History and Fiction Intertwined in Narrating Fever 1793

Published: 2021-09-26 10:45:08
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Fever 1793 portrays a young fourteen year old girl, Matilda Cook, who lives in Philadelphia, as an epidemic sweeps through know as, Yellow Fever. Yellow fever is a disease that starts with a fever and muscle ache. Then, targets often become jaundiced; this is where “Yellow” fever comes from. Although Fever 1793 is historical fiction, Anderson achieved massive amounts of research to create the intriguing story of what happens to Matilda and her family. Using the appendix of Fever 1793 by Laurie Anderson and Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, by Charles Brockden Brown, I was able to tie the Historical Fiction into facts. Arthur Mervyn was a man who lived through this epidemic, and was able to share tragic events he experienced first-hand. Anderson argues why the Yellow Fever made a negative impact on American History, especially in the former capital of the United States, Philadelphia.
The plague started with just a handful of deaths, not causing too much distress for businesses, that is… for the moment. Matilda’s family owned a coffee shop; this was a very common destination in Philadelphia. As the fever began to spread and the deaths piled up, businesses began to close. People not only feared infected individuals, but they also had no money due to the lack of business. Stated by Brown, “The streets, as I passed, were desolate and silent…That so many of the houses were closed, I was obliged to ascribe to the cessation of traffic, which made the opening of their windows useless, and the terror of infection, which made the inhabitants seclude themselves from the observation of each other”(p. 80). I believe that the closing of businesses led to even more complications, such as starvation and separation of families, through the loss of money and death. Even families who had money experienced hardships, because of the lack of locations open to purchase items to survive. This led to a downfall of businesses in Philadelphia.Not only were businesses shut down, but the government did as well, by the evacuation of officials to the city. Philadelphia, being that capital of the United State during this epidemic, meant that many government officials spent their daily lives there. Matilda had noted that George Washington, who was in his second term of office during this time, had left the city. It wasn’t till his return, did she finally feel the relief that the fever had plummeted. As stated by George Washington himself, “Mrs. Washington was unwilling to leave me surrounded by the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her and the Children any longer by continuance in the city…” (p.248). I believe this made a negative impact on Philadelphia because people looked to the government in times of need, such as during this horrifying epidemic, but officials had fled the city. This left not only Philadelphians in panic, but all of America, leaving doubts in their heads about the government.
Fear and panic didn’t just occur because of government officials leaving, but with so many deaths occurring in a city, there were sure to be side effects. When Matilda makes her way back to the city after being in the country, she doesn’t feel at home. All the places she once knew very well were abandoned. The streets were quiet and there were no kids running around like she had remembered. Matilda had also not heard from her mom since she had left the city, and did not even know if she was alive and well. As shared by Brown, “A temporary indisposition was produced in many. Some were haunted by a melancholy bordering upon madness, and some, in consequence of sleepless panics, for which no cause could be assigned, and for which no opiates could be found, were attacked by lingering or mortal diseases” ( p.67). Fear and panic made a negative impact on Philadelphia, because people were avoiding life and socialization. Many even abandoned their families, or left them to die in the street; I think this leaves an even greater impact on a person than obtaining the fever. Philadelphia used to be a place where friends and neighbors talked, but as the death toll increased, so did the distress and terror throughout the city.
As more deaths began to occur and panic spread in Philadelphia, people began to take precaution by fleeing to the country. Matilda and her Grandfather followed this movement, and made their way out of the city. This did indeed happen in Philadelphian history, any families who were fortunate enough to remove themselves, seeked safety in the country. The cooler air would kill off mosquitos, which carried the fever. As shared by Brown, “The health of my young friend allowed him to breathe the fresh air and to walk. A friend of mine, by the name Wortley, who had spent two months from the city…” (p. 11). I think that although people wanted to escape to the country, it took an emotional toll on them as well, because they were leaving their homes behind and some even left family members, just like Matilda, who left her mother behind. Philadelphia slowly began losing their population and this led to loss of hope for ways to be back as they once were.
When Matilda’s mother was hit with the fever, a dangerous treatment was performed on her, along with others in Philadelphia. Blood was withdrawn from her body on a daily basis, this was called, bloodletting. Dr. Benjamin Rush was the doctor that performed bloodletting on her mother and other patients. The thought was that if you open a vein and withdraw blood, the rest of the blood will become uninfected and roam freely. Another method used on Matilda’s mother was purging; this was used if belief that it would cleanse out her body of the fever. It wasn’t until Matilda was struck with Yellow Fever after attempting to flee to the country, when she learned the new methods by the French doctors. They stated she needed rest and plenty of fluid to keep her as healthy as possible. As stated in the appendix of Fever 1793, “He gave patients mercury, calomel, and jalap to make them throw up and have diarrhea. He drained blood from them to get rid of the pestilence in their bodies…The French doctors prescribed rest, fresh air, and lots of fluids” (p.244). I think that these methods performed by Dr. Benjamin Rush, made it harder for people to recover, leading to a higher amount of death in Philadelphia. Although Dr. Rush believed he was helping, due to the lack of medical knowledge at this time, he was only making his patients weaker. If it weren’t for the French doctors, I believe that Philadelphia would’ve lost many more loved ones, along with proper knowledge for future viruses. However, many were treated poorly, and I believe it greatly affected the population of Philadelphia, and peoples’ hope for recovery and survival.
As the spread of the heat and the fever only worsened, it got harder to find fresh food. When Matilda was sent to the market by her mother, she only came back with pathetic looking cabbage, and molded cheese. This is because farmers began to fear for their lives so they did not spend time on the hot fields, leading to lack of food available to the Philadelphians. In American History, farmers did in fact abandon their crops to avoid the risk of fatality making its way through Philadelphia. Brown shares, “Hunger was the only serious inconvenience to which I was immediately exposed” (p.35). I believe that if the sick were nourished properly, it would’ve helped them survive. On the other hand, I also think that if the individuals that were once healthy, were able to maintain the proper nutrients, they would’ve had a stronger immune system, to help them fight off the fever. The market was also a dangerous location because this is where the fever could be caught or spread, so many feared to even search for food.
I chose a historical fiction book because I knew I would be more interested in it, leading me to dive into additional research, and gain a better knowledge of the subject. This book is important to understanding United States history because it portrays a great understanding of how Yellow Fever affected families and business in 1793. It also shares how such a powerful city such as, Philadelphia, can be greatly affected by an epidemic, especially being the capital during this period, this led to panic throughout the United States. This book shares a powerful message of what went on inside Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever, and used a fictional family to better pull on the heart strings, and to give a glimpse of what individuals went through.
In my opinion, this book was a fantastic page turner. Anderson’s argument is clear and precise that the Yellow Fever was not a joyful time and greatly affected Philadelphia. The first person point of view creates a vivid understanding of the feelings characters felt during this epidemic. Each chapter left me wanting to know what happened next. Not only did it supply me with me want for fiction, but it also presented me with real situations that the people of Philadelphia encountered. I enjoyed reading the appendix of the book, which shared true facts in relation to what occurred in the book, giving me a better understanding of what exactly come about in Philadelphia. Anderson gives great quality to her book by adding a meaningful quote from significant individuals at the beginning of each chapter. This sets the reader into a dark mood, being reminded that the Fever did in fact occur, and was a serious problem. I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted a view of what life was like during the sticky and horrific summer or 1793.

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