The story of the city, and the planet, as it is told through the lives of people is the stuff of great fiction and excellent fiction writers. And for our latest installment in our ongoing exploration of the Renaissance, we enlisted the aid of Adrian Jones, a multi-genre writer and Atlantic correspondent who joined us for an afternoon of Shakespeare stories. We wanted to ask him to help us write a piece about something from our own lives and our more recent pasts.
His first story took us to a smallpox outbreak in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1886. This was one of the few times in the modern history of the city that the city was under quarantine for an entire year. According to the dates given in records, the outbreak spread so quickly that people still living nearby could not even recognize they were affected. People were dying in droves, and even the most dominant political figures had no idea how to respond. Cincinnati was then run by one of the most famous pandemic running dogs of its time, Milton Freidman, who was bent on uniting his Republicans to ruin the Democratic juggernaut. That his party would launch a preemptive strike at the plague itself had been confirmed when the former Democratic secretary of state, Simon Rogers, had fallen sick during a trip to New York with the virus. Still, Freidman failed to grasp that the death toll would soar beyond his grasp.
This is the kind of unvarnished truth that I’ve come to appreciate in Adrian’s writing. A number of his columns have focused on things of the modern world as it’s changed over the last several decades. Previously he wrote about a man who went missing under mysterious circumstances, and the unnatural origins of a meteor that exploded over France. Over the course of our conversation I learned just how deeply he knows his way around the human condition, which made me believe we were writing a piece about … well, nobody.
It was a little like being trapped in a teahouse far from the outer reaches of one of the most populous and exciting cities in the world, which has something of the feel of a royal family in waiting. Adrian and I talked about the kinds of stories that reveal the hidden places of urban public spaces. It is true that stories about teahouses abound, but his pitch is unique, and I realized that my own role in this story was to serve as the third-person narrator: as a memory narrator of some kind. He tells me that he did not know this through the rest of the conversation. I winced at that. But I learned that I was dreaming. He does not have a shirttail, but I hear him murmur about him. For the rest of the chat, this reporter passed on Adrian’s observations, telling an epic tale about a man’s personality, giving us a lesson in empathy and character development, while at the same time keeping our stomachs steady for the next step.