[Book Review] The American Plague

*Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all book reviews on Alternative Muses are for volumes I’ve read as part of my J biography research. I hesitated to use the word review, as this series heavily focuses on WHY I chose to read a book and what I got out of it research-wise. As a compromise, I’ll end each post in this series with a short review of the actual book.*

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby (Berkley Publishing Group-2006)


J was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1900, the then-youngest member of a long line of Memphians. Her father–already over 40 at the time of her birth–was a young man during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. At some point, I need to figure out how he and his entire immediate family survived the scourge that decimated their hometown (obviously an important key to J’s very existence). That will require a trip or three to Memphis, during a future post-pandemic wonderland where it is properly safe to travel. Until then, I am able to access certain archives online. Those archives, however, are made up of many, many collections that mean nothing to this Ohioan. How do I start in a way that won’t have me pulling my hair out within an hour? See below.

As I hoped, The American Plague provided both a bit of local color and, hallelujah, a list of specific collections that could be of great use to slightly-future me. I’ve added them to my ever-expanding LIST OF “THINGS” TO TRACK DOWN. The book was worth my time on that weird merit alone. I also have a better feel for what type of place Memphis was during that period and the diversity of those who lived there. It should still offer a nice amount of entertainment value for the layperson uninterested in writing a super niche book.

A View of Memphis, Tennessee (1871).


I’m not convinced that the author nails the more scientific explanations, but she succeeds in painting a vibrant portrait of the people and events leading up to the discovery of what actually causes yellow fever. The book’s early focus is on Memphis, its standing in the USA of the 1870s, and how it is clobbered and almost broken by a terribly misunderstood disease.

From there, we journey to Cuba as it, too, struggles with an outbreak of yellow fever. Along the way, we learn about the scientists and doctors from both countries whose dedication eventually solves the riddle of the illness also known as Yellow Jack or the saffron scourge. It sags in spots but retains enough buoyancy to interest the average general history buff.

Helpfulness scale: 9/10 for the Memphis parts

Entertainment Value: 7.5/10

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