and it’s just brilliant to see,” one commented.

And, by a curious coincidence, the pandemic we just survived has been marked by a tone of increased public moralizing and a behavioral policing that extended far beyond matters of medical prudence—attitudes not entirely dissimilar those that led to Prohibition. Wholesome and upright living is so important in the current moment that my next book contract will almost certainly include a “morality clause”—something that would have been mocked and ridiculed by authors just a few years ago, but has quickly been embraced as business-as-usual in all cultural spheres.

Is it possible that these shifts from lockdown mentality (authoritarian, moralizing) to post-lockdown attitudes (fun-loving, rule-breaking) are typical of epidemics and their aftermath? Is the tone of music, film and other forms of cultural expression about to shift in response to the lessening of restrictions?

Consider the case of the Great Plague of London. I know some people have been reading the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) during lockdown to savor his personal experiences of surviving this terrible epidemic. And his entries from the summer of 1665 are riveting in their accounts of death and suffering. "Lord! How empty the streets are and how melancholy,” he laments, “so many poor sick people in the streets full of sores.”

But we also ought to pay attention to his diary entries from December of that year, when not only the fatalities but Pepy’s approach to nightlife have changed.

“But now the plague has abated to nothing,” he exclaimed just ten weeks later, and then strangely added: “I have never lived so merrily.” Accounts of singing, dancing and spirited nightlife now take on a remarkable prominence in his daily updates.

The history of jazz tells a similar story. New Orleans was one of the least healthy cities in the United States in the period leading up to the so-called Jazz Age. Nearly one percent of the city’s population died from flu epidemic during a 6-month period from September 1918 to March 1919—twice the fatality rate of the rest of the country. But over the next five years, many of the finest recordings of New Orleans jazz were recorded, included the debut tracks from Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Kid Ory. The tone of these recordings is, almost without exception, exuberant and fun-loving. Coincidence or causality?

Similar periods of cultural flourishing have followed epidemics in the past. The most striking example is the birth of the Renaissance, which conventional accounts place at the year 1350. Is it coincidence that the devastating Black Death in Italy ended in 1348? Or consider the rise of bawdy Restoration comedies—preceded by the devastating fever and influenza epidemics of the late 1650s, and reaching a high point after the Great Plague of London.

The period during the plague, in contrast, was marked by a rise of religious fanaticism. Daniel Defoe describes some typical characters of this period in his non-fiction novel A Journal of the Plague Year—a gripping narrative based in part on a firsthand account from the author’s uncle. At the height of the epidemic, pedestrians in London would routinely encounter a crazed preacher, looking like a Biblical prophet, who shouted out repeatedly: Forty days and London shall be destroyed! Another well-known character of the streets would appear suddenly, dressed only in his drawers, and exclaiming just a single sentence, over and over: Oh, the great and dreadful God!

This strange man was actually an accomplished composer named Solomon Eagle—but he had destroyed most of his musical works because of an increasingly intense religious fervor. (However, a music primer by Solomon Eagle can still be read online.) Both Pepys and Defoe describe his striking appearance during the plague—when he “went about denouncing of judgment upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head.”

And what about other Londoners during the Plague? Defoe continues:

The Government encouraged their devotion, and appointed public prayers and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgement which hung over their heads; and it is not to be expressed with what alacrity the people of all persuasions embraced the occasion; how they flocked to the churches and meetings, and they were all so thronged that there was often no coming near, no, not to the very doors of the largest churches.

How did this impact arts, entertainment, and other festivities?  Some believe that the fear of death and end times spurs a desire to party (See Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death,” for example), but Defoe tells an opposite story:

All the plays and interludes which, after the manner of the French Court, had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers, and such-like doings, which had bewitched the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade; for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people.

And in a curious echoing of the passage of Prohibition during the 1918-1919 epidemic, the Plague of 1665 was accompanied by regulation of “tippling houses” where, it was feared, “musty and unwholesome casks” were contributing to the contagion. There was, of course, no scientific basis for this crackdown (fleas caused the 1665 epidemic), but the idea that alcohol was somehow linked to the disease was appealing to the puritanical and moralistic.

As with Prohibition in the 1920s, the restriction of alcohol in the 17th century was doomed to failure. Five years after the Plague, Ireland could boast—if that’s the right word—that it had more than one ale-house for every four families. In London, a wealthy brewer named Samuel Starling even became Lord Mayor in 1669. Many other brewers served as aldermen. Not only was prohibition out of the question, booze-sellers were now making the laws.

This is familiar the dynamic of disease and recovery that we have all witnessed firsthand with individuals. How often have you seen friends who adopt a full range of wholesome and healthy lifestyle habits while ailing, only to return to the most excessive behavior after recovery? Is it any surprise, that entire communities and societies follow the same pattern?

We are now emerging into our own post-pandemic culture, and it’s perhaps too early to see all its outlines clearly. But every sign indicate a faster revival of partying, nightlife and entertainment than the pundits predicted. And that might be just the opening stage in a larger cultural blossoming. Be prepared for something more than a mere economic boost measurable by dollars or employment or other quantitative metrics. We might actually experience a palpable expansion in those harder-to-measure (but crucial) dimensions of creativity, experiential openness and plain old fun.

I’d sign up for that, and I suspect many others would do the same.