2023 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900
Panel Selection Committee
Beth Rigel Daugherty
MLA 2023 CFPS (deadline passed)
Woolf and Illness: Pandemics Then and Now
When Woolf published On Being Ill with the Hogarth Press in 1930, she was reflecting in part on the 1918-1919 flu pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The essay is attuned to the interplay between the sick individual and the larger, collective phenomena of illness, an interplay with which we are all too familiar today. This panel considers both the insight that Woolf’s musings on illness in the early 20th century can provide for us experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and, conversely, the insights into her musings provided by our experiences with COVID-19. Woolf’s meditations on illness were not, of course, limited to On Being Ill. Rachel Vinrace and other characters in The Voyage Out fall ill with fever; Clarissa Dalloway is recovering from the flu—possibly the severe, pandemic flu; Peter Walsh views an ambulance as a sign of social progress; Septimus Smith, Rhoda of The Waves, and other characters across Woolf’s oeuvre experience mental distress amounting to illness; these texts and others consider what it means to be unwell, to be out of synch with the social world, to be a deserter from “the army of the upright,” as she puts it in On Being Ill. Indeed, even Woolf’s portrayal of Jinny in The Waves, while not specifically about illness, explores the meaning of the body’s inevitable changes and failures. Papers for this panel might consider Woolf’s representations of characters; portrayals of illness or frailties of any sort; explorations of the effects on society of pandemic illness; meditations on the human interdependence that is brought to the fore by pandemic illness; inquiries into the intersections between illness and other aspects of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, or disability; or any other aspect of the topic of illness, especially in the context of pandemics then and/or now.